Return of Tim Duncan: Having MVP back better than win

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Forget the final score. Don't sweat the playoff race. The Spurs felt like big winners on Wednesday anyway.

That's what adding a two-time league MVP back to the rotation just in time for the playoffs will do. Tim Duncan played for the first time since badly spraining his right ankle more than three weeks ago, and that mattered a lot more to the Spurs than Mehmet Okur's game-winning shot.

"It was pretty exciting" to have Duncan back, said guard Tony Parker. "I can't wait to see him play more minutes."

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich shares that sentiment. He just doesn't want to see it happen too soon. That's why Duncan, who wasn't planning to play before Saturday until he felt terrific during a Wednesday morning workout, was on the floor for only 20 minutes -- "four more than I wanted," Popovich said.

"I was always pushing for a little more time. That's my plot. But Pop's the intelligent one, and luckily he's the coach and I'm not," Duncan said. "I was asking in the entire game, he's gotten to the point where he just ignores me."

But wasn't there quite a bit of temptation with 2.4 seconds left and the Spurs down a point? Wasn't the coach tempted to give Duncan a chance to beat the Jazz, something he's made a hobby of for several years?

"Not a bit, not a bit," the coach insisted. "I don't want to fall for fool's gold now and put him in a position where that ankle's too weak" come playoff time.

Besides, though nobody in a Spurs uniform will ever admit it, falling two games back of Phoenix in the loss column isn't exactly a disaster. The West's No. 1 seed, now almost certainly the Suns, will draw Dallas in the second round, a fate that San Antonio probably would rather pass up.

So the mood in the Spurs' locker room was practically giddy over good times to come, with the loss to the Jazz just a minor irritant. San Antonio went 8-4 while its captain recuperated, and Duncan's 6-for-7 shooting, 17 points and seven rebounds gives the Spurs reason to think he won't take long to get in playoff shape.

"He had his touch, he ran the floor pretty good and he had good wind. That's what I was really impressed with. He's been working hard to keep his wind up and it showed tonight," Popovich said. "What he can't do yet is move laterally real well, start and stop, but I thought his timing and passing overall were pretty good considering how long it's been since he played."

The time off affected him mentally, but not physically, Duncan said. "It just felt weird being around bodies, watching where you land," he said. And the most-watched ankle in central Texas? "It felt pretty good once it got warmed up,"

The Spurs believe they will do the same.