SAN ANTONIO — The old cliche is that the playoffs are all about adjustments.
Even Gregg Popovich conceded that swapping out David Lee for Pau Gasol in the middle of the Spurs starting lineup wasn’t going to “change the universe.”
But after a 121-96 turnaround that evened the series with the Rockets at a game apiece, Popovich is now facing the kind of huge adjustment that comes when a major earthquake brings down buildings and tears opens gaping holes in the streets.
Point guard Tony Parker lifted off the floor for an eight-foot runner in the lane early in the fourth quarter and by the time he hit the floor of the AT&T Center every challenge for the Spurs for the rest of the series and potentially beyond became much greater.
The Spurs had no official diagnosis after the game, but Popovich said, “It’s not good.”
Parker stayed down on the floor, unmoving, until the training staff reached him. When he was lifted up, he could not apply weight to his left knee and had to be carried off the court by teammates Dejounte Murray and Dewayne Dedmon and placed into a waiting wheelchair.
Now the Spurs must roll on and Popovich will be forced to tinker under the hood again as the series shifts to Houston for Game 3 on Friday. Not that sideline mechanic hadn’t already whipped out his toolkit and gone to work.
The Spurs switched up their defensive approach to the Rockets fire-starter point guard James Harden by applying pressure from tough defender Kawhi Leonard from the opening tap. They kept bringing different looks and different bodies from different directions to help and it produced a rather ineffective 3-for-17 shooting night and only 13 points from the league’s No. 2 regular season scorer.
Popovich also broke open the game at the start of the fourth quarter by employing a small lineup that practically turned the Rockets upside down and shook their change out of their pockets. One of the weapons he turned to was Jonathon Simmons, who hadn’t seen more than mop-up duty in more than a month.
Parker missed 19 games during the regular season with a list of injuries to his back, quadriceps, both knees and one foot. But there was always the sense that he was on the mend and building toward a healthy and productive finish. Then the playoffs began and Parker, who’ll turn 35 in two weeks, was playing like the old Parker with his quick moves through the paint, ability to create open spaces and get the ball to his teammates for good shots.
The other Spurs who were on the floor at the time Parker went down weren’t sure what to think at first.
“I thought it was just like a Charley horse because he got hit in the quad,” said Manu Ginobili. “He was grabbing his quad in the beginning. But, then when he wasn’t moving and he couldn’t put weight on it to come back to the locker room, that’s when we all got worried. So, yeah, we’ve got to be patient and see tomorrow what happens. But it didn’t look good.
“I saw him right after the game and he was in pain. He still couldn’t put weight on his leg. He was struggling to walk.”
The Spurs lose not only their point guard for the past 16 seasons, but the player who possesses what Popovich calls “corporate knowledge.” Even thought Leonard has blossomed into the star at both ends of the court and a player worthy of the MVP award, it is Parker’s hand on the tiller for a decade and a half that has kept the Spurs sailing ahead. He calms things down, gives them a sense of stability and organization.
“Tony’s a huge part of this team,” said Gasol. “We all know that. He’s the point guard of this team and he’s been here so long. He knows everything from top to bottom and he’s been in this situation many, many times in his career and he’s been tremendously successful and efficient.”
“I gave him a hug,” said backup point guard Patty Mills. “That’s all that needs to be done right now. It’s his presence. He has the presence just like T.D. (Tim Duncan) had that presence. And he was rolling the last month, going back to his old self. But he has that presence on the floor. Especially when he’s on the break and the ball’s in his hands, he makes big-time plays and big-time shots, big-time moves. We’ll see what the deal is.”
The deal is there is no mercy or forgiveness in the grind of the playoff schedule.
Mills will almost certainly move into the starting lineup. The Spurs will benefit from the fact that their offense has evolved with Leonard handling the ball more and initiating much of the pick-and-roll attack. Because of Parker’s earlier injuries, the 20-year-old rookie Dejounte Murray got some valuable experience even started 20 games. Of course, the last time Popovich had to lean on one so callow at the point, it was a 20-year-old from France who won a championship in his second NBA season.
The sense in the locker room was that Parker won’t be back soon, if at all.
“We hope for the best, but understand that’s a possibility,” Gasol said. “At the same time, it’s playoff time. You gotta get through adversity. Gotta fight through it and overcome it and don’t make any excuses. We’ll face whatever comes at us.”
Adjust to survive.
Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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