Posted Apr 25 2011 9:56AM
MEMPHIS -- The image of Tony Parker all season long was of a man wearing a tuxedo, cool and collected as he sank another jump shot, suave and dashing as he showed up at the rim with hardly a wrinkle in his satin lapels to make a layup with one hand while holding a martini in the other.
Shaken, not stirred.
Now as this first-round playoff series between a No. 1 and a No. 8 seed reaches critical mass, the images of Parker are increasingly jumpers bouncing off the rim and Parker himself skittering through the lane on his belly after being knocked to the floor one more time by the Grizzlies.
Shaken and disturbed.
Memphis has turned the matchup into a shot-and-beer affair that's turned Parker into a wet bar rag and left the Spurs unable to make the plays they need.
After a regular season in which he led the Spurs in scoring with 17.5 points per game and led all NBA point guards by shooting 51.9 percent from the field, Parker has labored against the Grizzlies. Through three games, he's shooting 34.1 percent from the field, has 10 turnovers and in Game 3 on Saturday started out misfiring on seven of his first eight shots.
"He hasn't had great games so far," said his backcourt partner Manu Ginobili. "The series is still early. We have an opportunity. We all trust him. He's our point guard. He's our leader."
But that is not really true. Through all of the years and all of the titles, it is the taciturn Tim Duncan who has laid the foundation and set the tone for the Spurs. And when they've needed fireworks or someone to make the critical play at the end of games, coach Gregg Popovich puts the ball into the hands of Ginobili rather than Parker.
While the Duncan-Ginobili-Parker trio has always been labeled the Spurs' Big Three, truth is, the little point guard has never quite been seen as a true equal and, behind that debonair Frenchman's grin and insouciance, it is a measure of respect he has craved.
That's why when the cameras and notebooks and assorted media probes gathered round him on Sunday, Parker acted as if he had missed the first three games of the series and wondered what all of the fuss was about.
"I'm just missing shots," Parker said. "I just have to keep being aggressive and hopefully it will turn. Those are shots I've made all season long and my whole career, so I just have to keep playing."
What Parker has to do is start making his head-to-head duel with Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley more of an even matter. In the playoffs for the first time in his four-year NBA career, Conley is thoroughly outplaying Parker, turning what was supposed to be a decided advantage for the Spurs into a hurdle they must overcome.
It is not simply Conley going head-up and locking Parker down. The Grizzlies are also using their big bodies in the paint -- Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol -- and their other pestering defenders -- Tony Allen and Shane Battier -- to constantly close up the cracks that Parker usually slithers through and also to bounce him around the interior like a pinball.
There were a handful of times in Game 3 when Parker came down the floor in transition or spun off the pick and tried to zip to the basket and wound up down the floor getting floor burns on his chin while the ball rolled out of bounds.
Parker's inability to get to the rim to finish or to draw fouls and go to the free throw line is only part of the problem. The other is that the Grizzlies have not allowed him to find openings to pass back out to his shooters on the perimeter. The best 3-point shooting team in the league all season, the Spurs are making shots from behind the arc at just a 31.9 percent clip. Not getting set up by Parker has had a particularly bad effect on Matt Bonner and Gary Neal. The rookie Neal was 0-for-4 on treys in Game 3 and Bonner was 0-for-2.
Since the Spurs no longer rely on a low-post offense that runs through Duncan all of the time, they need those spot-up 3s to fuel the offense and to spread the defense.
These are playoffs that have already had point guards like Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo and Russell Westbrook show that a point guard can make all the difference.
Parker refuses to admit that the Grizzlies bar-bouncer mentality on defense has gotten to him. Or that being dribbled off the floor like he had "Spalding" stamped onto his forehead had anything to do with his six turnovers in Game 3.
"They guessed right," he said. "I remember two times in the second half I was on a fast break and they made a play and they made the right guess. That's gonna happen."
What has to happen now is a change. This is, after all, the role Parker has always wanted.
Leadership is respect and a burden.
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