In a season of meaningful milestones for the Spurs none has had quite the gravitas of the landmark achieved on Tuesday night in Salt Lake City by Tim Duncan.
San Antonio’s dramatic, 88-86 win over the Utah Jazz at Vivint Smart Home Arena was the 1,000th win of Duncan’s 19-year career. It made him just the third player in NBA history to join the 1,000-win club, preceded by Hall of Famers Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Robert Parish.
Both predecessors in the exclusive club played into their 40s. Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA’s all-time scoring leader and a six-time NBA champion, was 41 when he retired after his 20th season, six with the Milwaukee Bucks, 14 with the Los Angeles Lakers. Parish, who played 14 of his 23 seasons with the Boston Celtics, was 43 when he retired after a final season with the Chicago Bulls that earned him his fourth championship ring.
Duncan will celebrate his 40th birthday on April 25, the Spurs likely still battling in the first round of the playoffs.
Duncan doesn’t like speaking of his many accomplishments but the players who have been with him the longest appreciate his consistency of effort and excellence.
“Amazing,” 33-year-old point guard Tony Parker said. “The longevity; playing at a high level every game for 19 years. Pretty impressive. Speaks for itself. Unbelievable.”
It was altogether fitting that the Spurs captain, who has happily yielded his ascendant role in the Spurs offense over the past six season, did not have a field goal in a win he won’t savor until his playing days are behind him. In just under 24 minutes of court time Duncan scored only three points, all from the foul line. He had two rebounds and blocked two shots but played only a support role in a victory that wasn’t secured until Kawhi Leonard nailed an 18-foot jumper with 4.7 seconds remaining.
It was the second game-winner of the season for Leonard, who hit a buzzer beater in Oakland in the final game before the All-Star break in February. The All-Star forward took a slick in-bounds pass from Kyle Anderson on a play triggered from the baseline with 6.7 seconds remaining, the score tied at 86.
“Coach Pop drew up a play for me or (LaMarcus Aldridge) to get a shot,” Leonard explained to reporters in a post-game interview televised by FoxSports Southwest. “Kyle read it perfectly and gave me the ball and when I saw the open look I just shot it.”
Leonard then kept Utah’s Rodney Hood, who had made his first six shots of the fourth quarter, from making a drive to the basket after taking an in-bounds pass after his tie-breaking shot. Hood had to settle for a contested 3-point shot that bounced off the side of the rim, bounding harmlessly away as time expired.
“They always play great at home and they’re fighting for a playoff seed,” Leonard said, “so I knew it was going to be a tough game tonight.”
That Popovich put the ball in Anderson’s hands as the trigger man on the most vital in-bounds pass of the game should not be overlooked. It’s clear the second-year forward from UCLA, still just 22, has earned a significant spot in Popovich’s playoff plans. Against the Jazz he made 4-of-5 shots and scored 11 points. He also had four assists, chief among them the pass to Leonard for the game winner.
“He was our best player,” Popovich said after Tuesday’s game. “He played a great floor game. He made big shots, made big passes, played great defense. He was wonderful tonight.”
Leonard finished with 18 points to lead the Spurs, who won despite giving up a 16-point lead in the fourth quarter and actually trailing, 84-83, with a minute left.
Veteran guard Tony Parker launched a three-point shot with just enough loft to exceed the long arm of 7-foot-1 Rudy Gobert, getting the lead back for the Spurs with 38.7 seconds left.
Parker wasn’t happy about losing such a comfortable lead in the fourth period but found a positive spin for it.
“To be honest with you, I thought it was a great game to prepare for the playoffs and execute at the end,” he told FoxSports Southwest broadcasters Bill Land and Sean Elliott in a televised post-game interview. “In the playoffs it’s going to be like that – high intensity and guys getting hot. They’re fighting for the playoffs so that was a great game for us to get ready for Golden State.”
Presumably, Parker meant Thursday’s game against the league-leading Warriors at Oracle Arena in Oakland, but he may also have been thinking of a potential Western Conference Finals matchup against the defending league champions.
The win was the 65th of the season for the Spurs, adding one more game to their status as the most successful regular season team in franchise history.
Top image: The San Antonio Spurs 2015-2016 Roster and Coaching Staff. Photo by Scott Ball.