Eight and a half years (3,136 days) ago, Tim Duncan channeled his inner Mufasa (or, if you prefer, King of Swamp Castle) and uttered these now iconic words to LeBron: "This will be your league in a little while."
At the time a mega-talented, hyper-athlete with the world at his feet and just starting to hint at the finished product; the LeBron of 2007 was more akin to the Spurs Kawhi Leonard of 2016. And in story arcs and NBA timelines, LeBron should've passed the metaphorical torch about now and Duncan should be sitting with Bill Simmons for retrospective documentaries. But with Tim Duncan--AKA "Groundhog Day," "Death and Texas," "Old Man Riverwalk" or whatever word the White Walkers hiss to mean "Dad"-- still inexplicably able to play around 30 super-efficient minutes a night in 2016, the torch is still in some state of flux.
To his contemporaries, it was never Duncan's to pass. Perennially underrated, or at least under-appreciated, during his prime, it wasn't until a decade into his career and about the time that he uttered those sentiments to LeBron that the "wait a minute, is DUNCAN actually the best player post-Jordan" takes started to bubble up. There were laughable Pretender Kings, but it truly is a matter of parsing through NBA mini-eras of Jordan-Kobe-Lebron and fitting in a non-linear Duncan dynasty.
As LeBron's undisputed reign as King comes into question with the rise of Steph Curry, and with Duncan thwarting his ascension twice, you would think that LeBron would chafe. You could imagine some prodigal son who never had the chance to get out of dad's shadow. But LeBron showed hints of the character that makes him one of Popovich's favorites.
It is fitting that the Spurs should meet LeBron on the night Charles Barkley called Kawhi Leonard the "best basketball player on the planet" and immediately before a matchup between the Warriors and Lakers. While Curry is nearly undisputed as the best player alive at this exact minute, it isn't too difficult to envision a scenario where we look back on Leonard's career in twelve years and say "he was was the best defender in the league for over a decade, a phenomenal offensive player, and he anchored those championship teams," and view him as a fly-in-the-greatness-ointment of Curry the way most view the complicated legacies of Duncan and Kobe Bryant in the post-MJ years.
And for Duncan, Leonard, and Popovich--who leave the pondering of greatness and legacies to the rest of us--I think that would be just fine.
Even though Kawhi played incredible defense for 40 (!) minutes against a human Panzer tank and rebounded and shot well in the second half (4-7 from the floor plus 6-6 from the line), and had arguably the Play of the Game...
Spurs' Kawhi Leonard with the lefty tip dunk pic.twitter.com/GeDp4t7DrY— Ben Golliver (@BenGolliver) January 15, 2016
Tony Parker is your MVP.
Not only did Parker have a game-high 24 points, but he played excellent defense. He also had a game-high 3 steals, but was more than a pair of surreptitious hands. He chased and hedged on countless PG/LeBron pick-and-rolls (with either Irving or Dellavedova)--which has at times been the Cavs most effective weapon against the Spurs--and had a poignant defensive possession when switched on LeBron in the second quarter that resulted in frustration and a de facto shot clock expiration (James then fouled Parker to be subbed out of the game, but a timeout was called).
There were also, obviously, points. Parker scored a crucial 12 straight to close out the 1st half and reduce a 15-point deficit to six with a buzzer beating jumper. He was the only Spur in double digits at the half and seemed to have energy where other players were a bit flat or couldn't get the lucky bounces.
To zoom out a bit: Tony Parker, "From Question Mark to Inquisitor"
At the exact midway point in the Spurs season, it’s easy to forget where this team was 11 weeks ago. Coming off a disappointing playoff series against the "UNDISPUTED AND DON’T YOU DARE ARGUE—BEST POINT GUARD IN THE LEAGUE CHRIS PAUL (assuming you don’t classify Westbrook or Curry as "Pure" PGs, and refuse to project Lillard, Irving, Wall, or Conley)," and with shiny new parts in key positions; the one legitimate reason the Spurs wouldn’t be infallible was Tony Parker. If he couldn’t be more than a devastatingly handsome face and a perpetual 5-o’clock-shadow, the Spurs simply wouldn’t have the space to operate or get their own shots. He was the weak point of defense and a shell of his former self on offense. He was...a question mark.
An impressive early season campaign aside, Parker has seemingly put those doubts firmly to bed in the past 72 hours. After a 31 point performance against the Pistons on Tuesday, Parker looks rejuvenated and energetic. It was he who was asking unanswered questions of the Cavalier's defense.
LeBron James Usage Percentage by defender: Kawhi Leonard: 10% All Others: 62% Usg pct - a possession ending in a shot, foul drawn or TO— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 15, 2016
121- The tally is now up to 121 seconds spent trailing, out of 16,560 played during the fourth quarter at home this season.
90 - Tony Parker passed Wilt Chamberlain for 90th on the games played list with 1046. (Parker is also 8th with 203 additional playoff games).
70 - The Spurs have reached the midpoint of the season at 35-6, on pace for 70-12...There has only been one 70 win team in NBA history, and this season there are two on pace for it!
65 - Even if both the Spurs and the Warriors cool off in the second half and settle for paltry 65 win seasons, it would be only the second time in history with two 65-game winners.
32 - And counting. The last home loss was courtesy of Kyrie Irving and the Cavs in OT. Their last home loss in regulation? January 31, 2015.
15 - The Spurs came back from a 15-point deficit and showed the character that could be excused if it were missing after only the 3rd time trailing at the half in 23 home games.
The Spurs did not disappoint, and the Internet followed suit:
"If you're depending on JR Smith in big spots, you might as well hang that shit up." ~ Chinese proverb— Tweetgood Mac (@SnottieDrippen) January 15, 2016
What? We all laughed.
Twitter, re-enacted in real life: https://t.co/JmZGwg5Qkc— Rob Perezingis (@World_Wide_Wob) January 15, 2016
This was an incredible photo to capture physics and gravity being denied. With a straight face.
Go-Go-Gadget DUNK pic.twitter.com/IKMRJqDJl1— CBS Sports NBA (@CBSSportsNBA) January 15, 2016
Bruce Bowen (@Bowen12) January 15, 2016
Is that a pick & eat from Draymond Green? https://t.co/cKIjKCZ0xg— The Cauldron (@TheCauldron) January 15, 2016
i need to know what they’re saying pic.twitter.com/q8NF2jeHDo— James Herbert (@outsidethenba) January 15, 2016