The Spurs clinched a playoff berth and their 14th consecutive season with at least 50 wins, so it was fitting that the franchise cornerstone led them to a nail-biting win over longtime division rival Dallas.
Tim Duncan scored 28 points and grabbed 19 rebounds in a 92-91 win over the Mavericks, appropriately pulling out a vintage performance on yet another historic night for this team. The Spurs set an NBA record last season with their 13th straight campaign of 50 or more wins, and that benchmark just continues to grow with each passing year. On this night, it was yet another Duncan, Dirk battle in the fourth quarter of a close game, further elevating the throwback feel in the AT&T Center where both big men looked much like their former All-NBA selves.
Dallas had a chance to ruin the party, though. After the Mavs erased an eight-point deficit in the final 2:37, Vince Carter, who had eight points in the fourth quarter, used a pick to get away from Kawhi Leonard. But with Tiago Splitter contesting off the switch, Carter's step-back three glanced off the rim right before the buzzer sounded. The Spurs managed to escape with yet another win without their best player in the lineup.
But it wasn't pretty. At all.
San Antonio shot just 44 percent from the floor, and despite the 31 assists on 37 field goals was struggling to find fluidity on the offensive end. This team has been as inconsistent recently as it's been all year, and not just offensively.
"Overall I thought (the Mavericks) played better than us. I thought they executed better than we did. They were more physical and aggressive," Pop said. "We continued to play in mud like we have been for the last two weeks. I'm not sure what to attribute it to, but it's a fact. It shows at the defensive end and it shows a pretty dead offense on the offensive end.
"We were really fortunate to win this game."
With only three players in double-figure scoring for the game, the Spurs were lucky to have had Gary Neal available tonight. The streaky combo guard came off the bench to score 16 points, eight of which came down the stretch during a critical fourth quarter when Neal and Duncan scored 15 of the team's final 19 points. It was another example of the depth this team boasts, but the box score tells the story of how badly the team is beginning to miss Tony Parker.
San Antonio is perhaps better than any team in the league at adapting to the game when its star players are unavailable. Role players are put in positions to succeed and exceed their normal perceived limitations, allowing for efficient basketball and a seamless transition, at least in the short term. What's good about depth is it alleviates the effects of attrition, but when more responsibility is heaped upon the shoulders of those who don't always carry it, fatigue begins to set in.
The Spurs have been up and down without Parker in the lineup but have managed, for the most part, to survive and hang on to that top spot in the West. But they're beginning to wear down. Sure, you can look at the 31 assists on 37 field goals and arrive at the conclusion that the ball is moving fine, but without Parker and an efficient Manu Ginobili, it's the unassisted opportunities that become difficult to come by. When the play breaks down, when a pick and roll turns into a one-on-one situation, that's where Parker's absence on the court is beginning to be felt immensely. When the ball moves around they're still able to get baskets, but when it doesn't, they don't.
"I think any time you go through an extended period of time without your leader and your point guard, you go through stretches in a game where it looks like that because, honestly, Tony initiates or finishes a lot of our offense," Neal said. "When you go through a 48-minute game you have dead patches.
"I think Tony being out has something to do with it."
As long as Tony is out, the Spurs will need more games like the one Duncan had tonight. Even at the age of 36, he's still capable of righting the ship on most nights.
"We're going through such a time here where we're not playing the greatest basketball. With Tony out of here, our offense is a little limited with the guys we have in there," Duncan said. "Outside of that, we don't have the best rhythm right now. I know tomorrow will be a day of focus to get us acclimated and get us moving again in the offense.
"Once we can do that, I think we can be a lot more effective and get rid of a lot of those dry possessions."
Whatever it takes, because the Spurs are really starting to miss Parker. But, if there is a silver lining, it's that Duncan is feeling the best he has since his injury against the Wizards last month. Tonight's game might have been proof of that.
Despite the concern, the Spurs still sit atop the West. And Timmy has a lot to do with that.