One potential obstacle facing San Antonio: too many guys, not enough minutes. So far, there has been no griping—voluble co-captain Johnson has been particularly understanding about losing his starting role to the 37-year-old Porter—but it's obvious that, as Popovich puts it, "somebody will have to be left out of the equation." In Elliott's first game back, an 88-83 loss to the Miami Heat on Sunday, the odd man out was Malik Rose, the team's sparkplug forward, who logged only two minutes.
The one guy who certainly won't lose minutes is Duncan, who has returned from the season-ending lateral meniscus tear he suffered in his left knee last April to put up a league-leading 58 double doubles this season. After feeling his way through the first two months of the campaign, he's giving Iverson a run for the MVP award. Duncan has shed not only the protective sleeve on his knee but also any doubts about his mobility. "Around January, you could see it happen," says Popovich. "He wouldn't worry about making certain moves, and he was more fluid and dynamic driving to the basket and springing for rebounds."
Despite his stellar play, Duncan may also be the Spurs' Achilles' heel as they head into the playoffs. A career 71.0% free throw shooter, he's converting only 58.3% this season. The slump has gotten so bad that Duncan, after missing six of his first 10 against the Celtics last week, was heckled by a pair of very loud, very drunk courtside fans at the FleetCenter, who brought up the dread s word. "C'mon Shaq," one of them yelled. "Miss it!"
Some teams have tried the Hack-a-Tim strategy, most notably the Dallas Mavericks—it would have to be a Don Nelson team, of course—in a Feb. 13 loss to the Spurs in which Duncan hit 14 of 24 from the line. Asked if he's sick of all the advice being offered to remedy his woes, Duncan nods wearily. "But the way I'm shooting, I guess I deserve it," he says, "I've brought it upon myself. I just hope my touch resurfaces at the right time."
If Duncan doesn't improve, look for San Antonio to go to Anderson, a career 86.7% free throw shooter, at the end of close games in much the same way that the Los Angeles Lakers go to Kobe Bryant. "That's the whole point of having me, having Danny, having guys who can step up," says Anderson. "Tim is going to keep the game close no matter what. He doesn't have to win every game on his shot. If it comes to that, I'm not afraid to take that last shot."
No matter what happens over the next two months—and the Spurs, to a man, believe they can regain the title—it's obvious the team's prime off-season objective will be to re-sign Anderson, who recently got engaged and is building his dream house in Prospect, Ky., a suburb of his hometown of Louisville. San Antonio won't be able to offer Anderson the maximum, but it could pony up something in the $7 million range if, as expected, Robinson and other veterans agree to restructure their contracts.
Though Anderson says he hopes to retire as a Spur, he also won't rule out going somewhere else if things don't work out. As long as he can play for a winning team. One season on the bloopers tapes, it seems, was enough to last a lifetime.