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Tim Duncan’s Spurs Career in “A Moon Shaped Pool”

Duncan made the playoffs in all of his 19 seasons with the San Antonio Spurs. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

Duncan made the playoffs in all of his 19 seasons with the San Antonio Spurs. (AP Photo/Eric Gay, File)

Today is Tim Duncan Day because the mayor of San Antonio said so. I’d like to wish you a “Happy Tim Duncan Day!” but the reality is that this first Tim Duncan Day has to be a somber Tim Duncan Day. Because Tim Duncan is gone. He actually, literally might be gone. When was the last time anyone saw him? Until you find proof that he’s still among the living, I’m going to assume that he disappeared à la Obi Wan Kenobi in A New Hope shortly after his retirement interview last week.

But his memory will live on forever, as many great writers have already pointed out. I will not be one of those writers. This Duncan tribute piece – if you can even call it that – is about how his career’s final act perfectly intersects with the release of Radiohead’s ninth studio album, A Moon Shaped Pool.

First, some history, because maybe that will help explain how I came up with this idea…

I woke up at 8:15 am on Sunday, May 8th, 2016 with a splitting headache and all my clothes on, sideways on a queen-size bed in the Extended Stay of Dublin, Ohio. The previous night, two dear friends were married, the Spurs were still up 2-1 in the Western Conference Semifinals with game 4 coming up that day, and the new Radiohead album was about to be released, so despite my killer hangover, things seemed to be going well. Then I got to the airport.

Upon check in, I was informed that my flight was delayed, and because of it, I would miss my connection in Phoenix and be trapped in Arizona without a way to get home until Monday. That won’t do. That won’t do at all. Instead, I could wait at the Columbus Airport for 5-6 hours and board a flight that would eventually land in Oakland that evening, but I would miss nearly every minute of San Antonio’s game 4 against Oklahoma City, thus ruining my genius plan to arrive back in the Bay Area with plenty of time to get home, take my pants off, order a massive burrito, and watch the Spurs in the comfort of my own home.

I took solace in one thing – that the new Radiohead record was going to be available for download a couple hours before my flight left Columbus. At least the greatest band in the world would provide the soundtrack to my anxiety-ridden flight home, or so I thought. Because the world is a giant asshole, I couldn’t download A Moon Shaped Pool directly to my iPhone – even though the Internet was more than happy to let me pay for it with my iPhone. Sigh.

The flight was terrible. The Spurs were fighting for their playoff lives. I was fighting to stop myself from puking all over my fellow passengers. And somewhere below, thousands of people were happily listening to the first new Radiohead music released in over four years. But soon, my fortune would change.

When I landed, the 4th quarter had just begun and San Antonio was up by four points. Even better, my girlfriend was stuck in traffic meaning I had time to watch the final quarter unfold. Would I witness glory in Oakland’s Southwest terminal?

Nope. I watched the Spurs shoot 7-21 while the Thunder made everything – everything that mattered at least – and run away with a 14-point victory. For the second time in the series, San Antonio blew a chance to take a commanding lead in the series, and we all know what happened next.

But the Radiohead album didn’t disappoint me. It was all I listened to that week, where games 5 and 6 went completely wrong and Duncan played his final NBA minutes. By the time Game 6 rolled around, the two had become intertwined in my brain and I started drawing parallels between the suddenly human Duncan and the heavy, melancholic ache of Thom Yorke’s lyrics in what very well could be the last record his long-time band releases.

So, here we are. I present to you “Tim Duncan’s Spurs Career as Told by A Moon Shaped Pool!”

Track 1) Burn the Witch

Widely viewed as a song about how challenging the status quo often results in the challenger’s ostracism or worse. When viewed through the lens of Tim Duncan, Burn the Witch becomes the anthem for putting the Spurs’ history of coming up short behind them and storming their way to their first NBA championship in 1999. Burn the Witch was Tim Duncan announcing that the Spurs have arrived and the rest of the league was on notice.

Track 2) Daydreaming

Daydreaming is what happens as the high from the first title wears off. If there was any doubt that Duncan was now “the man,” those doubts have been erased. Duncan has to be wondering if this is real life, that the kid who didn’t even know if he’d start at Wake Forest just achieved what every basketball player dreams of – in his second year in the league. At the end of the song, Yorke’s whispers of “half of my life” are played in reverse, foreshadowing that Duncan would eventually spend half his life as a Spur.

