The temptation to talk about Tim Duncan in historic terms is hard to resist. Every good game inevitably results in musings about his retirement, his place in the pantheon of greats and how he's passing the torch to his heir apparent without resistance, just like David Robinson did to him.
Did you know that the regular season numbers he averaged at his age put him in some rarefied company? That he ranks 17th all-time in points, ninth in rebounds and seventh in block? That four Spurs rotation players have taken more shots per 36 minutes than Duncan this year and he has never complained about touches? Those might not even be the most impressive stats someone can muster to accurately paint Duncan as the most durable, consistent and selfless of superstars.
Fixating on that narrative, however, does Duncan a great disservice. If Duncan is a living legend, the focus should be on the former part of that description, not the latter. Qualifying his performances with "and he's 39 years old" is supposed to shine a spotlight on them and it does. But in a weird way it also devalues them by bringing the focus to how rare it is for a guy his age to be doing what he does instead of how awesome it is for anyone of any age to be so good at something.
We shouldn't be comparing Duncan to his younger self, or to Karl Malone at 39 years old or marvel that he's still playing defense long past an age at which Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was able to. We should be looking at his numbers and his impact and wonder if he's better than Blake Griffin in 2015. In the playoffs so far he's averaging 17 points, 11 rebounds, four assists and two blocks. He's also playing elite defense. That's not rare for a guy his age, that's rare, period.
The consensus is that the Spurs and Clippers are two of the best teams in the league. San Antonio is outscoring Los Angeles by an average of five points when Duncan is on the court. Duncan is leading his squad in minutes, field goal percentage, rebounds, steals, blocks and fourth quarter scoring. He ranks second in points, assists and free throw attempts. For all the talk about this being Kawhi Leonard's team now, Duncan is still the backbone, the foundation. He's the one that often makes game-saving plays.
That's a star big man denying another in a key moment of a pivotal playoff game. There's no need to cite the ages of the players involved to make that moment impressive. Replace Duncan with Andrew Bogut or Dwight Howard and that's still a highlight. By always trying to put things in a broader context, even the biggest of Duncan fans lose track of the fact that this is happening right now and that figuring out how it will look in the history books detracts from enjoying the great play of one of the best talents the league has to offer in 2015.
It's inevitable to look for narratives and, to be fair, Duncan beating Father Time is the most compelling one surrounding him. Mythologizing is in our nature and when we find a worthy hero it's hard not to go all in. It's also necessary to remind ourselves that, wow, we are seeing something very unique. A lot of players throughout history have been as good as Duncan is now but very few his age have come close. That's worth pointing out. Yet to anyone that is not new to basketball and the NBA, this is all well-trodden ground. Everyone is aware of Duncan's age.
I'm as guilty as anyone of succumbing to temptation and throwing in a "not bad for an old man" after typing Big Fun's stat line or spending time looking up some all-time stats to prove his greatness. It's mostly harmless. Unfortunately the Tim Duncan is still good at 39 years old way to go old man praise too often overshadows the fact that Tim Duncan is one of the best players in the league. That's why there are still people convinced that the Spurs don't have stars despite it being near impossible to come up with five big men better than Duncan.
The Spurs beat the Clippers in Game Five in large part because their center scored 21 points on 13 shots, pulled down 11 rebounds and dished out four assists in over 38 minutes on the court. He gave them a huge boost with his scoring in the third quarter, hit a tough mid-range jumper with the clock winding down in the fourth period and came up with a huge block on Blake Griffin in crunch time. He was as good as anyone else on the court.
He also happens to be one of the oldest players in the league.
That's certainly part of what makes Duncan special. Ignoring it would be a mistake, not unlike focusing exclusively on it at the expense of the other aspects that make watching him play such a joy.