Duncan was more than solid Sunday. He was superb. And he proved his value as much in his absence as in his presence.
After bumping knees with Monta Ellis and falling to the floor, Duncan had to ask out of the game with 3:24 remaining in the third quarter. The Spurs trailed by two when he exited. By the time he had made a trip to the locker room to change his knee brace and was ready to check back in with 9:26 remaining in the fourth, San Antonio was now down by six and was lost on offense. The Spurs went 2-for-12 as a team in that nearly six-minute stretch without him, according to data compiled by ESPN Stats & Information.
"Honestly, I was a little selfish at that point," Duncan said. "I was a little more concerned with my knee than what was going on out there. I kind of had my head down, just trying to make sure everything felt good and I was ready to go when that time came."
He stayed selfish when he returned to the game, in a good way. Duncan scored nine points in the final frame to help fuel a 17-1 spurt by the Spurs that turned a 10-point deficit with 7:45 to go into a six-point lead with 1:46 remaining. Tony Parker, who chipped in 21 points and six assists, said that he and Duncan paced themselves all season long to be able to play extended minutes in crunch time, as they did against the Mavs.
It's hard to fault Dallas for its game plan. After all, the Mavs had lost nine straight games to the Spurs (now 10, after Sunday's loss). Something needed to change. But to not specifically try to take Duncan out of it -- even if he's aging, even if he was one of six Spurs to average between 10-17 points per game this season (15.1) and not the dominant scorer he once was -- almost seems silly in retrospect. Especially considering that Playoff Tim Duncan (21.9 points, 12.0 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 2.4 blocks) has always been an even bigger beast than Regular-Season Tim Duncan (19.9 points, 11.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 2.2 blocks). And this is Playoff Tim Duncan recognizing that this could be one of his last runs at it.
"It's always a great time and I always look forward to it," Duncan said. "It's a different intensity, a different level and obviously it means more. So, I'm always excited around this time. I think now, I might be even more excited because I know there are only a couple more left in my career. I'm excited and I'm going to take the opportunity and really remember it."
The Spurs were eight minutes away from making like Indiana, Toronto and the L.A. Clippers on Saturday, giving away the higher seeding they worked so hard to get the first chance that presented itself. Instead, in these nascent NBA playoffs, they can identify more with another team sharing a championship-or-bust mentality, Oklahoma City, which had its resolve strengthened with a Game 1 scare from Memphis when the Thunder let a 25-point lead dwindle all the way down to two.
As Popovich said, it's good to get a little nervous. It proves that you're alive. As long as Duncan is setting the tone for San Antonio, those nerves will simply be transferred into positive energy, like gusts of wind hitting a windmill.
"He is the base from which everything else occurs," Popovich said. "It just gives us a comfort level and a point from which to operate."
More games like Sunday out of Duncan, and Popovich could have some championship champagne in store to make up for that wine he missed out on the night before the playoffs.