They had been forgotten and ignored. Considered too old, too slow, too ineffective. Their best days were supposed to be behind them. There was no way that they were going to keep up with the quicker, healthier, more athletic young ones, or was there? The best they could do is to quietly survive the last few years of their career and retire in peace.
Wrong! If you woke up at any point this week and confirmed your calendar – not for the date or the month, but for the year – I wouldn’t blame you. It is 2012, all right. But the way Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett have been playing in these playoffs, you’ll be forgiven into mistaking that we may be in the early 2000s at this point. The two power forwards, with a combined 71 years riding on their old knees and 32 years of NBA experience, are playing some of their most influential basketball in years.
While the young NBA fans and hype-machine dream of seeing LeBron, Wade, Durant, or Westbrook to dominate this time of the year, the NBA title may well come down to a final showdown between two of the greatest power forwards of all time.
There is little left to be said about their respective, incredible careers. Drafted in 1995, Garnett has won an MVP award, a championship, a Defensive Player of the Year Award, and been part of the NBA’s All Star Team 14 times. He has a career average of 19.3 ppg and 10.6 rpg. His best year was 2004, when he averaged 24.2 and 13.9.
Drafted in 1997, Duncan has won 2 MVP awards, 4 championships, 3 Finals MVP Awards, and been an All Star 13 times. He has a career average of 16.6 ppg and 9 rpg. His best year was probably 2002, when he averaged 27.6 ppg and 14.4 rpg.
Once considered to be two of the finest players in the world, Duncan and Garnett have been less than relevant in the past few years, and the last time they made the All NBA First Team was in 2007 and 2008 respectively. Those were also the years that each of them last won a championship. Since then, neither player’s team – the Spurs or the Celtics – have added any other big name stars, and instead, the All Star caliber players on each team have only gotten older and slower. Duncan, Ginobili, and Parker are not the force they were five years ago, but San Antonio has done a good job in surrounding them with deep, young pool of semi-talented players. Garnett, Pierce, and Allen are all in their mid-30s, and it has been the development of young point guard Rajon Rondo into a superstar that has kept the Celtics more than relevant this season.
Garnett turns 36 tomorrow, and Duncan is 36 years old too, and the two have faced each other several times in their storied careers. In the last 15 years, big men had come and gone, risen and fallen, but Garnett and Duncan remained. Over the past season, they were but former shells of themselves, resigned to shoulder less of a burden of their team’s success. Duncan averaged 15.4 ppg and 9 rpg this season while Garnett had modest numbers too, of 15.8 and 8.2. While Duncan and Garnett suffered the inevitable ravages of time, all around them younger big men came and made a name for themselves: Dwight Howard, Chris Bosh, Blake Griffin, Amar’e Stoudemire, Andrew Bynum, Kevin Love, and Al Horford.
But as the playoffs started to inch closer, there were signs that the older gods weren’t done just yet. Duncan’s Spurs won the last 10 games of the season and improved to tie with Chicago for the best record in the league. Garnett’s Celtics suddenly became the hottest team in the league, mostly because of KG’s suddenly improved play.
And since the playoffs have begun, the improvement has been drastic, so much so that it’ll be hard to find big men playing better basketball than Duncan and Garnett at this point. Chris Bosh and Dwight Howard are out injured. Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol have been maddeningly inconsistent for the Lakers all postseason. Blake Griffin has realised that scoring in the playoffs isn’t as easy. Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap together struggled to dominate Duncan. And when he isn’t out punching fire extinguishers, Amar’e Stoudemire has become a shade of his former self.
Meanwhile, Duncan is averaging 16.6 ppg and 9 rpg for the Spurs, who are so far a perfect 6-0 in the postseason. He has particularly dominated Blake Griffin and the Clippers in the first two games of the series. Out in the East, Garnett has been nothing short of a beast. He has improved his playoff average to 20.3 and 11, and has the old Celtics looking like contenders again. For both, the influence on court has been far more than just their numbers. Their effort on defense and leadership has made them two of the most effective players in the postseason.
And there’s a little drama, too. In a recent Sports Illustrated story, it was revealed that, over the last decade and a half, Duncan has no love lost for Garnett. As a matter of fact, the story reveals that Duncan hates him. In personality, the two legends couldn’t be more opposite to each other: Duncan is known for being the stoic, calm, quiet killer; while Garnett is perhaps the most intense and aggressive NBA players of all time. Duncan, who has spent the majority of his career in a far better team situation, has had much more success than Garnett. But whenever Garnett has had the same type of team support (in Minnesota in 2004, in Boston from 2008-present), he has shown that he can be a winner, too.
However much the two may differ in personality, it is this common theme – their passion to win – that will always tie the legends of the two greats together. At one time, Duncan vs. Garnett was one of the most intriguing head-to-head match-ups in the NBA, like today’s Kobe vs. LeBron, or LeBron vs. Durant, or Rose vs. Rondo, etc. But the two rarely met in the playoffs, and never on equal terms, so that their rivalry never grew while the two players were in their primes.
But Garnett and Duncan may have the opportunity of one last shot against each other. As their efforts so far in this postseason have shown, neither player is ready to back down quietly. At this point in their careers, both players realise that this year may be their final chance for a championship, or at least, to be major contributors to a championship side. That’s why both Garnett and Duncan have stepped up several notches, leaving everything that they have on the court for this one last run. A few days ago, Garnett even said that he was ready to die for the Celtics; he already has five 20-point games in the playoffs. Duncan showed his passion in typical silence, instead blasting Blake Griffin for 26 and 10 points in Game 1 of the Second Round.
Will there finally be a mega showdown at the biggest stage – the NBA Finals – between two of the greatest players of the last decade? While the rest of the young bigs around the league suffer to keep up with the pressure and strain of the playoffs, it is the surprise resurgence of the old school that may well decide who lifts the trophy this season.