Track 3) Decks Dark

Remember that time Duncan almost left San Antonio for Orlando? Yuuuuuck. But he didn’t, and we all look back and smile now. Yorke’s lyrics suggest that Duncan’s flirt with the Magic was “just a laugh, just a laugh” and sarcastically inquires, “have you had enough of me?”

It’s safe to say that no Spurs fan has “had enough” of Tim Duncan.

Track 4) Desert Island Disk

I can’t figure out what this one’s about, so let’s chalk it up to Duncan being confused and bewildered after losing to the Los Angeles Lakers in the playoffs two years in a row from 2001-02. Gah, what a stupid two years.

Track 5) Ful Stop

This is what happens when you piss off Tim Duncan in the playoffs, he comes back with a vengeance. Just as Yorke is sick of the “foul tasting medicine / to be trapped in your full stop,” Duncan is fed up with losing to Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. Yorke warns that “truth will mess you up,” signaling that neither Bryant nor O’Neal are the NBA’s best player, and that Duncan is actually the greatest player of their generation. The Spurs went on to win the 2003 Finals behind a transcendent performance by Duncan.

Track 6) Glass Eyes

Following the 2003 Finals, David Robinson retired. Glass Eyes represents Duncan’s coming to terms with having to be the best player and emotional leader of the Spurs, new territory for the 6-year NBA veteran. In the song, Yorke panics, “The path trails off and heads down a mountain / Through the dry bush, I don’t know where it leads,” mirroring Duncan’s reluctance to become the team’s sole leader at this stage in his career.

Track 7) Identikit

An identikit is a picture of a person, reconstructed from strips showing facial features selected to match witnesses’ descriptions; used by police to build a likeness of a person sought for a crime.

In 2004, Derek Fisher committed the most heinous crime in Spurs history, and Duncan, with his reconstructed team of Spurs, including a young Manu Ginobili and even younger Tony Parker, set out on a quest for justice in 2005. Though they didn’t face the Lakers in the playoffs this year, they were eventually rewarded for their vigilance with a third NBA title, in which Duncan earned MVP honors for the third time in his career.

Track 8) The Numbers

Duncan and his Spurs failed to repeat as NBA champions again in 2006, this time falling to their division rivals, the Dallas Mavericks in a seven-game Western Conference Semifinal matchup. But the Spurs vowed to come back, and led by Duncan, swept LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. Their journey from the Game 7 loss to Dallas to four-time NBA champions is best summed by Yorke’s haunting close to the song: “And you may pour us away like soup / Like we’re pretty broken flowers / We’ll take back what is ours / Take back what is ours”

Track 9) Present Tense

Following the 2007 season, the Spurs and Duncan suffered a series of strong regular seasons with no shot at winning a title. Chronic knee injuries began plaguing Duncan, but even when healthy, his team ran into buzzsaws in the form of the 2011 Memphis Grizzlies and 2012 Oklahoma City Thunder that prevented him from capturing a fifth NBA title.

Even after a fairy tale-esque 2012-13 campaign, when it appeared that Duncan was 2 minutes away from reclaiming his place on the top of the NBA, James and the Miami Heat snatched the Larry O’Brien trophy out of his hands. Had time come for Duncan to call it quits?

Yorke’s lyrics suggest that Duncan’s greatest enemy isn’t his opponent on the court, but time itself: “This dance / Is like a weapon / Of self defense / Against the present / Present tense”

Track 10) Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief

Instead of hanging ‘em up and walking away, Duncan set his soul on fire and vowed to win a fifth title, even with only one good knee. The Spurs would not be stopped, besting the Miami Heat in a Finals rematch, 4-1.

“The ones you light your fires to keep away,” Yorke croons before a series of string instruments take the song into its chaotic finale. The NBA lit its fires, but nobody could keep Duncan and co. from taking basketball’s greatest prize.

Track 11) True Love Waits

True Love Waits explains Duncan’s decision to finally retire from professional basketball. Yorke’s pained second verse begins with “I’m not living / I’m just killing time,” a sentiment echoed by Duncan in his post-retirement interview: “When it’s not fun anymore, I’m done.”

The chorus represents the voice of the fans, “Just don’t leave / Don’t leave.”

