Double Dribbles: Duncan, Shaq still matter
Tim Duncan isn’t what he once was. Neither is Shaquille O’Neal, not even close. But the two are still the most dominant big men of the past decade, and their teams still need them.
Let’s start with Duncan.
He has never been anything but a San Antonio Spur. The only NBA coach he has ever played for is Gregg Popovich. Duncan is a pro basketball everyman, a forever-underappreciated future Hall of Famer and The Big Fundamental (a nickname given to him by O’Neal). But unlike Shaq, Duncan doesn’t bestow nicknames on others, or himself.
Now let’s look at O’Neal.
He treats NBA uniforms like the Baskin-Robbins flavor of the month. He has played for six teams and numerous coaches. He has been in movies, made a rap album and starred in all those Icy Hot commercials. He’s about flash, flair and being funny. Like Duncan, he owns four championship rings.
Duncan and O’Neal staged some great battles earlier this decade, when the Spurs and Lakers met in all those Western Conference playoff series. Today, Duncan is still in San Antonio (where else?) and O’Neal is in Boston (after stops in Miami, Phoenix and Cleveland).
Duncan turns 35 years old this month. O’Neal turned 39 in March.
Last year, Duncan looked just about finished. A series of injuries and a first-round exit in the playoffs had people saying the Spurs’ window was shut, that perhaps they needed to move on from the Duncan era.
Then Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and the rest became the first team to 50 wins this season. The Spurs walloped the Lakers, and later Miami. They made it look like title No. 5 was on the way, surprising everyone, including themselves.
But that has all changed.
The Spurs still hold the NBA’s best record (58-19), but until their victory Sunday over Phoenix, they had been fading fast. This season, after all, marks the first time in 14 years (before Duncan) they had lost six in a row. That streak ended Sunday, even with Duncan playing only 18 minutes as Popovich went deep into bench.
Duncan missed the first four of those games.
Meanwhile, O’Neal signed with the Celtics in the offseason. Like Duncan, he wanted to make another run at title No. 5. So Shaq joined a veteran-laden team, a team featuring the likes of Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Paul Pierce that has been to the Finals twice in the past three seasons.
Like the Spurs, the Celtics looked great early. O‘Neal, no longer the self-described Most Dominant Ever, was a perfect complementary piece in a frontcourt that included big bodies such as Kendrick Perkins, Glen Davis and Jermaine O’Neal.
When Perkins was traded in February (to Oklahoma City for forward Jeff Green and center Nenad Krstic), it became clear Shaq should would be relied upon more heavily. When Krstic got injured (knee, day-to-day), Shaq’s role became even more important.
But O’Neal missed 27 games because of a strained right Achilles' tendon. Then, when he returned Sunday against Detroit, he quickly went down again. He played only six minutes before straining his calf muscle.
Early reports suggest he won’t miss much time, and that’s a good thing. Like the Spurs with Duncan, the Celtics probably need O’Neal more than they ever expected.
Despite a lot of utter panic in their respective cities, the best news for San Antonio and Boston fans is it often doesn’t matter what seed the Spurs and Celtics possess in the playoffs. At least not during the current eras.
The Spurs and Celtics have proven they can win on the road when it matters most, and both are as determined as ever when it comes to winning championships. Both teams also know they may be living on borrowed time.
They know, for sure, there are no guarantees beyond this season.
The Spurs and Celtics also know the postseason is a slow-it-down, grind-it-out and physical brand of basketball. And both teams possess rosters in line with that philosophy.
Duncan and O’Neal are still the anchors to that approach. Even now, and even though they aren’t as forceful as they once were, the two most dominant big men of the past decade really matter again.
And likely even more than anyone imagined.
Follow Sam Amico on Twitter @SamAmicoFSO