MEMPHIS – Gregg Popovich took his team into Friday’s Game 3 of the Spurs-Grizzlies first-round playoff series with two goals: Get a win to go up, 3-0, in the best-of-seven set; and do what he could to keep his oldest players fresh for the quick turnaround to Sunday’s Game 4.

He succeeded on both counts, but soon-to-be 40-year-old Tim Duncan’s curtailed court time – he played only 13-and-a-half minutes of a 96-87 win, a playoff career low – had little to do with minimizing the physical toll on knees that require stabilization from high-tech braces.

It was Memphis coach Dave Joerger, not Popovich, who dictated the truncation of the minutes played by the Spurs captain. Trying anything to change the flow of the series after his team was blown out in Games 1 and 2, Joerger went with a small lineup — a single big man, two small forwards and two guards – through most of the game.

Simply stated, Duncan doesn’t do small ball. One of the greatest post defenders in NBA history, his aching knees have robbed him of the ability to stay with smaller players on the perimeter. He can still block shots – he had two on Friday – but with all the defensive switching required to match up defensively against small lineups he spent all but two-and-a-half minutes of the second half cheering on his teammates from the bench.

Since the Grizzlies were competitive for the first time in the series on Friday it would be foolish to think Joerger won’t put his small lineups on the floor for Game 4 at FedEx Forum on Sunday afternoon (Noon, CDT) in an attempt to keep his team from being eliminated in four games.

Duncan doesn’t like his role as a $5.25 million cheerleader but accepts it because winning surpasses everything in his ultra-competitive world.

“Of course (It’s tough to sit and watch),” he said. “It’s the playoffs and I want to be out there but I’m here to win. Whatever it takes, it takes.

“(Small ball) is where the league’s going and where the league has been going. We’ve made adjustments in that respect but it is what it is. You’ve got to have people who are prepared for it and you’ve got to have people to play it.”

It is a fact of Spurs life that Boris Diaw, despite his bulk, is more adept at the switching, side-to-side individual defensive play required in matching up against small lineups.

“Oh, you can see (from) two years back that he is a huge deal,” Duncan said. “When it was small ball we’d put him in the post and he was able to make plays and obviously he is a very good passer. So again, we’re prepared with different lineups to see what works and he’s just another option we have.”

The option for Duncan has been to do everything he can to support his teammates from the bench and to offer advice at every opportunity.

Popovich expected nothing less from one of the greatest leaders ever to wear silver and black. Nevertheless, he marvels at Duncan’s selfless attitude and calls it just one more example of his leadership.

“He’s always been a leader by example,” Popovich said. “He’s not a towel guy or a big verbal guy, but he’s a touch guy. You’ll see him in timeouts, if he’s not in the game, he’s up. He’s got his hands on somebody’s shoulders. He’s talking to somebody about what’s going on on the court; trying to make them feel comfortable. He’s there before practice every day. His example has just been something that’s been inspirational to everybody; especially young guys who come in and see him doing what he does.

“So he doesn’t have to speak it. He just walks it.”

If the Spurs walk off the FedEx Forum court on Sunday with the ninth playoff sweep of Duncan’s and Popovich’s playoff careers, the great big man won’t mind whatever role he plays.

*Top Image: Spurs Power Forward Tim Duncan stretches moments before game 1 of the 2015-2016 NBA Playoffs versus the Memphis Grizzlies begin.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Mike Monroe is a longtime, award-winning sports journalist who has covered the NBA for the San Antonio Express-News and other publications.