In leading San Antonio back to the NBA Finals against the Miami Heat, the five-time all-star has never been better. Parker withstood challenges from two of the league’s rising stars during the Western Conference playoffs (Stephen Curry and Mike Conley didn’t know what hit ’em), got better as the games became bigger and proved that the new-fangled approach to playing point guard isn’t necessarily the best one.
Trying to slow down Parker in the NBA Finals, which begin Thursday in Miami, figures to be the Heat’s most difficult task. If the Heat succeeds, it would be the first opponent to put the brakes on Parker this postseason.
In the first round, the Los Angeles Lakers offered almost no resistance. Parker weaved through the Lakers’ defense in a sweep.
Parker had to work harder against Golden State during the conference semifinals as Curry’s incredible three-point shooting required Parker’s complete attention. But Curry wasn’t ready for the chess-game focus Parker brings to the battle.
Late in games, Parker often delivered textbook passes to teammates that resulted in clutch baskets. Parker ran Curry ragged (seriously, 12-year veterans aren’t supposed to stay on the move so much) while dribbling to set up plays. Or Parker located openings in the Warriors’ defense and delivered dagger shots himself. Golden State’s season ended in six games.
Up next: Memphis. Conley is a very good point guard. He runs a tight ship on offense, knows what his teammates need and understands how to play winning basketball. But at times against Parker in the conference finals, Conley looked like he was in the wrong line of work.
The Spurs’ four-game dismantling of the Grizzlies was a work of basketball art. Conley was so busy chasing Parker and guessing what Parker would do next, Conley clearly was distracted and Memphis labored on offense. Parker also was out front on defense as the Spurs harassed Grizzlies big guys Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol into time-for-vacation performances.
In each round, Parker’s scoring increased. Against Memphis, Parker averaged 24.5 points and 9.5 assists and made 53.2 percent of his field goal attempts. Curry and Conley weren’t in a fair fight, Hall of Fame point guard Isiah Thomas said.
Thomas has studied Parker, 31, since the Spurs used their first-round selection in the 2001 draft (No. 28 overall) on a skinny 19-yard-old from France. Three NBA championships later, Parker is as lightning-quick as the day he broke into the league. He’s also incredibly fast at processing everything happening on the court, Thomas said.
“Parker understands he can control the game,” Thomas said during a telephone interview Monday. “He can make it go fast. He can make it go slow. He can get his team back in the game by using the foul line,” making free throws.
“When the other team’s opposing player . . . is in foul trouble, he understands how to run plays at that guy to get him off the floor. From an intellect standpoint, he has the total game.”
Being Tim Duncan’s teammate has helped Parker become wise. Since Parker was a rookie, he has had to direct the Spurs, develop his own game and defer to a future Hall of Fame post player. That’s a lot for a young fella to handle. And in his first two seasons, Parker shared the court with two Hall of Fame big men: Duncan and David Robinson.
Not surprisingly, Parker experienced growing pains. He tried to get it all figured out while coping with Coach Gregg Popovich’s tough-love style. What came from all of that is something beautiful to see.
There are so few gifted low-post centers in the game today, “young guards . . . don’t understand that part of the game,” Thomas said. “Parker understands how to control tempo using the center position. [He] also understands how to control tempo with pick-and-roll [plays]. He has mastered the game in terms of being able to play both ways.
“Over the years, he has improved his jump shot. When he first came into the league, he wasn’t a guy who was known for knocking down the 18- to 20-foot shot. Now, he’s deadly with that shot. His mid-range game is tight. And he’s always been a great finisher around the rim.”
Parker is happiest when he’s helping Duncan. At 37, Duncan this season was selected first-team all-NBA (Parker was a second-team pick). Although Parker led the Spurs in scoring during the regular season and tops their list in the postseason, he always takes care of Duncan. That’s the way old-school point guards roll: rewarding the post players for easy buckets whenever possible.
“Now, in the new school, a big guy will run the floor,” Thomas said, “and they’ll kick it out to another guard for a three-point shot on a three-on-two fast break.
“In the last series [against Memphis], you saw Duncan . . . outrunning Randolph, Gasol . . . and getting easy buckets. Those old-school values are still taught in that San Antonio system. Tony Parker plays the game a traditional way.”
There are no surprises with Parker. The Heat knows what’s coming. Doing something about it is the problem.
For more by Jason Reid, go to washingtonpost.com/reid.