It's not that the Spurs don't feel the effects of injuries and the doldrums of the NBA's winter months, it's that they endure these moments better than most.
Tim Duncan just missed his second straight game — his fourth DNP of the season, the San Antonio weather is fluctuating between being as cold as it'll get all year and "how is it 75 degrees in January," and the desert mirage of February's All-Star weekend in Houston is showing up on the schedules' mile-marker rather than just being a point of destination on a map.
"Houston: 20 days"
For Duncan, it's the equivalent of his young children yelling to their seasoned father from the back of the family van, "Are we there yet?!" He's been here before, and the thrill is more about the journey than the destination itself. He could do without the fanfare and festivities. But along with his trustiest of sidekicks, Gregg Popovich, Duncan has spent more time off the court than on it over the past week. A balky left knee, held in place by a space-age brace that doesn't allow his heel to touch the ground, is hurting the 36-year-old big man who's in the middle of one of the most efficient seasons of his career. Pop, on the other hand, has been under the weather, which has allowed an extended period of bench time for presumed head-coach-in-waiting Mike Budenholzer.
It's scary when you read it, the injury report flagging Duncan's knee as the perpetrator of the crime against his well-being. After all, it's that knee that has caused sporadic, but significant, problems for this franchise. Many will argue it's cost San Antonio a title, maybe even two. But the day-to-day designation has to be at least a bit comforting. The NBA's 82-game season is as grueling as any in professional sports, and the wear and tear of a 15-year career can put some serious stress on a 7-footer's lower extremities.
Of course, it doesn't help that the 46 games the Spurs have played are the most in the NBA. In fact, the defending champion Miami Heat have played 39 games going into tonight. The disparity does seem ridiculous, but look at it like this: San Antonio now only has 36 games over the next three months. All the rest these other teams are enjoying, the Spurs will bask in during their stretch run.
But when you have Tony Parker, who cares?
The beauty of this Spurs system is, it's not even necessarily intended or designed for Duncan to succeed as a focal point. He's become the best ancillary player in the league. I say that in jest, for sure, but it isn't fabrication to call this offense the "Tony Parker scheme." It's his show to run, and in the three contests he's led the way without the help of the big man he's been masterful.
It's a small sample size, but the Spurs' point guard has averaged 23.3 points and 11.6 assists per game in Duncan's absence. And it would behoove you to keep in mind he only played 29 minutes in last night's win over Dallas due to the fact he spent much of his first-half minutes in the locker room receiving three stitches for two lacerations above his eye. He played the rest of the game with that, "Wait, did I close the...I did...I definitely closed the garage door" squinty look in his eye.
What's been even more beautiful to watch outside of Tony's constant forays to the rim has been the seamless execution of the built-for-pick-and-roll big man, Tiago Splitter. The Brazilian's skill-set isn't the most diverse you'll ever see. Any shot outside of the paint must be considered a prayer, and there's never a lack of periodically entertaining clumsiness, but what he does do well he might do better than anyone in the league.
He can straight roll to the basket.
Whether it's from the top, at an angle or along the baseline, rarely will you ever see Tiago out of position to receive the pass off the roll. He finds the nooks and crannies of the NBA's crowded painted area better than most anyone in the world, and his ever-improving consistency around the rim has made this San Antonio front line something to watch beyond the "when will he ever get any help down there" Tim Duncan. Since Splitter was permanently instituted as the Spurs' starting center, he's averaged 11.4 points and 6.7 rebounds per game with an offensive rating of 107.5 and a 94.8 defensive efficiency rating, and his field-goal percentage for the entire season is a ridiculous 60.8 percent.
But when the paint has been cleared by Duncan's absence in the starting lineup, Splitter has been at a different level. Tiago has averaged 17.5 points and 8.8 boards per game when Timmy hasn't been included in the lineup that evening. The most staggering part, however, is the ease with which he's put the ball in the basket. Splitter has scored at a 72.5 percent clip from the field in those four games, and he looks more than comfortable as the only big on the floor. Which makes sense. His game is predicated on floor spacing and the brilliance of the Spurs' backcourt. Whether it's Parker or Manu Ginobili, Nando De Colo or Boris Diaw, the elite passers on this team have figured out where and when to get Tiago the ball, and he's making them look wonderful.
Nobody in their right mind would insinuate this group is better without Duncan on the floor, and that's not what we're doing here. But what we are seeing is the Spurs' new-wave offense run to its purest degree — constant motion, gorgeous floor spacing, no ball stoppage and rarely a post-up to speak of. There isn't a Spurs fan alive who wants the Duncan era to end sooner rather than later, so long as he's playing at this sort of elite level, at least. But the chance to look through the glass and into the future has been a treat. What you see on the other side is a hyperactive offense built to break down defenses from all over the floor, albeit with a defensive personnel group most likely not fit to reside in that Top-5 range Popovich covets. The future isn't necessarily now, but we're starting to see the mile-markers through the windshield.
"Tony Parker era begins: (X) years"
But Tim Duncan's still driving the car.