Tim Duncan might not be the most eye-popping superstar the NBA has ever seen, but there is a reason why they call him Mr. Consistent.
At age 36, Tim Duncan is doing for the San Antonio Spurs exactly what he has always done: playing excellent defense, slapping up double-double after double-double and acting as a hub on offense both on the block and around the elbows.
Though his minutes have been cut over the years to preserve his body for the playoff grind, Duncan has remained metronomic in his consistency. His career averages of 20.6 points, 11.5 rebounds and 3.1 assists per 36 minutes look remarkably like his season averages of 21.0 points, 12.0 rebounds and 3.2 assists. Even his .507 career field-goal percentage is nearly matched by his season mark of .505.
This all, obviously, is a testament to Duncan’s basketball brilliance, but what can’t be overlooked is Spurs coach Gregg Popovich’s deep understanding of the exact ways to use Duncan to best maximize his skill set while simultaneously playing off the opposing defense.
The chemistry Duncan shares with point guard Tony Parker on the pick-and-roll is undeniable. They’ve been running it together for more than a decade now, and it’s come to the point where each knows exactly where the other will be before they get there.
This kind of drag screen in delayed transition isn’t exactly new for the Spurs, but it’s not necessarily something we would have seen them run early in Parker’s career. These days they run it like clockwork, and Duncan’s half-roll to the nail is exactly the strategy that should be used to beat the Heat’s aggressive trapping of pick-and-roll ball-handlers.
Norris Cole and Udonis Haslem string this out all the way toward the sideline, hoping to pressure Parker into throwing a bad, lazy pass that one of their athletes across the back line can jump to kickstart a fast break. Parker, though, has seen this song and dance before and fires a bullet to Duncan as soon as Haslem is drawn far enough away so that Duncan will have time to line up his jumper.
When the opposition is trapping and stringing out pick-and-rolls, it’s a good idea to find other ways to get the ball to the elbows, if that’s one of your main goals from a possession. Luckily for San Antonio, they’ve been using an alternative to get Duncan open in that spot for years: the pin-down screen.
Not a lot of teams will set pin-downs for a big man (though over the past few years some other teams are getting in on the action), preferring to use them for more traditional shooters like guards and wings. But San Antonio has been using this action to get Duncan the ball around the free-throw line for a shot or a pass for nearly as long as I can remember.
Here, Parker brings the ball up the right side of the court as Duncan sets up on the right block. Danny Green curls around a Duncan screen and sprints up to the top of the key, where Parker passes him the ball.
Matt Bonner then flashes from the high post to the top of the arc, and Green sets off as if he’s going to screen for Stephen Jackson in the left corner. Green has his head completely turned toward Jackson with his right hand held high—the signal for Jackson to take his screen over the right side—but when Green gets to the free-throw line, he changes course and slams Chris Bosh with a screen just above the right block. The move creates just enough space for another Duncan jumper.
Though it didn’t result in a win for the Spurs against a shorthanded Heat team on March 31, this symbiosis between skill and play-calling is a large part of why the Spurs are yet again one of the league’s top offensive units and a true championship contender.
I’ve previously written that San Antonio’s style of offense gives it the best chance of any Western Conference team to dethrone the Heat, and I still believe that to be true. They’ll need a better effort than they put forth against Miami to get it done, but it’s not like we haven’t seen that from them before.
After all, we seemingly write off the Spurs every season, and how has that worked out?
There's a lot to be said for having a player like Duncan to build your success around, and the San Antonio Spurs are proof of just that.