Through the first eight games of these NBA playoffs, Tony Parker appeared to have jumped into a time machine. The 34-year-old point guard, long one of the pillars of the dynastic San Antonio Spurs, was suddenly — and surprisingly — an impact player once again, providing the kind of spark he had in countless postseason games earlier in his career.
But then came a possession early in the fourth quarter of a 121-96 victory for the Spurs over the Houston Rockets, a win that would even the series between the Texas rivals at a game apiece thanks in no small part to Parker’s 18 points on 8-for-13 shooting and four assists. Parker got into the lane, as he has so many times before, and rose up for his trademark floater over the Houston defense.
As the shot missed, the Rockets collected the rebound and began to go the other way, but Parker collapsed to the ground, held his left leg and stared at his left knee. It was the look of a man who knew something bad had happened.
His fears were confirmed when Parker had to be carried off the court and to the locker room by a pair of teammates.
“It’s not good,” Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich told reporters after the game.
Although the results of a Thursday morning MRI exam weren’t made public, The Vertical’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Parker was expected to undergo surgery for what the team said only was a left leg injury. ESPN later reported that it was a ruptured quadriceps tendon that would keep him out the rest of the playoffs.
Immediately after he was injured, no one in San Antonio was expecting good news.
“It’s hard to see him limping and hurting now, and you kind of know we’re not going to see him anytime soon,” Ginobili said. “That’s a tough blow. We shall see. We don’t know.”
For so long, the Spurs have been defined by four figures: Tim Duncan, Popovich, Ginobili and Parker. Or, as they’re known in San Antonio, Timmy, Pop, Manu and Tony. It’s a quartet that’s won as much together as any in NBA history, collecting four championships and making the postseason every season this century — something no other team has done.
But now, one by one, that era is beginning to end. Duncan was the first to go, choosing to retire after last year’s playoffs. Ginobili, who looked every bit of his 39 years in going scoreless in the first four games of San Antonio’s first-round playoff series against the Memphis Grizzlies, seems as if he could very well follow Duncan after this season. And now Parker — signed through next season — has an uncertain future.
Sports can be cruel, and few moments are worse than seeing a player crumple to the ground with a noncontact injury. But it’s doubly so for someone in Parker’s position. The veteran played as he used to in the playoffs, giving Kawhi Leonard some modicum of help to try to lift the Spurs to yet another deep postseason run.
“He has that presence, just like [Duncan] had that presence,” point guard Patty Mills told reporters. “And he was rolling the last month, going back to his old self. He has that presence on the floor, especially when he’s on the break.
“When the ball is in his hands, he makes big-time plays, big-time shots, big-time moves. So we’ll see what the deal is.”
San Antonio has options besides Parker. Leonard was once again remarkable in Game 2, finishing with 34 points on 13-for-16 shooting and eight assists, and likely will be called upon not only to be the Spurs’ defensive stopper and leading scorer, but the team’s main creator moving forward. Mills will likely become the team’s starting point guard, and Ginobili — still one of the sport’s most creative passers — will probably assume the backup point guard spot.
What the Spurs can’t do, however, is replace what Parker means to the team.
“Besides the fact that Tony is our point guard, we are going to miss having him around, his experience, his big shots,” Ginobili said. “It is more than just who is going to start. We are going to miss his presence.”
As Parker was carried back to San Antonio’s locker room moments later, one could almost see that presence leaving with him, along with so much of what has made the Spurs who they have been over their long run of dominance within the sport.