Duncan's free-throw improvements key for Spurs surge
SAN ANTONIO (AP) -- With his teammates watching and waiting, Tim Duncan stood at the foul line during practice Wednesday.
It is where he likely will end up often in the upcoming Western Conference semifinals, whether the Spurs play Utah or Dallas. Both teams fouled him often this season as Duncan struggled from the line.
On Wednesday, no game was on the line -- only more sprints for his teammates if he missed. That, he said, was probably more pressure.
"You've got all your guys counting on you," he said, smiling. "Standing up there and them not wanting to run anymore, and you not wanting to run anymore."
The Spurs advanced to the Western Conference semifinals, which will begin Saturday, after beating Minnesota in four games in the best-of-five first-round series. They will play the winner of the Utah-Dallas series, which is tied 2-2 and wraps up Thursday night.
Duncan, the Spurs' top scorer and rebounder, made 76 percent of his free throws last season. But late in the season this year, his percentage had tumbled to 58.
Using the Hack-a-Tim approach never worked for Utah or Dallas -- the Spurs pulled out victories anyway.
The Jazz sent Duncan to the line 21 times on their court on Jan. 27. Duncan only made 11, but the Spurs won 99-86. Against Dallas on Feb. 13 and Feb. 24, Duncan went 14-of-24 and 10-of-14.
But then, on March 27, Duncan went 12-of-12 against Charlotte, and the curse appeared to be broken. In the next game, against Utah, he went 15-of-18 and he later went 16-of-19 against Denver.
By the end of the season, he pulled his average up to 62 percent. In the first four playoff games, he went 22-of-34 (65 percent).
"We're really proud of the improvement," teammate Avery Johnson said.
That only adds to the strength of the Spurs, who won all four games against Utah this year en route to compiling the best record in the NBA. They beat Dallas three times and lost just once, by two points.
The Spurs also would be fed by their intense rivalry with the Jazz, who knocked them out of the Western Conference semifinals three years ago in five games. San Antonio has never met the Mavericks in the playoffs.
Now, the Spurs only wish they knew which one to focus on.
"They're going to play it out, so that's how it goes," Duncan said.
In the meantime, the Spurs get four days to prepare and rest. Their opponent will have only one day off.
On Wednesday, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich ran them hard in a nearly two-hour practice.
"Those of us who have had experience in waiting know how to manage our bodies better," Johnson said. "Sometimes during the playoffs, you have more days off in between games and you can get a little lackadaisical.
"You're not playing back-to-back games every other night like you are during the regular season, so you can tend to lose a little conditioning.
"We don't want to let that happen."