Despite being listed as day to day with an ankle sprain, Tony Parker looked like an All-Star on Wednesday night. When the San Antonio Spurs needed him most, the 31-year-old point guard answered the call and led the team to a 109-103 victory and 3-2 series lead.
His three-pointer late in the fourth quarter may be the biggest shot of the series so far.
Though Parker's performance in the first round has been somewhat uneven, he's mostly lived up to expectations. Through the first five games, he's averaging 17 points and 4.6 assists in 32.2 minutes per contest.
In Game 5, Parker scored 23 points just hours after the birth of his first child. Per The Associated Press (via USA Today), Tim Duncan knew Parker would be ready, saying, "Coming into the game I told [Parker] this is perfect for you. This is what he does in situations like this where he doesn't get a lot of sleep or is in a stressful situation. He always seems to play better. I somewhat expected it from him."
By now, we've all come to expect a lot from Parker. And by now, he's given us plenty of reason to believe in him.
In Game 1, he scored 21 points in what at times looked like a layup drill. With the Dallas Mavericks subsequently adjusting and walling off the paint from penetration, Parker has adjusted and increasingly relied on his mid-range jumper to do most of the damage.
Here's where we acknowledge that this is nothing especially new for Parker. He was the 2007 NBA Finals MVP for a reason, and his decision-making has only improved in subsequent years. To whatever extent he's lost a step over the years, he's made up for it with a much-diversified offensive game replete with better range and a patented floater.
So yes, we know Parker is good at this stuff. But we've also seen him come up short at the worst possible times, namely in a couple of losses during last season's NBA Finals. In Games 2 and 7, Parker combined for just 23 points on 8-of-26 shooting from the floor.
Granted, Parker had a minor hamstring strain that may have hampered him for the second half of the series. There are certainly some excuses to be made on his behalf.
On the other hand, that's part of what you worry about with this guy. He takes a lot of contact in the painted area. He gets hit. He falls down. He takes more than his fair share of punishment, and that's a problem when we're talking about a team's best player. He's not strong enough to take that punishment in stride.
Parker suffered the sprain late in the first half of the Spurs' 93-89 win over the Dallas Mavericks on Monday to knot their first-round series 2-2 with a pivotal Game 5 coming Wednesday at AT&T Center. ... Parker played through the injury in the second half, finishing with 10 points on 5-for-14 shooting, three assists and four turnovers.
On the health front, we shouldn't be especially worried unless and until something worse happens to that ankle.
We should also take some solace in how well Parker's shooting the ball. If there's any hitch in Tony's game, it's that his mid-range shot sometimes eludes him. At the moment, he's firing on all cylinders—especially when firing from his sweet spots, namely, dribbling to the left.
And thanks to Parker's effectiveness when running the pick-and-roll, he's able to get to those sweet spots more often than not. It helped San Antonio build an early lead Wednesday night, and it's helped keep the Spurs in the series.
Going forward, the question is just how much the Spurs can continue relying upon Parker. He hasn't been especially dominant this season, but nor has he had to be. With the club's depth and balanced attack, Parker is rarely asked to take games over.
The playoffs are a different story, though. Rotations are shortened, and some measure of hero-ball is an inevitability with close games on the line. Even the Spurs and their widely known aversion to hero-ball aren't immune to that. With Wednesday's Game 5 on the line, you want Parker taking that shot. You want him closing games. This is no time for ensemble heroics, however virtuous they are in the broader scheme of things.
Parker's no stranger to big shots. The big adjustment will be his willingness to take more shots, to eschew his heavily democratized DNA in favor of a little selfishness.
The Spurs' usually high-octane offense has been uneven in this series, and there's little doubt more of Parker could make a difference. San Antonio scored 105.4 points per game during the regular season. It's been held to 93 or fewer points in three of the five games against the Mavericks (two of which were wins, incidentally).
To some degree, that speaks to a change in tempo. The Spurs have looked to emphasize defense in this first round, slowing games down and forcing the Mavericks to play a half-court game. There's another side to the story, though, and its the uneven contributions from usually productive role players like Danny Green and Marco Belinelli.
Until they get right, Parker's contributions will remain especially pivotal.
All the same, let's not overstate the case for Parker's centrality. Yes he's important. Yes the Spurs will need a heaping dose of him to make a deep run.
But this isn't a one-dimensional team. Even with some of the role players trying to figure which way is up, San Antonio has gotten a lot out of Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. Duncan is averaging 18 points in the series. Ginobili is posting a team-high 19.6 points per contest. So far, both are scoring more than Parker.
Nor should we ignore major contributions from Tiago Splitter (averaging a double-double) or Boris Diaw, who hit the go-ahead three-pointer that ultimately decided Game 4.
Parker has help.
He'll need it, too. Should San Antonio advance to the conference semifinals, Parker will face challenges that dwarf Jose Calderon and Devin Harris. If the Portland Trail Blazers prevail, he'd square off against an emerging superstar in Damian Lillard. If the Houston Rockets pull out Games 6 and 7, Parker would find himself dealing with one of the best on-ball backcourt defenders in the game, Patrick Beverley.
This is where Parker's willingness to defer comes in handy. Important as he's been in this first round, he may take a backseat in future series.
That decision-making is every bit as valuable as any basket he makes. It keeps the offense flowing. It keeps San Antonio's system intact.
One way or the other, Parker will find himself carrying the Spurs—whether its with his points or his passes—with his determination or his decisions. He's not the most productive of superstars, but he's a seasoned veteran.
The Spurs don't need a hero. They just need Parker to be himself.