The Spurs concluded the 2016 version of their rodeo road trip in historic fashion on Saturday night in Houston. Their 104-94 win over the Rockets at Toyota Center included a pair of significant milestones for their 39-year-old team captain, plus a team milestone that delineates the franchise’s remarkable sustained success.
With an emphatic block of a James Harden runner with 6:17 remaining in the first quarter Tim Duncan became just the fifth player in NBA history with 3,000 blocks. Later in the game he moved past Karl Malone into sixth place on the league’s all-time rebounds list. He finished with six rebounds for the game, 14,971 for his career.
Duncan joined Hall of Famers Hakeem Olajuwon, Dikembe Mutombo, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Utah’s Mark Eaton in the exclusive 3,000 blocks club.
The block typified Duncan’s defensive excellence in the last few seasons of his career, as it was a product of perfect positioning and timing but hardly a result of athleticism. His feet, he admitted, never left the floor.
“I haven’t gotten off the floor since my 2,000th block,” he said, laughing at his own punch line.
Duncan said the feats will eventually resonate, but insisted he makes a point of remaining ignorant of such minutiae.
“You (media) guys tell me after they happen,” he said. “I’m not really out there chasing them. It is what it is and I’m honored to be mentioned with some of these guys’ names but I’m not out there chasing them.”
Then there was a Spurs milestone with real gravitas. The win was the 50th of the season, extending San Antonio’s NBA record of consecutive seasons with at least 50 wins to 17. They reached win No. 50 in just 59 games, seventh-fastest to 50 wins in league history, and faster than any previous Spurs team had reached the 50-win mark.
They did it at the conclusion of the second-most successful rodeo trip since their move to the AT&T Center for the 2002-03 season required a long excursion, usually around the All-Star break, while the San Antonio Stock Show and Rodeo took over their home venue. Their win over the Rockets was their fifth straight on the trip and gave them a 7-1 record.
Only the inaugural trip in 2003 produced a better mark, only because it was one game long. Those Spurs went 8-1.
This trip was significant for the team chemistry developed among a roster that includes six newcomers. Gregg Popovich took note of the maturation he saw during the excursion that began on Feb. 9, in Miami, and covered 6,541 air miles.
“Camaraderie is always a big thing, especially with new players getting used to each other,” the Spurs coach said. “Break bread and find out about each other’s families and it helps you want to play together. That’s usually the big thing and, obviously, you want to improve and I think we got a little bit better.”
Point guard Tony Parker, who has been with Popovich and Duncan for 14 seasons, said last year’s rodeo trip, at 4-5, served as inspiration for this season’s trip. Recalling how games he felt the Spurs gave away on that trip hurt the team at season’s end made it easier to focus this season, game to game.
“Last year was bad but we used it as motivation,” Parker said. “I think this year, all those games, we don’t want to leave any games. Last year there were so many games on the road we know we could have won. The worst was the one in New York and it cost us for the playoffs. So this year the mindset was very different and we focused on all those games.”
The Spurs’ early focus on Saturday produced a 15-point lead after just one quarter and a 30-point lead early in the third quarter. The Rockets refused to fold and got as close as 11 in the fourth, close enough for Popovich to employ Hack-A-Howard against Rockets center Dwight Howard, a 52% foul shooter.
Ultimately, the Spurs got enough offense from LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard – a combined 53 points – to close their long trip with a satisfying record guaranteed to make sleeping extra pleasant in their own beds after the short flight home to San Antonio.
“That’s the way we wanted the trip to go,” Duncan said. “It’s a great trip focus and I think we got better on this trip as a road team and matured a little bit. Obviously, our lineups are changing a little bit with our guys’ injuries. Just all around guys stepped up and we kept our focus.
All in all a great trip for us.”
*Top image: The San Antonio Spurs 2015-2016 Roster and Coaching Staff. Photo by Scott Ball.