But after two decades of truly transcendent basketball, it’s time to let the Big Fundamental go.

Parker, Duncan Lead Points in the Paint

As of today, Tony Parker and Tim Duncan are 1st and 2nd in the league for points in the paint. A point guard has never led the league in points in the paint for an entire season, as far as I know.

Here is how the top 5 stack up:

HEIGHT 6′ 2″ 6′ 11″ 6′ 7″ 6′ 8″ 6′ 8″
POINTS 496 478 466 458 456

Spurs’ Season Ends (Again) In Loss To Golden State

2018 Western Conference Playoffs, First Round
San Antonio 91, Golden State 99
Golden State wins series 4-1

They battled valiantly (as much as playing a game can be valiant) to the final buzzer, showing true heart and grit. It just wasn’t enough.

We all knew it wasn’t going to be enough. Every Spurs fan I know concocted scenarios in which this Spurs team could win this series: “remember that game in Golden State a few months ago that they should have won…?” “The Spurs can’t be beat at home; if they can just steal one on the road….” “Golden State is really limping into the playoffs and missing their best player….”

Yet, when pressed, all of us picked Golden State in 4 or 5 games, depending on how charitable our mood was that day. It was a fait accompli.

We don’t need to re-litigate the series or the season. It’s over. The team wasn’t talented enough. Absent their superstar, the frayed edges and slightly ripped seams of “the system” really started to show for the first time.

It was a (relatively) miserable season to watch. Something always bugged me about this season, and it finally dawned on me as the Spurs’ final gasp fell just short in Game 5: for the first time I can remember as a fan, the actual games mattered very little.

The whole season felt like prologue to the summer. The outcome on the court bore little consequence to the health and future of the franchise, particularly in relationship to what is to come off the court this summer. In a league often defined more by what happens away from the game than during the game, this is the first time I really felt that dichotomy coming to bear on the Spurs.

It sucked. It still sucks. The regular season didn’t matter. The playoffs didn’t matter. Match-ups against the Warriors didn’t matter. Essentially, once Kawhi Leonard went down with injury, the entirety of the 2017-18 Spurs’ season just didn’t matter. So why did I watch every second of it?

For the first time in my adult life, I really began to question the nature of my fandom. Do I really just cheer for laundry, as Jerry Seinfeld so eloquently quipped decades ago. My love for the Spurs was born in the special relationship between Pop and Tim Duncan, in the passion of Manu Ginobili, in the ruthless and efficient turnstile of role players that always played a small but pivotal role in our successes and failures.

But what now? Duncan is gone. Ginobili isn’t long for the NBA. Pop has real decisions to make, but likely won’t be here beyond 2020. Kawhi was meant to be the torch bearer, carrying our fandom into the next generation, the true bridge between iterations of the team.

And now an entire season is wiped clean, awaiting a solitary decision in the summer, when nary a basket is made nor a pick is set. If he comes back, can we go back to a simpler time, before this season’s soap opera swallowed everything else whole? Or is it already too late; is our fandom broken, and we’re just like every other franchise out there? Can we ever look at our superstar player the same way again? Can we ever look at our franchise the same way again?

Maybe it’s already too late. This is a recap of Game 5 of a playoff series, and nothing about actual basketball is written, because nothing about the actual basketball matters to anyone.

The NBA is the best league. But it can also be the worst.

Spurs Beat Nets, Face Season Without Kawhi

Season 52, Game 46
San Antonio 100, Brooklyn Nets 95
30-16, 3th in the West

In 46 games played so far this season, the Spurs have been without Kawhi Leonard for 37 of them. It looks like that trend will continue.

Hours after Wednesday’s breaking news about Kawhi Leonard being shut down indefinitely with right quadriceps tendinopathy, the Spurs beat the Brooklyn Nets and retained their number 3 seed in the Western Conference.

LaMarcus Aldridge led the Spurs with 34 points on 13-of-24 shooting in nearly 38 minutes of play. Aldridge was impressive from the start, but dominated the third quarter with 14 points, scoring at will. The Nets are young and play hard, but they had no match for the All-Star lock, as LaMarcus was able to shimmy, shake, pump fake, and dunk over pretty much any defender thrown at him in the second half.

