Old jokes aside, Tim Duncan still has plenty of game

MIAMI — Those on the San Antonio Spurs have been poking fun at Tim Duncan’s age for several years. Forward Matt Bonner suggested Wednesday that Duncan might be “senile’’ and guard Manu Ginobili called him a “wise old man.’’
But the ultimate joke came March 25, 2012, when Spurs coach Gregg Popovich sat his big man out of a game against Philadelphia on the second night of a back-to-back situation. Popovich instructed Spurs statisticians to have it read in the box score: “DNP (did not play) Old.’’
“He loved it,’’ Popovich said of Duncan, now 37. “He thought it was funny as hell. There are some others who did not enjoy it, but Timmy got a kick out of it and I got a kick out if it. It was fun. And it was true. He was older than dirt. … He was tired that night… I could have said he has a broken ankle or something. I just said he’s old.’’
For an ancient guy, Duncan sure can play. He’s turned the clock back to the previous decade, which is a primary reason why the Spurs will face the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals that start Thursday at AmericanAirlines Arena.
After a season in which he averaged 17.8 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.65 blocks, Duncan was named to the All-NBA first team for the first time since 2006-07, which was when he won the last of his four championship rings. He got the nod at center, although he technically starts at power forward alongside center Tiago Splitter.
“He’s really resurrected himself,’’ said Heat forward Udonis Haslem, who will run into Duncan plenty during the Finals. “That’s impressive at that age to kind of reinvent yourself.’’
Duncan might go down as the best power forward in history. But he had experienced some serious slippage in recent years.
In 2010-11, Duncan had seen his scoring and rebounding averages drop to career lows of 13.4 and 8.9, respectively. But Duncan soon began to recommit himself.
He changed his diet. There was even more heed paid to getting him proper rest during the summer and regular season.
“Obviously, trying to get my weight down was a big (adjustment) for me,’’ Duncan said. “Playing a little less in the summertime, so I have a little more, a little less stress on my knees come season time. … My minutes are down. Every once in awhile, whether healthy or not, I have a couple of games off. Don’t play in many back-to-backs.’’
Duncan’s average of 30.1 minutes per game actually was his highest since 2010-11. But he sat out 13 regular-season games, his most since 2004-05, when he had injuries.
As well as he’s playing, though, the cracks about Duncan’s age haven’t stopped.
“There’s plenty of jokes,’’ said Bonner, in his seventh season as Duncan’s teammate. “It’s almost like when you talk to him about years past, they’ve all started to blend together for him I think. So maybe he’s going senile a little bit. He’s just been here forever. Forever. It’s fun to focus on that sometimes.’’
The low-key Duncan takes it all in stride.
“I remember making fun of David (Robinson) and Jerome Kersey and Terry Porter and those guys, how old they were at whatever point before they retired and how they took it,’’ Duncan, in his 16th year with San Antonio, said about some former teammates. “I’m just the same. I think it’s funny. As I said, I’m here and I’m still playing well. So I’ll take it comes.’’
There’s a lot of fun being had on the Spurs these days. They went 58-24 during the regular season and have breezed so far through the playoffs with a 12-2 mark.
Now, Duncan, who won his first ring in 1999, is looking to continue to make history. With a win in these Finals, he would join Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher as the only active players with five titles.
Duncan can become just the second player in NBA history, after John Salley, to have won rings in three different decades. And 14 years would tie Sam Cassell for third place when it comes to the most years between a first and a last title (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won rings 17 years apart and Robert Parish 16).
“He has championship DNA,’’ Heat forward LeBron James said of Duncan. “One of the best players to ever play the game of basketball. If I just look at the last 15 years, he’s probably been the (NBA’s) most consistent, most dominant player. … He doesn’t get a lot of recognition because he’s not flashy like a lot of guys are. He’s not jumping over people and high flying and doing the thing that attracts people to the game. But I think true basketball, true IQ people, players know how great he is.’’
While Duncan might not be flashy, Bonner said that’s one reason he’s still so effective. Bonner said the fundamentally sound big man “doesn’t rely on athleticism,’’ which is “what declines with age.’’
Even if Duncan ever had been a high flyer, he’d have been perfectly content without a lot of recognition. He cracked Wednesday he’s “definitely glad’’ not to have the pressure that James faces.
“As I go through my career and through these games, that’s not anything I ever look up or think about,’’ Duncan, a two-time MVP and 14-time All-Star, said about his legacy. “Will it matter at some point? Maybe it will, but I have nothing to do with how people see me at that point. I’m just here to enjoy it and do the best I can.’’
Duncan, the 12th-oldest player in the NBA this season, is doing quite well. Of the 20 oldest, he was the only one to average 15 or more points.
Spurs guard Tony Parker says it’s “unbelievable what he’s doing at his age.’’ Popovich calls it “ridiculous.’’
Nevertheless, even if Duncan isn’t acting his age, Popovich won’t hesitate to take jabs at him about it.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at christomasson@hotmail.com or on Twitter@christomasson