With their first-round series against the Dallas Mavericks tied at three games apiece, the San Antonio Spurs needed someone to step up in a winner-take-all Game 7. Tony Parker responded, dropping 32 points in an 11-of-19 shooting performance that kept the Mavs on their heels all game long.
If Parker's 33-point outburst in Game 1 of the conference semifinals is any indication, he hasn't let his foot off the gas just yet.
The low point of Parker's postseason came in Game 4 against Dallas. He made just five of his 14 field-goal attempts and scored 10 points. Since his first son Josh was born just hours before Game 5, however, Parker has been on a tear.
In his last four games, Parker is averaging 27.5 points per game.
He's been especially lethal in his last two, cashing in on a combined 24-of-43 from the field. If there were any doubts about whether he was just exploiting favorable matchups against Dallas, they were silenced in Game 1 against the Portland Trail Blazers.
Now he faces an emerging superstar in Damian Lillard, a point guard with a lot of wind in his sails after nailing the buzzer-beating three-pointer that sent the Houston Rockets packing in the first round.
By all accounts, Lillard seems to be a younger, more dynamic version of Parker. He's balanced, mentally tough and—unlike Parker—boasts a dangerous three-point game, setting a franchise mark for three-pointers made this season.
But Parker got the better of the meeting on Tuesday night. Lillard scored just 17 points on 6-of-15 shooting. It was the first time he'd scored fewer than 20 points against the Spurs. Prior to the game, the San Antonio Express-News' Buck Harvey noted, "his average of 26.3 points in seven career games against the Spurs is his highest average against anyone."
From the outset of the game, it was Parker who was firing on all cylinders from all over the floor. Here's a look at his Game 1 shot chart:
Like most teams, the Trail Blazers want Parker to be a jump-shooter. Success against the Spurs' multifaceted offense is largely predicated upon limiting Parker's penetration. That penetration is more than a mere means to high-percentage layups and floaters.
It's also San Antonio's best chance to get others involved. When Parker is getting to the basket, the defenders are more likely to collapse to the paint and leave the team's three-point shooters open.
In Game 1, Portland failed to shut down any aspect of Parker's game. His jumper was falling, and he was getting to the basket. He also tallied nine assists, proving that when his offense is working, the rest of the Spurs stand to benefit as well.
This was Parker at his best. He worked the pick-and-roll to perfection, using it to clear space for his currently lethal mid-range game. He relied on his still-top-shelf speed to get to his spots on the floor, either pulling up or penetrating depending on what the defense gave him.
That defense gave him pretty much whatever he wanted. Trail Blazers head coach Terry Stotts tried a variety of looks against Parker, all of which failed.
Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney dissects Portland's matchup dilemma:
Damian Lillard, one of the worst guard defenders in the league among regular starters, drew first watch on Parker and was promptly punked. Mo Williams got his turn and had no better luck. Wesley Matthews finally slid over to try his hand, though his innately physical brand of defense seemed only to fuel Parker’s free throw total. This might be as dominant as we’ve seen Parker all season, as should be the case when Portland has so few credible defensive options against him.
Prior to Game 1, Lillard admitted that he'd long admired Parker's game, per ESPN Los Angeles' Dave McMenamin:
"Started watching him in 2007-2008," Lillard said Monday, a day before his Portland Trail Blazers open up the conference semifinals against the guy he used to study on YouTube. "Around that time is when I really started paying serious attention to what he was doing."
According to McMenamin, Parker returned the compliment, saying, "Obviously he's a great player. He can do everything. He can shoot from the outside. He can penetrate. So we're going to do some stuff to try to contain him. You're not going to stop him."
Suffice it to say, the love fest didn't last long.
After Game 1, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich outlined what makes Parker such a formidable threat, per McMenamin:
He's been doing that for a lot of years. It's nothing different. He's the guy that is our attack guy and creates for everybody and starts the offense going. He's also played very good defense this year. Most people don't really see that.
And before Game 1, Stotts knew exactly what he was getting into against Parker, according to The Oregonian's Joe Freeman:
He's persistent, he’s clever, he gets to the rim, he can finish, he can find the pass, he keeps his dribble alive, he keep you on your toes. He’s been doing that for a long time. The approach is do the best job you can, no matter who’s on him. It’s a five-man defense. He gets a lot of his opportunities in ball screens. So the people involved in the ball screens have to do their jobs. The players on the weak side have to be alert. It’s an individual challenge and it’s a team challenge.
The fact that Parker's playoff dominance is nothing new adds to San Antonio's advantage. The Spurs are as experienced as anyone left standing in the postseason, and Parker chief among them. The 31-year-old is in his 13th season.
Back when Lillard was studying him, Parker was already accruing accolades. He was the NBA Finals MVP in 2007, signifying that the Spurs had turned an important corner.
This was no longer a team that ran the lion's share of its offense through Tim Duncan. While Duncan would continue to anchor the defense and play an important role as a scorer, San Antonio was no longer his team. It belonged equally, if not more so, to Parker.
That remains the case today.
The question is whether it will continue to be the case tomorrow, the day after that and so on. Parker will have to be the best point guard in this series for the Spurs to advance to the conference finals. We know he can score 30-plus, but can he do so on a consistent basis?
The 2012-13 postseason can be instructive, far more telling that what Parker does during the regular season, when his minutes are curbed.
A season ago, Parker averaged 22.5 points in the conference semifinals against the Golden State Warriors. He dropped 28 in a Game 1 victory, 32 in a pivotal Game 3 win. A series later, Parker posted 24.5 points through a four-game sweep against the Memphis Grizzlies. He scored 37 in Game 4.
By now there should be little doubt the Frenchman can answer the bell on a regular basis.
It wasn't until the NBA Finals that Parker finally slowed down. He struggled to get it going in Games 2 and 4, both losses. He was barely relevant in San Antonio's Game 3 blowout win. And that's when Parker strained his hamstring. At one point the team was uncertain whether he'd even play in Game 4.
Chances are the Heat had as much to do with slowing Parker as that hamstring.
Until he has to face those Heat again, however, Parker should be in store for another huge postseason. The Trail Blazers have their work cut out for them. The lesser-known variable is what might await in the Western Conference Finals.
Both Chris Paul and Russell Westbrook are very good defenders. Though San Antonio was able to avoid both of them in 2012-13, Parker faced each of them in the 2011-12 playoffs. Though he had his moments, he was hardly dominant.
The Spurs managed to sweep the Clippers, but Parker averaged just 17.3 points in the series. He went 1-for-9 from the field in Game 1.
And it was the next series that eliminated San Antonio from the playoffs. After a promising 34-point Game 2, Parker was noticeably slowed down in Games 3 and 4, combining for just 28 points in the two contests.
So this much is a given: Parker will need help if the Spurs are going all the way to the NBA Finals again. Sixth man Manu Ginobili will need to play like he did in the first round against Dallas. Small forward Kawhi Leonard has to remain aggressive, looking for shots at every opportunity.
Parker can lead this team against anyone, but he can't do it alone—particularly when the matchups and long arms start bothering him, as they likely would in the conference finals.
For the time being, though, expect to see more of the same from San Antonio's best player. Until Portland solves its Parker problem, the Spurs have little choice but to continue exploiting it.
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