There was a time Tony Parker was benched in the fourth quarters in favor of Speedy Claxton. In the NBA Finals, no less. Remember when the Spurs wanted to sign Jason Kidd to replace Parker? It wasn’t that long ago when some thought Parker should be traded to make room for George Hill.
Sports are an interesting and fickle business.
Parker would know. He endured Gregg Popovich’s heavy hand early and has stuck it out. Now the toast of San Antonio heads into his fourth Finals as the Spurs’ unquestioned leader. Sure, Tim Duncan remains the Alpha Male and foundation of the franchise, while Manu Ginobili’s flair and charisma resonates with South Texans.
But at a modest 6-foot-1, Parker stands tallest.
“It’s an honor to be the guy for a franchise like the Spurs,” Parker said after San Antonio nailed down its fifth Western Conference title and place in the Finals.
“And you’ve got Timmy and Manu and all my teammates, they’re counting on me. And Pop shows so much confidence that it makes me want to play great, and that’s why my teammates, they push me to get better.”
When it comes to basketball capacity, no one currently in silver and black plays in Parker’s league. That includes Duncan, who happens to be an All-NBA first-teamer this season.
“I’m riding coattails right now,” Duncan admitted. “TP has been great. He’s the reason we’re here.”
Parker, obviously, doesn’t do it alone. No team reaches the championship round on the back of one guy. Well, teams that don’t have LeBron James. The Spurs are the picture of teamwork beyond the Three Amigos of Timmy, Tony and Manu.
Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Tiago Splitter plus an extended bench have positioned the Spurs four wins away from their first crown since 2007.
Parker was the Finals MVP six years ago. He’s even better now. Instead of being the best player in one series, Parker has been the best Spur all season. The 31-year-old Frenchman was mentioned prominently in league MVP discussions before an ankle injury robbed him of March.
“I’ve said it a lot of times this year, I thought he played better than any point guard in the league,” Popovich said. “He got hurt and then he got a little unsteady for a while getting back from the ankle, but once we got in the playoffs he started returning to the form that he was up until that point.
“And he’s been fantastic, making the All-NBA second team really was deserved and he was moved by it. It meant a lot to him. And he’s continued to play the way you’ve seen at both ends of the court. He’s playing defense, also, but people just look at his scoring.”
It’s hard not to notice that scoring. Parker scores more points in the paint than any guard not named Kobe Bryant, but we’ve known that for years. A deadly jumper that extends beyond the arc has turned Parker into a pony of many tricks.
In the West finals alone against Memphis, Parker scored a season-high 37 in one game and dished out a career-high 18 assists in another. Parker often gets lost in the point-guard talk dominated in recent years by Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Russell Westbrook, Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose.
That happens to Spurs. The spotlight doesn’t shine enough on San Antonio, despite five trips to the Finals in 14 years. Parker, like everyone else there, doesn’t seem to care. It’s about basketball, nothing else.
“I’m improving every year,” Parker said. “I try to improve in every aspect of the game, try to be good defensively, offensively be the engine for the team, try to be a better passer, a better shooter, a better free-throw shooter and a better clutch performer in the fourth quarter.”
Parker is all of those now and the Spurs are reaping the benefits. While the obvious storyline for these Finals, at least from San Antonio’s angle, is Duncan’s likely last hurrah, Parker is just as appreciative to get back.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” he said. “It’s really hard to go to the Finals, to win a championship, and for me personally, I was 21 when I won my first one, and you think it’s easy and you’re going to go back every year. In 2007 we won our third one in five years, and you think it’s going to keep coming, and I’m 25, and six years goes by, and every year it gets tougher and tougher.
“Every team wants to beat you, and that’s why it makes it even more special to go back after all those years playing at a high level with the same coach, with the same Big Three, but changing a couple of pieces.”
Many of those pieces have come and gone. Parker could’ve, too, but the Spurs wouldn’t be here without him.