The ageless wonder that is Tim Duncan put up 28 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in the Spurs’ much-needed 111–107 overtime win over the Clippers on Wednesday night to even their first-round series with Los Angeles at one game apiece. Along the way, he passed the 5,000-point career postseason scoring mark—just the fifth player in NBA history to do so.
The soon-to-be 39-year-old trails only Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Kobe Bryant, and Shaquille O’Neal on the all-time scoreboard. It’s a star-studded list that was once led by Kareem, who retired 26 years ago with a more than 1,000-point lead on Julius Irving, in second.
Abdul-Jabbar was actually the original ageless wonder. Playing effectively just past his 42nd birthday, the NBA’s all-time leading regular-season scorer was still the focal point of L.A.’s Showtime offense through 1986—the year he turned 39.
The Lakers, defending champions at the time, had won the West four straight seasons and five of the past six years. But they were defeated at the hands of the upstart Houston Rockets and their young twin towers, Ralph Sampson and Akeem Olajuwon (who later changed his first name to Hakeem), in the conference finals.
After the season Pat Riley, the Lakers coach for much of the Showtime era, decided that finally a switch was needed and that the offense would run through Magic Johnson instead of the aging Kareem. (Most coaches could only dream of having to decide which Hall-of-Famer to run the offense through.)
The change worked and L.A. won titles again in ’87 and ’88, with Kareem as the secondary option, before Detroit’s “Bad Boys” stopped them in the Finals the following season—Kareem’s 20th and final one.
Ironically, when Duncan arrived in San Antonio as a rookie in 1997, he teamed with future Hall-of-Famer David Robinson to form the NBA’s newest version of the twin towers. They both averaged better than 21 points a game that season, but were bounced in the playoffs by Utah in the second round.
After that one season, the Spurs and coach Popovich pulled a Pat Riley and decided Duncan would be the new primary option—and it worked. The team won their first title in 1999 with the 33-year-old Robinson now as the secondary option. (Robinson actually stayed in the role through 2003, retiring after their second title.)
The Spurs of course have come full circle with Duncan, yet he’s still able to turn back the clock when the postseason starts.
Though Duncan hasn’t led the team in scoring since 2010, Wednesday night’s virtuoso performance (his 100th 20-point, 10-rebound career effort in the playoffs) was indicative of how he’s been in his later years.
Last season, the 6-foot-11 power forward/center (depending on your view) averaged 16.3 points (a point better than he put up in the regular season) and 9.2 rebounds per game in the playoffs to lead the Spurs to their fifth title, even though younger players Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard are more the focal point of Popovich’s offense.
It’s proved to be a winning formula in the past.