His performance was accompanied by his trusty side-kick and former Blazers teammate, Patty Mills, who hit a career best 7-of-8 threes on his way to 25 points on the night, helping the Spurs hit “100” and earn their 30th win of the season. Mills shot his way out of a slump and looked like the Patty Mills we all know and love.

Danny Green is looking better by the day. Kyle Anderson has filled in admirably. Dejounte Murray is a monster on the glass. And while Pau Gasol continues to serve up Aldridge in the paint, Tony Parker remains the Spurs consistent playmaker.

The Spurs will need Aldridge’s continued dominance and this version of Mills if they want to stay afloat without their best player. In an over-crowded cluster of runner-ups to the Golden State Warriors, the Spurs have found themselves on the wrong side of the injury report this season.

My how quickly things can change.

Just a short calendar year ago, the NBA, and quite possibly the world, was starting to bask in the revelation of just how good Kawhi actually was. Words like “MVP” and “Superstar” were being tossed around. Talk of Finals trips were commonplace amongst Spurs fans. Even the “LeBron to SA” rumors were out in full force.

But alas, it was not to be. At least not yet, anyways. Kawhi rolled an ankle, we all lied to ourselves pretending the Spurs might have beaten the Warriors, and then we accepted this idea that, in 2018, when Kawhi is healthy, the Spurs can be that one team to upset them.

Two months later, “quadriceps tendinopathy” was being googled by every Spurs fan from here to Buenos Aires.

I’ve been critical of this new dynamic of Kawhi the Superstar.

I don’t think Kawhi knows how to be a superstar and I don’t think Gregg Popovich really knows how to coach a true superstar. But in 2018, it’s all about protecting your brand, protecting the product and now, protecting the future. So this entire dynamic is new to them, and to Spurs fans. Players brands are just as important now as their jump shot.

We’ve seen quite a bit of branding coming out of Kawhi since the end of last year.

Tim Duncan and David Robinson were better than Kawhi, but weren’t nearly as talented. Both were expected to be great players and both had the spotlight shining solely on them. Kawhi kind of came out of nowhere and his emergence, while welcomed, seemed to have caught the organization off guard.

You have to remember: the Spurs signed Aldridge and then suddenly, their defensive specialist turned into an offensive juggernaut.

Frankly, I am glad to see Kawhi shut down and would like to see him shut down for the year. The injury to my understanding is more of a “wear and tear” injury rather than just a incidental one (like Tony Parker’s). And don’t get hung up on the word “indefinitely.” LaMarcus was out last year “indefinitely” with a heart issue. He missed three games and came back.

I think there are one of two scenarios at play here.

The first: the injury is super bad and he ends up shut down for the season. That’s my hope. Let’s punt this season, let LaMarcus run the show, and then start fresh next season.

The other: keeping him out until after the All-Star break, which should bring back Rudy Gay and probably Manu Ginobili, all in one motion. This is a good point in the season to buy an extra week of recovery for players with lingering ailments. As much as I’d want to see that punt, having this team roar out of the All-Star break and win 20 of their last 25 isn’t a bad alternative.

There will be good and bad in this, but if the Brooklyn game is any indication, the Spurs aren’t as bad off as we may think. LaMarcus is still a really good player. Maybe a top 20 player in this league. And Popovich is a really good coach. Spurs fans should certainly raise eye brows in concern, but I don’t think panic is the right response yet.

We’ll see who decides to fill in for Kawhi again in Toronto on Friday. It should be a good test.

Go Spurs Go.

Disturbing Trends

Season 51, Game 41
San Antonio 110, Portland 111
27-14, 3rd in the West 

The Spurs fell in splendid fashion to the Portland Trailblazers on Sunday night after CJ McCollum tossed in some junk in the final seconds of a back and forth game. The 1-point loss to the Spurs was a perfect ending to a fairly entertaining game in which the Spurs could have probably used one more possession.

The Spurs led in pretty much every category. They had more rebounds, both offensive and defensive, had more assists, shot better from the line, shot better from the arc, and committed less fouls. Unfortunately, they also had more turnovers. Late game heroics by Manu Ginobili, who has been nothing short of inspiring, as well as the continued dominance of LaMarcus Aldridge, was once again overshadowed by a chaotic whirlwind in the backcourt. Kawhi Leonard aside, this team is vastly different, sans Tony Parker.

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