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The evolution of Timmy's vintage game

Tim Duncan continues to defy age and refine his game, all while evolving to fit the new NBA.

Be excellent to each other. Party on, dudes.
Be excellent to each other. Party on, dudes.
Jared Wickerham

Don't say you saw it coming, because you didn't.

Over the summer we wondered how much was left in the tank after he re-signed with the only team he's ever known, but Tim Duncan's supposed farewell tour has turned into a display of resurgence. And the gas gauge certainly seemed on the verge of empty when the Phoenix Suns swept the Spurs out of the playoffs in 2010. Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire pick-and-rolled the future Hall-of-Famer to death, taking advantage of his diminishing athleticism and foot speed on their way to a dominant performance over the team that had haunted their playoff dreams for years.

But at 36 years of age, Duncan has reinvented himself, trashing the "old dog" idiom and redefining the list of tricks he was indeed capable of being taught. The old 4-down, throw-it-in-the-post Duncan still makes his mark at times, but as the remnants of the throwback big man in the NBA fades, The Big Fundamental continues to incorporate new tweaks to an already legendary game.

Gregg Popovich sees it. After all, he's helped refine the system for which his big man is the cornerstone. As the Spurs have evolved from a batten-down-the-hatches defensive juggernaut to a high-speed pick-and-roll machine, (though not to the same extent as last season), Pop has asked Duncan to play differently. The style of play that won him four titles and two league MVPs would no longer be feasible.

So the winningest coach-player combination in history continues to work toward that fifth title, and all along the way opponents and media members alike can't help but ask Pop the same question: how? How is Tim Duncan doing this? The coach hears the question daily but doesn't seem to mind answering, filling recorders with related quotes that could go on for days.

Really, it's because he's just as amazed. And whether Pop's getting softer in his old age or Duncan's getting more ornery in his, the big man is getting to call his own shots.

"I've already tried to sit him in a couple of back-to-backs and he has not allowed me to," Pop said prior to Monday's tip against the Clippers. "I ask him, 'who do (you) think is running this program?' And then he tells me.

"I say 'OK.'"

But what Popovich has noticed, along with the rest of us, is the athleticism Duncan is playing with at his age. He's never been a leaper or a high-flyer; his fundamentals and foot speed took him a long way and continue to do so.

"He's reduced his weight the last three years and works all summer on flexibility ... he's really disciplined about what he puts in his body," Pop continued. "He's got some explosiveness in his drives and he's expanded his game. Like Michael (Jordan) learned to shoot more instead of dunking everything."

And this is where Duncan has evolved most noticeably: he has become a more versatile shooter.

"Timmy's learned to knock down the jumpers on the elbows and on the wings because he's not going to go down in the post and amaze people every time anymore," Pop said. "So he picks and chooses."

While Duncan still has the ability to isolate, the incorporation of floating jumpers from elbow to elbow and shots coming off pin-down screens have made him as tricky a cover as ever. And the numbers prove it. Duncan isn't necessarily a child of the age of advanced statistics, but he was grandfathered in.

If the season were to end today (I know, it's only eleven games in, but humor me here), Duncan would have his highest true-shooting percentage in six years (56.4), his highest PER (27.4, good enough for second in the league behind LeBron James), defensive-rebounding percentage (30.5), steal percentage (1.7) and block percentage (6.7) of his career, as well as the lowest turnover percentage (7.9) he's ever had. He's been a monster on both sides of the floor, but his defense has been most impressive. Duncan is currently averaging more blocks per 36 minutes (3.2) than in any other season of his career.

While these stats might put things in perspective, you certainly don't need them to appreciate the level at which he's playing. As Pop told us recently, the only stat he's truly concerned about is the number under the 'W' column. Yes, this is as Popovichian an answer as you'll see, one that won't be a featured topic of discussion at next year's Sloan Conference, but Duncan is giving him those numbers. It's likely there would be fewer than eight wins for this team if not for the statistics the big man is posting.

Regardless, Duncan's performance has been crucial for a Spurs team with a star shooting guard recovering from back spasms and an All-Star point guard struggling to score. Throw the injuries to Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Jackson on top of it all, and the necessity for a high level of play isn't diminishing in the near future.

So as the Spurs enter a six-game road trip short-handed and in a little bit of a lull, asking more of Duncan doesn't seem fair. But if we know anything about the man, it's that he'll go ahead and ask it of himself, even if it seems there's not much more he can do. Then again, at what point are we no longer surprised?