Posted Apr 29 2012 7:55PM
SAN ANTONIO -- Twenty six seconds into the opening game of the playoffs, there was the one player who has carried the Spurs all season hopping along the sideline helplessly, with his right sneaker in one hand, unable to untangle a knot in the laces.
So do we call him "Shoeless" Tony Parker?
That would be preferable to the "Clueless" Tony Parker who ran up and down the court a year ago against Memphis.
He was hardly the only one who spent time merely rearranging deck chairs in that titanic first-round collapse after running into the Grizzlies' iceberg. Manu Ginobili had a bum elbow that wouldn't allow him to hit the floor with his typically manic style. A bad ankle had Tim Duncan hobbling as if trying to make it to the cafeteria in time for pudding at the old age home.
But everyone knows the axiom about killing the head. Without the brains of the operation firing every neuron properly, the Spurs might as well have been like the chicken running around the yard after the chopping block.
Parker eventually got his shoe back on properly Sunday afternoon. More important, he also got his head back on straight, which has led to his finest season as a pro and, in just one game, has him becoming the top concern and priority of the Jazz.
"He's so quick coming off the pick-and-roll," said Utah's Al Jefferson. "He gets guys involved. He made some passes where he didn't even look. He knew his teammates were going to be in certain spots. We can't let him beat us and get everyone else involved."
It's not just the 28 points and eight assists -- just the latest in a season of splendid efforts -- but the way Parker has seized the joystick, taken complete control and total ownership of the club. Make no mistake. For all the scoring punch they pack and all of the depth that coach Gregg Popovich has in his 11- or 12-man deep lineup, these are Parker's Spurs.
Where then did the je ne sais quois come from?
"I think he had a great summer with the French team," Popovich said. "He ran the show there. He was very, very committed and focused to try to get them into the Olympics, which he did. And that combined with poor performance against Memphis last year motivated him to come back and sit me down and tell me what kind of year he was gonna have."
Parker doesn't buy into the theory and claims that it was just another of Popovich's motivational ploys.
"He told me he thought I played harder with the national team," Parker said. "I knew what he was doing. He always likes to challenge. He's been doing that over the years and he knew that I was going to react, even though it was not true. I always play hard for the Spurs. It's my team, too. But it gave me motivation to show I could play the same way."
However, it has not gone unnoticed throughout the Spurs locker room that this has been a different, more determined Parker who has zeroed in with a laser's focus from the start of the brief, compacted schedule and kept the pedal to the metal for almost four straight months.
"Tony hasn't let up once," said Matt Bonner.
No less an experienced hand in the affairs of international basketball than Ginobili puts credence in Popovich's theory about Parker. The two have been teammates now for nine seasons, won three championships together and Manu sees a change.
"For a big part of the season, yes, because he really took over," Ginobili said. "He's always been a great player, don't get me wrong. But (in the past) he took some games off after having a good week. This year he was so steady."
Parker has been the keel that's kept the Spurs' ship balanced and moving ahead in the water all season, scoring when he has to -- even scoring very big -- and moving the ball and getting it to his teammates to produce when he can. The difference is recognizing when it's time to drop the hammer and not being reluctant to do it.
It came early in Game 1 as the Spurs struggled to find a rhythm against the bigger, bruising Jazz. So after a first quarter when San Antonio could manage only a one-point lead, he erupted for a dozen points in the second quarter to keep the Spurs moving ahead until the engine was humming. Just the way he did in getting France to qualify for the Olympics for the first time in 12 years, Parker has become the driving force.
There are times when even veteran players can still move their game up to another level, especially one who entered the NBA at 19 and, despite all the talk of the Spurs' aging roster, will not turn 30 until next month.
Ginobili says his own breakthrough came in Greece when he led Argentina to the gold medal at the Olympics. It was a time when he did more than merely embrace his usual role within the team, but seized the mantle of leadership.
"A lot of things help," Ginobili said. "Getting things done overseas with your national team usually helps. It did a lot of good in my career in 2004 and I think Tony needed to have a successful summer and is going to be even better once he plays in the Olympics. You never know what exactly triggered it, but (if) it did he's had a great season."
Slipping into a bigger, more driven, more responsible role as easily as one of his Nikes.
"Peerless" Tony Parker?
If the shoe fits.
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