Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) -
This isn't Tim Duncan's first go- round. But at age 38, it could be his last.
Dwyane Wade finds himself in a similar predicament. Though Wade probably won't be contemplating retirement any time soon, there's a very real chance the Big Three could be playing its final season together. Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh all have early termination clauses in their contracts. With Cleveland picking first in next month's draft, LeBron will be more tempted than ever to return to his home city.
To some players, it would be overwhelming to play under these circumstances. Yet here we are, a month into the playoffs, with Duncan and Wade playing some of their best basketball of the season.
But how? As Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra will tell you, it's by design.
See, while players like James Harden and Stephen Curry were busting their hump just to MAKE the playoffs, Wade and Duncan were pacing themselves so they could dominate once they got there. That's why Curry and Harden are probably out shooting a new FootLocker ad instead of chasing a championship.
Duncan's Game 1 against the Thunder was a revelation. In 29 minutes, he totaled 27 points on 11-of-19 shooting. On a court with six All-Stars, a former Sixth Man of the Year and the current league MVP, Duncan was far and away the best player. He only registered 14 points in Game 2 but with San Antonio up by 35, Duncan could have played in high heels and it wouldn't have made a difference.
Duncan has put up 16.5 ppg this postseason, nearly a point and a half higher than his regular season average (15.1 ppg in 74 appearances). It's the third year in a row Duncan has produced a higher average in the playoffs than during the regular season. Have a look for yourself.
2011-12: 15.4 ppg, 49.2 FG%
2012-13: 17.8 ppg, 50.2 FG%
2013-14: 15.1 ppg, 49.0 FG%
2011-12: 17.4 ppg, 49.5 FG%
2012-13: 18.1 ppg, 47.0 FG%
2013-14: 16.5 ppg, 52.7 FG%
Because he takes it easy during the regular season, Duncan has been able to go full throttle in the playoffs. That may frustrate fantasy owners but it's actually pretty brilliant. Watch how Duncan's minutes tapered off late in the season.
February: 31.0 mpg
March: 28.4 mpg
April: 27.7 mpg
Duncan is no spring chicken. Asking him to play 40 minutes a game at this stage of his career just isn't realistic. Neither is playing all 82 games. In fact, the last time Duncan played more than 75 regular season games was in 2011. Coincidentally (or perhaps not), that was also the last time San Antonio failed to make it out of the first round.
Sunday's game in OKC will be Duncan's 184th consecutive playoff appearance. By comparison, Russell Westbrook missed nine games last postseason while Serge Ibaka is slated to sit out this entire Western Conference Finals. Both suffered leg injuries that could have been brought on by fatigue.
Some of that's luck but the rest is strategy. By holding Duncan under 30 minutes per game three of the last four regular seasons, The Big Fundamental has been well-rested and injury-free during the playoffs.
Duncan scored fewer than ten points 11 times during the 2013-14 regular season. He hasn't done that once in the playoffs. Clearly there's a method to Pop's madness.
Erik Spoelstra has taken a similar approach to Wade and his shaky knees, limiting him to a career-low 32.9 mpg during the regular season. In 2013-14, Wade played his fewest amount of regular season contests (excluding the lockout-shortened 2012 campaign) since 2008. So naturally, he's been the leading scorer in this year's Conference Finals at 25 ppg.
Over his last five contests, Wade has converted 57.8 percent of his field goal attempts for an average of 22.6 ppg. That's well above his regular season averages of 19.0 ppg and 54.5 percent shooting. Wade's field goal percentage this postseason is actually third-highest among guards. That includes both conferences.
There's a laundry list of things Wade can't do anymore. Once a perennial All- Defensive team member, Wade hasn't made the cut since 2010. His blazing quickness isn't quite as blazing as it once was and Wade's three-point shooting, which was never a strong point, has completely evaporated (2-for-7 this postseason).
But Wade can still do damage close to the hoop and that's where he's made his living this postseason, drilling 63.4 percent of his shots from inside the paint. If the Pacers have an answer for him, we haven't seen it yet.
And don't worry about Wade slowing down either. Just like last season, Wade's scoring average has improved in each round (17.5 ppg against Charlotte, 18.2 ppg versus Brooklyn and 25.0 ppg against Indiana).
Wade and Duncan were built for this time of year. I realize that doesn't help fantasy owners much. I just thought you should know the Spurs and Heat are smarter than us.