MIAMI — For all the playoff slugfests he has endured over the years, for all the elbows to the ribs he’s taken in the post, for all the postseason runs between this NBA Finals and his last one, precious little has changed for Tim Duncan.
His expressive face looks remarkably similar in 2013 to the one that helped the San Antonio Spurs to their first championship in 1999. His game is still built on fundamentals and smarts more than athleticism and speed.
And he still plays for the same coach, in the same system and with the same two stars by his side that brought three titles to the River Walk in five years.
You see Duncan in Game 1 against Miami on Thursday night, controlling the paint, finding the open man and cleaning up the boards like he’s always done. And then you realize he’s 37 years old, and his last trip to the NBA Finals was six years ago.
That may not seem so far back to most players. To Duncan, it felt like an eternity. And now that he’s finally here, with a chance for title No. 5, he’s playing with the urgency of a man that doesn’t know how many more chances he’s going to get.
“It felt like a long time,” Duncan said on Friday, one day after posting 20 points, 14 rebounds, four blocks and three assists in San Antonio’s 92-88 win over Miami in Game 1.
“I definitely appreciate being back out here, to see the finals banners all around and to see the patch on the jersey and all those little things, the last couple of days it’s really been sinking in.
“I think I really do appreciate it more now, having been gone so long.”
Game 2 is Sunday in Miami.
That Duncan, the most understated of stars, is focusing on those little details that he never did before should come as no surprise. He’s never been one for the pyrotechnic pre-game introductions; never craved the spotlight that comes with playing for the championship.
What he has stood for more than anything over the years is dependability. Everyone knows what he brings to the table, and the fact that he keeps bringing it year-in and year-out has earned him an unparalleled level of respect and admiration within the league — if not among the casual fan who craves soaring dunks and wicked crossovers.
“The way he’s played his whole career, he’s continued to play that way,” Heat guard Ray Allen said. “In this world we live in, consistency is all we ask. You get paid a lot of money and you get respect by doing it.”
Some fans want more. They want highlights and sound bites, big plays and bigger personalities. That’s never been Duncan’s style, and never been the Spurs’ way, which is why arguably the greatest power forward in league history so often gets overshadowed in his own time by the likes of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Kevin Durant.
Now in his 16th season in the league and producing like he’s fresh out of college, Duncan is reluctantly being thrust into the spotlight once more in these finals. He averaged 17.8 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game in the regular season, becoming the second oldest player to earn All-NBA first team honors.
And he’s built off that with a stirring postseason run.
“Timmy is being recognized as one of the great, enduring Hall of Fame, top 10 players of all-time,” commissioner David Stern said. “They’re getting what they deserve.”
Duncan has long since handed over the reins to the Spurs offense to point guard Tony Parker, but his influence and impact hasn’t waned in the least.
“This will always be Timmy’s franchise,” Parker said. “Always. Should do a statue for him outside the AT&T Center.”
What would that statue look like?
“Looking mean,” Parker said. “Something like that.”
He shrugged off an 0-for-5 start to Game 1 by making eight of his last 14 shots in the game, giving Chris Bosh fits on the low block and forcing him out to the perimeter, where the All-Star forward was rendered almost obsolete.
“Timmy is unbelievable,” said Parker, who couldn’t resist a chance to take a jab at his buddy. “At his age, 50, doing what he’s doing is crazy. It’s crazy. I don’t know how he does it, seriously. It’s unbelievable.”
Before the series started, Bosh said he grew up with a poster of Duncan on his wall, something the elder statesman is still trying to get his mind around.
“It’s really odd to hear that, especially playing against someone like that,” Duncan said. “It means I’ve been around a very, very long time. To have him at this point ... to have that thought in his mind, I guess I’m honored by it.
“But we’re both here for the single purpose, to try to beat each other up.”