Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Express News: Coach Tim Making Presence Felt

By Mike Finger

In a few years, Jacque Vaughn will be looking for work as an NBA coach. The competition among cerebral, well-liked former players will be fierce and the openings will be in short supply, but Vaughn already is pretty sure he won't have to worry about beating out one potential applicant.

“Timmy (Duncan) has no chance,” Vaughn said. “He doesn't have nearly enough patience for it.”

If he ever had the patience to begin with, nights like Tuesday ensure it won't last long. As the Spurs and their guests spent much of the evening trying to prove that a sexual harassment trial wasn't necessarily the ugliest chapter in New York Knicks history, Duncan watched a patched-together crew of no-name rookies and creaky-kneed old-timers make the wrong cuts, miss the open man and fumble away entry passes.

And then?

Coach Tim made a few adjustments.

Gregg Popovich did his share of tinkering, too, but even he admitted he can't do as much with his words as Duncan can. Popovich said Duncan is “the biggest reason we've got a comfort level out there,” and the fact that the Spurs have any kind of a comfort level at all without Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili is a story in itself.

But the other news is that as the Spurs have limped to their worst start in the Duncan era — a 1-4 skid they finally ended with a 92-80 victory at the AT&T Center on Tuesday — Duncan has reeled off one of his best stretches as an on-court member of Popovich's staff.

He's taken George Hill aside and reminded him about the importance of moving without the ball. He's been in the ear of Anthony Tolliver and barking orders on defense. He's pointed at Roger Mason Jr. and waved him in the right direction. He's taken control of timeouts, and, on at least one occasion against the Knicks, gathered his teammates around him for extra instruction after Popovich was finished with them.

This is no longer the lead-by-example MVP. This is now the lead-by-telling-you-you'd-better-dang-well-hedge-on-that-next-screen-or-you're-going-to-be-running-extra-wind-sprints Popovich-in-training.

“Five years ago, I don't know if Timmy would have felt comfortable doing that kind of stuff,” said Vaughn, the 11th-year backup point guard who's doing his own share of mentoring in the locker room these days. “Now, with this team, it's kind of a necessity.”

And it's not as though Duncan's teammates are the only ones who are noticing. Before Tuesday's game, when someone asked Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni about the Spurs' early-season struggles, D'Antoni responded by saying, “You know Popovich and Duncan will eventually figure it out,” as if the power forward was as much responsible for coming up with a solution as the head coach.

This seemed perfectly reasonable when talking about the Spurs, but it's still unique. That quote wouldn't have made as much sense, for instance, if another coach had subbed the words “Popovich and Duncan” with “D'Antoni and Marbury.”

Duncan has as much influence on his organization as any player in the league, and while that's not a recent development, the way he's exerted it has evolved. In the preseason, Duncan was a regular fixture in the coaches' huddles at the start of timeouts, and an hour before Tuesday's tipoff, he was conducting an impromptu film session with Mason and Hill in the locker room.

Popovich said it's Duncan's empathy, more than anything else that makes him an effective leader.

“He allows people to feel comfortable,” Popovich said. “He doesn't make them feel foolish.”

Sometimes he toes the line, though. After Hill didn't complete a move to the basket early in Tuesday's game, Duncan scowled and snapped at him. Repeatedly this season, Duncan has told Hill to fake high before cutting low.

Later, after Hill made a cut in the second half, Duncan walked over to him again. And this time, he congratulated his rookie point guard on following instructions.

Hill, who was expecting another lecture, couldn't believe it.

“I didn't even realize I did it,” Hill said. “It just kind of soaked in, I guess.”

Coach Tim would take some satisfaction in that comment, which has implications for Vaughn and his job search, too.

He might end up with some competition yet.

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