SAN ANTONIO -- Tim Duncan issued a warning the other day about how fast his best can desert him in these twilight years. How he can lose his feel and flow "pretty quickly" with too much time off.
Duncan neglected to mention the other possibility.
How a full week of rest, after a virtual first-round bye, could actually pump his 36-year-old legs full of life.
It was indeed the latter scenario, to Duncan's surprise, that they were treated to here Tuesday night, when his San Antonio Spurs finally returned to work after eight days of waiting for the springy Los Angeles Clippers. Even with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan on the floor, combining for the usual seven dunks, neither of the high fliers was the big man you noticed most.
That would be the old man.
"He's got about 12 good years ahead of him," Spurs teammate Boris Diaw said of Duncan, not really smiling because Diaw didn't seem to be kidding.
The Clippers had no shortage of alibis in this 108-92 pounding, given that they only had a day and a half to recover from their gritty Game 7 triumph in Memphis and with Chris Paul and Griffin undeniably both still playing at something less than full capacity. None of that, though, can or should diminish how spry Duncan looked in racking up 26 points and 10 boards in a hearty 35 minutes, which absolutely pulverized the Clippers when put together with the Spurs' peerless spacing and ball movement, 13-for-25 shooting from 3-point range and the standard attention to detail defensively that made Paul play in a crowd all evening.
Even before the ball was thrown up, Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro was in a hallway at the AT&T Center, marveling at the "20 or 25 pounds" Duncan shed in the offseason to lessen the burden on his knees. Team Duncan proceeded to spend the rest of the night reminding us all that (A) there is a pleasing-on-the-eyes alternative to what the East is serving up these days and (B) Duncan's quest for a fifth championship really should be generating more between-games discussion than Kobe Bryant's chase for a sixth.
Seriously. The Spurs have won 15 straight games overall, 29 of 32 if you rewind a little deeper into the regular season and 27 of 29 at home against the Clippers since Duncan was a rookie in 1997-98. One game into Round 2, when lined up against Kobe's Lakers, who's the more credible title threat?
Thus it's a struggle, now that the Spurs have chipped away the rust, to picture how or where the Clippers are going to be able to find the openings needed to serve up another long series. Especially with Paul (repeatedly spotted trying to shake his hips loose) and Griffin (describing himself as "80 percent" tops thanks to his sprained left knee) so clearly compromised. Eric Bledsoe (23 points, four assists and five rebounds) gave the Clips some juice with what might have been the best overall game of his young career -- as did Caron Butler, Nick Young and Kenyon Martin in spurts -- but you have to wonder how many teams out there can truly cope when the ball is moving as crisply around the horn and through No. 21 as it is for the Spurs.
"Maybe he's not as fast as he used to be, but his post moves are so good that you can't even tell," said Diaw, who chipped in with a playoff career-best 12 boards.
"They give you what they can right now," Del Negro said of Paul and Griffin, pinpointing another one of L.A.'s big problems.
Yet another biggie, as capsulized so well by Martin when asked why the boring-no-more Spurs are so hard to guard: "If they don't pass the ball to an open man, they're coming out. It's the bottom line. That's the way Pop is coaching."
It's true. The Clips couldn't have been much happier with the way they hounded Parker into 1-for-9 shooting, but Ginobili (22 points), Kawhi Leonard (16 points) and Danny Green (15 points to go with some pesky lead defensive work against Paul) all still managed to get off anyway thanks to the attention Timmy and Tony were drawing.
Both Paul and Parker, bizarrely, were scoreless in the second half. Parker, however, did manage seven assists after the break, which only helped fuel the Spurs' spread-the-wealth approach. An out-of-sorts CP3, meanwhile, had to settle for six points, 10 assists and five steals to counter 3-for-13 shooting and five turnovers, with Griffin only managing a quiet 15 points and nine rebounds. Three of Paul's giveaways came on wild first-half drives on which he uncharacteristically got caught in the air.
"That's not normal for him," Del Negro said.
Scoring nights like this one aren't exactly commonplace for Duncan any more, either. You'll recall that he rumbled for a more modest 14.3 points, 8.3 boards and just under two blocks in the four-game sweep of the just-happy-to-be-there Utah Jazz.
Yet here he was, after an enforced hiatus so long that it had Duncan admittedly "scared," tossing in a lefty scoop for a 15-point lead in the third quarter and spinning free for the rally-killing banker down low after the Clips' small-ball unit briefly sliced an 18-point deficit to eight in the fourth.
"He's changed a lot," Diaw said of Duncan's slimmed-down frame.
Except for the ways he hasn't.
"Tim was solid as usual," Popovich said. "He's played like that all year. He's not going to do anything that's going to be on a highlight film for TV.
"A highlight film for coaches, possibly."