Duncan announced his retirement from basketball on July 11, signaling the end of an era for the team in silver and black. The 5-time NBA champion, 2-time NBA MVP, 3-time Finals MVP, and 15-time All Star made the decision on his terms, eschewing the pomp that would have accompanied an announcement in season — a la Kobe Bryant's Farewell Tour — in favor of a simple message delivered to the Spurs organization.
Now that Duncan has officially hung up his sneakers, though, it would be difficult not to look back and remember all those games he logged against the Suns.
He suited up against the Suns 95 times over the regular season and playoffs. That total ranks just behind the Dallas Mavericks (100 games) and Los Angeles Lakers (96) for his career. Over those 95 games, he led his Spurs to a 59-36 record against Phoenix while averaging 21.4 points, 12.1 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks. Thirty of those 95 games were played in the postseason, and Duncan helped San Antonio to a 19-11 record in the playoffs and 5-1 series record against Phoenix as his individual stats jumped to 23.2 points, 13.2 rebounds, and 3.1 blocks.
In a career destined for the Hall of Fame, Duncan seemed to spend an inordinate amount of time making life miserable for Suns fans. While Amar'e Stoudemire was putting up 37 points per game in the 2005 Western Conference Finals against the Spurs, Duncan was there averaging 27.4 points and 13.8 rebounds to offset Stoudemire's production and help his Spurs to a 4-1 series win. He dominated Phoenix's front line again in 2007, closing out the Suns in Game 6 of the Western Conference Semifinals with a 24-point, 13-rebound, nine-block performance.
So daunting was Duncan's presence that it precipitated the trade of Shawn Marion for an aging Shaquille O'Neal in an ill-fated effort to thwart Duncan in the middle. It did not help, as Duncan buried a spirit-killing 3-pointer at the end of the first overtime in Game 1 of the 2008 Western Conference Quarterfinals to keep San Antonio alive and escape with the win in double overtime. The Spurs would go on to take yet another series from Phoenix, leaving the Suns in disarray in the process.
The Suns would get a modicum of revenge in 2010, sweeping Duncan and the Spurs in four games during the Western Conference Semifinals despite a Duncan elbow to Steve Nash's eye in Game 4. But by then Duncan had already stood as an insurmountable wall during Phoenix's prime opportunity to create it's own dynasty and win a championship, much like Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls did to the New York Knicks and Miami Heat in the 90's.
As frustrating as it was to watch Duncan and the Spurs prevail time and again over the Suns, Duncan himself never became a true villain in Phoenix. He was disliked, but not because he was arrogant or spiteful or pompous. He was disliked because he was too good. (Well, that and for the way his big, googly eyes would pop out of his head every time he was whistled for a foul.) For all the attention players like Robert Horry and Bruce Bowen received for their roles in keeping the Suns down, none of their antics would have mattered a lick if Duncan hadn't been there patrolling the paint.
Duncan's game and personality earned him a respect from Suns fans that few opponents responsible for so much heartache ever receive. That respect ticked up even more when The Big Fundamental spent a couple days last summer working with Alex Len, who reportedly took plenty of notes during that period. (Although based on his play, Alex likely made the mistake of writing them down on his hand, where they were rendered illegible by his sweat.)
For many Suns fans, this will be the first season they ever see the Suns take on the Spurs without Duncan on the team. Sure, Gregg Popovich would rest Duncan often in these final few years, and sure, he had long since ceded his place as "the man" on the team to Tony Parker, Kawhi Leonard, and LaMarcus Aldridge. Despite all that, the Spurs were —and always would be — Duncan's team.
That's over now.
The echoes from those fantastic playoff battles are growing fainter, the silhouette of Duncan stalking the court — unbending knees and all — slowly drawing farther away in time. But lest this begin to sound like a requiem for a man who hasn't died, let us instead focus on what all Suns fans were privileged to enjoy — several years of watching one of the best to ever play line up opposite our own future Hall of Famer.
Thank you, Tim. From the bottom of my heart as a Suns fan, let me say this: While I may have hated what you did, I loved the way you did it. Enjoy your retirement.