SAN ANTONIO — What began as a low murmur when he first took possession of the basketball grew into loud buzz like a sky filled with locusts when he crossed over mid-court. By the time he got all the way to the rim to finish or pulled up to stab in a jumper, it was a full-throated roar.
“M-V-P! M-V-P! M-V-P!” came the chants from those highest corners of the AT&T Center down to the front row seats where the swells rattle their jewelry in appreciation.
Before Kawhi Leonard came along to earn the adulation, Tony Parker wore the praise, jaunty and stylish, as if it were a French beret. That was 2007, when the Spurs were beating up on LeBron James for the first time in the NBA Finals, winning their third championship as the boyish point guard was singled out as MVP of the series.
Now it’s a decade later and Parker has been called many other things on social media and around town in his 16th professional season, not much of it pleasant.
“I don’t really read, to be honest,” said Parker, who’ll turn 35 next month. “I have two kids. It’s a lot of work. I don’t have time. The only reason I know (of the criticism) is because you (media) guys bring it up. If not for that, I would have no idea because I’m home. I’m up at 6 a.m. with the kids, bringing them to school. I don’t have time for that.”
What Parker found time to do was help keep the Spurs ship from going under when it was taking on water early Saturday night in the playoff opener against the Grizzlies. He was part of multiple pronged defensive attack that shut down Memphis’ Mike Conley and lit the fuse to the San Antonio offense.
From getting right up in Conley’s grill to knocking down a pair of 3-pointers in the second quarter it was exactly the kind of performance the Spurs are going to need out of Parker if they are to not only live past the first round, but live up to their 61-win pedigree from the regular season. He put up 18 points on 8-for-13 shooting — 2-for-2 on treys — and dished a couple of assists in what became a 111-82 rout.
In the first playoff series of the post-Tim Duncan Era, a venerable Parker is still the best player the Spurs have at the most critical position on the court. While he no longer has to be a points-first point guard, he must be able to push back at all of the younger, more explosive legs that potentially stand before him in each successive round.
Parker is coming off a season averaging 10.1 points and 4.5 assists, the lowest numbers since his rookie season, averaged a career-low 25.2 minutes per game and played in the fewest games (63) of any non-lockout season. There were varied and aching reasons: a quadriceps injury, problems with both knees, one foot and nagging back pain.
“He’s gotten back in shape as we said over the last couple of weeks,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. “He’s done a great job in the weight room and on the court just trying to get his wind back. I thought he felt pretty confident tonight and we love when he starts out defensively and taking pride in that.”
No longer dominant or the swirling eye of the hurricane in the Spurs’ attack, Parker now is the steady hand that can calm things down and make things run smoother. Popovich likes to say that he gives his teammates a sense of stability and has a way of keeping them organized when things like an early Grizzlies lead start to smack them in the face.
“Him being aggressive, knocking down shots and penetrating and getting the defense to get an extra guy to go to him, it’s big for us,” said Leonard. “Not just for me, but for everybody. It gets us open shots.”
Parker is no longer the flame that frequently burns white-hot in the lines of a boxscore, but is the one who tends to the fire and keeps it burning. He’s transitioned into a game manager now rather than a dominator. This was the Parker the Spurs had been hoping to see all season and were counting on to flip the switch for the playoffs.
“I think so, not just offensively but defensively,” backcourt partner Danny Green said. “I think he turned it up a notch, did a great job of being into guys, pressuring them, making them do something different, making his presence felt. On offense, he’s always good for his penetration, finding guys, hit a couple 3s, got into the paint on transition, pushed the pace, controlled the tempo and defensively he held his own for us.”
Last summer when the Spurs were gearing up, like every other team in the league, to make a run at the prize plum Kevin Durant, a rumor surfaced that they also had an eye on a free agent point guard. None other than Conley.
As it turned out, Conley stayed put, getting the largest contract in NBA history from the Grizzlies and went on to have his best season as a pro. He also ran out to 13 points in the first 15 minutes of Game 1, but never scored again after a driving finger roll with 8:40 left in the second quarter, just about the time when Parker stepped out of the mist of his past.
Leonard was splendid with 32 points on 11-for-14 shooting, dealt five assists, grabbed three rebounds and made two steals.
“M-V-P! M-V-P! M-V-P!” came the roaring chants of today.
And the decade-old echoes.
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