If Tony Parker goes away, the San Antonio Spurs are doomed.
He’s the one player who must perform at an optimum level to give San Antonio its best chance to win a fifth world championship.
He looked anything but optimum late Thursday night, when it was clear his right hamstring was hurting, and despite the clutch play of some of Parker’s less-decorated teammates, the Spurs will fall short if he doesn’t return to form, and fast.
The Miami Heat, particularly their Big 3 of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, regained their collective swagger in Game 4 and ran away in the second half for a 16-point win, evening up the NBA Finals, and providing a best-of-three finish to the NBA season.
But what of the free-wheeling Frenchman, who averaged 17 points per game in the first two contests? After scoring 15 points and handing out six assists in the first half of Game 4, Parker was quiet in the final 24 minutes, with zero points on 0-for-4 shooting.
After answering three different questions with the same “I’ll be ready to go” response during Thursday’s shoot-around, Parker changed his tune after the game.
“(I) obviously, definitely got fatigued in the second half,” he said. “I’m going to make sure I do a lot of treatment and get to 100 percent. I was not 100 percent. By Sunday, that’s my goal, to be good to go.”
Parker insists that his falloff was because of a lack of energy and not a tight hammy but told reporters Saturday that his hamstring ‘can tear’ at any time.
Upon an examination of the past two games. Parker scored 21 points in the first halves of Game 3 and 4 but went scoreless in the final two quarters of each game. This marks the first time in 170 playoff games that Parker has gone without a point in the second half of consecutive playoff games.
So what has ailed Parker down the stretch of these past two games? Is it solely the hamstring? Did Miami come up with the perfect defensive elixir to thwart his forays to the bucket? Are Manu Ginobili’s struggles contagious? Or is it merely a bump in the road for San Antonio’s best player?
“He’s played with injuries all year long,” teammate Tim Duncan said. “Give credit to Miami in the second half. They did a much better job.”
Duncan’s explanation notwithstanding, it’s a combo platter. Coach Gregg Popovich pointed to the aggressiveness of the Heat defenders, who doubled Parker and forced him to get rid of the ball early in the shot clock. While he looked tremendous at times in the first half with patented spin moves and spectacular drives to the basket, Parker wasn’t the same player in the final 24 minutes for other reasons. He was unable to split those double teams like he has in the past and looked a bit slower, possibly because that hamstring tightened up in the locker room at halftime.
If he remains limited and unable to give the Spurs four solid quarters, it will put much more pressure on his teammates, who were overrun by James and Wade. The Heat duo put up their best tandem effort in quite some time Thursday night. And yes, Ginobili is having his worst playoff stretch as a pro, making things triply tough for the Spurs trio that’s looking more like a Big 2 than a Big 3.
Popovich told reporters that Parker would be fine after Game 4 then echoed those sentiments in a national conference call Friday afternoon. But one thing he said stood out above all else:
“If (Parker) can’t play up to full speed, someone else will have to pick up the slack.”
And that’s what makes Game 5 so pivotal. While Gary Neal has made the case for more playing time with his play of late, young Cory Joseph and Patty Mills are a significant dropoff from Parker, a former Finals MVP. As for Ginobili, he has capably stepped in and run the point in the past. Lately, he is looking the part of a player in decline.
Parker had better find his second-half mojo. The good news is he has had two days to rest while Pop has had two days to figure out his next move.
Whether or not Popovich decides to limit Ginobili’s minutes, increase Gary Neal’s or bench the woeful Tiago Splitter, San Antonio’s fortunes will still depend largely upon Parker, who was a legitimate MVP candidate until he suffered an ankle injury that caused him to miss a month of the regular season.
One good half from Parker won’t cut it Sunday, not against this Heat team.
That is, unless the Spurs are resigned to a second-place finish.