- J.A. Adande, NBA
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LOS ANGELES -- It was a more devastating injury than Derrick Rose's torn ACL, bigger than Chris Bosh's strained abdomen, and no one ever talks about it. It's tucked into a box among the most obscure NBA mementos, like the fact the 1971 NBA Finals were played in a 1-1-1-1-1-1-1 format.
The injury was too significant to be forgotten so easily. It was an injury that involved a reigning champion and a future MVP. It deprived a team of a legitimate chance to win back-to-back titles and probably gave birth to a mini-dynasty.
On April 11, 2000, Tim Duncan tore the lateral meniscus in his left knee in the 78th game of the season. He missed the final four games of the regular season and forced Spurs coach Gregg Popovich into a monumental decision: go with Duncan in the playoffs, or keep him on the sidelines.
Duncan didn't make it easier.
"I was doing everything I could to get ready to play," Duncan said.
He ran sprints up and down the court to show he could still move. But there was a loose bit of cartilage flapping around in his knee. The joint could have locked up at any moment.
Popovich was just too worried about his asset.
"He was young, a franchise player," Popovich said. "He wasn't just a No. 1 pick. With him, you've got an opportunity to win multiple championships, if you don't screw it up. I didn't know if [the injury] could get worse, or get chronic."
Popovich liked his team, and he liked its chances. He just liked Duncan even more. He told Duncan to shut it down.
"I don't know if it was right or wrong," Popovich said. "But we did it."
Without Duncan, the Spurs took only a single game from the Phoenix Suns in the first round and were quickly dispatched. Suddenly, this wasn't just about the Spurs; it was about the Los Angeles Lakers as well.
In the second round, the undersized Suns didn't stand a chance against the Lakers, who took them out in five games. You can't overlook the fact that a still-developing Lakers team that was figuring out how to win on the fly did not have to face the Spurs, the defending champions, who had swept L.A. out of the playoffs the year before. Somehow this tidbit didn't even make Bill Simmons' extensive "Footnote Title" list, in which he broke down the forgotten backstories for seemingly every championship team in the past 40 years.
The Lakers had just struggled to beat the eighth-seeded Sacramento Kings in the first round, getting pushed to an elimination game before Shaquille O'Neal even had a chance to receive his Most Valuable Player award. They later would be taken to seven games by the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference finals. They could have been had.
Instead, they went on to win the championship. The fragile bond between O'Neal and Kobe Bryant was strengthened just enough by that triumph to enable them to stick together long enough to win two more and get to the Finals a fourth time.
By the time the Spurs did get another chance at the Lakers in the playoffs, the Lakers were surging with confidence, in the midst of their three-peat, and they swept right past San Antonio in 2001.
Fast-forward to Saturday afternoon at Staples Center in Los Angeles. The Spurs are having the most impressive run we've seen since that 2001 Lakers team. The 36-year-old Duncan is right there in the middle, still putting up double-doubles, while Shaq is on the TNT set in Atlanta and Kobe has his hands full with the young Oklahoma City Thunder.
Duncan had 19 points and 13 rebounds in the Spurs' 96-86 victory over the Clippers on Saturday. After winding up on the business end of a Blake Griffin dunk during a first half in which the Clippers toyed with the Spurs for a good 20 minutes, Duncan had a play that symbolized San Antonio's comeback from a 24-point deficit when he blocked a later Griffin dunk attempt.
Not this time, young fella.
San Antonio has not only remained relevant, it's become dominant. The Spurs haven't lost since April 11. They've won seven playoff games by an average of 16.5 points.
Duncan is playing his best ball of the season lately. He made 59 percent of his shots in April. He recently uncorked a spin move that a longtime Spurs observer hadn't seen him use in years.
Duncan and the Spurs have become the standard for longevity, a distinction that makes Duncan feel "very fortunate."
"I understand what I'm in, I understand the situation I'm in," Duncan said. "It doesn't happen for a lot of people. The organization, the players, the coach -- in every respect, I've been blessed. I understand it every day, and I appreciate it every day."
And he's come to appreciate Popovich's decision to sit him down in 2000. Even though he might not have liked it at the time.
"He's always been the voice of reason," Duncan said.
We don't know whether Duncan could have pushed the Spurs past the Lakers and to the one prize that has eluded them during this run of excellence that dates back to the 1990s: consecutive championships. We also don't know whether Duncan would have wrecked his knee and turned into another Grant Hill, who pushed his injured body to the limit and found his body pushed him back and down from superstar status.
We do know that after Duncan rested and had his knee surgically repaired, he went on to win two Most Valuable Player awards and three more championships, and currently holds the pole position in the race for the 2012 title.
Duncan hates stating the obvious, so he left it for someone else to lay out the many dividends Popovich's decision has paid, how wise it looks in retrospect, with Duncan topping it off with a single word: "Exactly."
Gregg Popovich's good judgment with a Tim Duncan injury is paying dividends more than a decade later, writes J.A. Adande.