Posted May 24 2012 2:45PM
SAN ANTONIO -- Times change.
Bill Clinton was still in the White House when the Spurs swept the Trail Blazers in the Western Conference finals on the way to beginning a run that could stretch into the second decade of the new millennium.
There have been 116 teammates to take a turn alongside the only player to be a member -- the member -- of all four San Antonio championships.
Tim Duncan doesn't change. With a second consecutive series sweep in the rear view mirror and his seventh trip to the conference finals just around the corner, Duncan never looks back or ahead.
"It feels a lot like some of the championship teams," Duncan said before the Spurs began their preparations for Game 1 against Oklahoma City here in the Western Conference finals on Sunday night. "In saying that, we haven't done anything yet. We've won two rounds. That's it."
The Spurs and Duncan are too well-traveled, too well-schooled and too well-scarred to get too excited at the halfway mark. They can remember being swept out of the playoffs one step short of The Finals in 2001 and dusted against at the threshold by the Lakers in 2008. This is their first time back in four years. It comes at a time when some began to wonder if it would happen again.
Just last weekend, somebody wanted to know how the Spurs were able to turn around last spring's unceremonious dumping by Memphis in the first round of the playoffs into their current 18-game winning streak.
"It helps that we're healthy," said coach Gregg Popovich.
Indeed, Duncan rolled an ankle in the last week of the 2010-11 regular season. With his mobility limited, he was never able to perform close to his usual All-Star capability. It was also a fact that Manu Ginobili broke a bone in his elbow in the final game of the reason and was barely a shadow of himself.
It also helps that Duncan, 36, returned this season more slender, more fit and was able to play a less taxing schedule within the grueling 66-game compressed NBA calendar (he played fewer minutes per game than he ever has) and that the Spurs came to thrive on a more wide-open style that took far less of a toll on the tentpole player in the middle.
"Before you start handing out applause and credit to anyone else in this organization for anything that's been accomplished," Popovich said, "remember it all starts with and goes through Timmy."
Even the transformation of the Spurs' style of play from pound-it-inside on offense and clamp down on defense was done with Duncan in mind. After winning a fourth NBA championship in 2007, only to be bounced out by the Lakers in the conference finals the following season, there was a realization that the team was due for an evolution.
"As we got a little older and personnel changed, we were going to go from one of the best defensive teams to a more middle-of-the-road defensive team," Popovich said. "Something else had to change if we wanted to continue to win at a high level, so we went to the offense about two years ago and shifted it to pick up the pace to shift a little bit, went a little bit from Timmy to Manu and Tony [Parker] and more attack early in the clock -- kind of Mike D'Antoni-ish."
Duncan was not only able, he was more than willing to make the adjustment.
"The idea is to win as many games as you can and put yourself in the best position to compete for a championship," he said. "To do that, you take the best advantage of the players and the talent on hand. That's something Pop's always been good at."
After last season's early playoff exit and his own physical limitations, Duncan, never a slacker, rededicated himself to fitness.
"Timmy's been very disciplined," Popovich said. "Mostly it's about continuing to work out during the summer, not so much with weight weights, but flexibility and explosive type things. And what he puts in his body is impressive. I wish I had half his discipline. He's very lean. It's helped him quickness-wise and the program he's been on has helped balance-wise, explosiveness-wise."
Back in the days of the Showtime Lakers, Pat Riley used to joke that he rode into town with Magic Johnson and would ride out with him. Popovich and Duncan have been together for 15 seasons. It's almost impossible to envision one without the other.
"It's fun coaching him," Popovich said. "I've got my hands hanging on his coattail ... and he just keeps dragging me around wherever I'm at. Every time I walk around the house once a month, I tell my wife, 'Say thank you, Tim.' I'm serious."
Duncan grumbled and fidgeted when Popovich kept him on the short leash of a career-low 28.2 minutes per game. But projecting his playing time to a starter's usual minutes (36 a night), Duncan's scoring (19.7) and rebounding (11.5) are right at his career averages. In the just-completed sweep of the Clippers, he averaged 21 points, 9.3 rebounds and two blocked shots while shooting 59.4 percent.
An older, slimmer, fresher Duncan is running the floor more quickly than he has in years. He still can roll from the left post through the lane for that right-handed hook, square up and drop in that trademark bank shot.
So here are the Spurs, with a re-jiggered offense that has the ball more in the hands of Parker, playing at a much faster pace and with a bench as deep as a well. They are back at a level that some thought had passed them by.
"We've been blessed to be contenders, year in and year out, and put good teams together," said Duncan. "For the most part, going into the postseason, we always feel like we have a chance to make a run at it."
Yes, things change. But Duncan doesn't. Except when he has to.
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