It's strange to think of Tony Parker as an "X-factor." In the NBA playoffs, that term is usually reserved for a lesser-known quantity, someone whose impact might fly below the radar but is nonetheless pivotal to the way in which a given series plays out.
Parker can hardly be considered in that vein. He's been in the league for 13 years. He's been selected to the All-Star Game six times. He's won three championships with the San Antonio Spurs, earning NBA Finals MVP honors in 2007. He's the best player on the team that put together the NBA's best record in 2013-14 and has been the alpha dog on a squad shared by Hall of Famers-to-be Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili for some time.
How, then, could Parker possibly qualify as the X-factor in the Spurs' second-round series with the Portland Trail Blazers? Because he's the player on whose performance and impact this matchup hinges.
That much was clear in Game 1. Parker systematically picked apart Portland's suspect defense. He hit shots all over the floor—layups at the cup, floaters in the lane, jumpers in the mid-range, even a three-pointer from the corner—while putting his teammates in positions to succeed.
The end result: 33 points (13 in the first quarter) and nine assists for Parker, a 116-92 home win for the Spurs.
"He's been doing that for a lot of years," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich told ESPNLosAngeles.com's Dave McMenamin after the game. "It's nothing different. He's the guy that is our attack guy and creates for everybody and starts the offense going."
If that script sounds in any way familiar, it's probably because it so closely resembles that which San Antonio rode to victory in Game 7 against the Dallas Mavericks. Parker piled up 32 points, four assists and 13 free-throw attempts that night, on the way to a 119-96 annihilation of the Mavs.
Portland, like Dallas, sports a backcourt rotation that's prone to torchings on the defensive end. For all of his brilliance as a clutch performer, Damian Lillard remains something of a laggard when it comes to tracking opposing point guards. That's not unique among young floor generals, but in a playoff series against the Spurs, it's a deficiency that's all too easy to expose.
As Grantland's Zach Lowe noted in his preview of the series:
Damian Lillard’s defense is key here, and it is the glaring weak spot in his game. He struggles fighting over screens and staying attached to his guy, and he had trouble keeping Parker out of the middle on side pick-and-rolls.
If Lillard hangs on Parker’s hip, this series feels different. If he can’t, expect to see a lot of Nicolas Batum on Parker, with Lillard shifting over to Danny Green.
The Blazers didn't quite go that route in Game 1. Portland coach Terry Stotts moved Lillard and Mo Williams off of Parker after it became apparent that neither could keep Parker in check. But rather than smother Parker with Batum, his fellow Frenchmen, Stotts allotted that difficult task to Wesley Matthews.
In some respects, the switch worked. Five of Parker's six turnovers came in the second half, after Matthews became his primary opponent.
But Parker still managed to burn the Blazers for 16 points in that time. He used Matthews' size (and attendant deficit of speed) to his advantage; Parker went to the free-throw line five times after the break, thanks in part to Matthews' five fouls therein.
Portland, then, may have little choice but to assign the longer, more athletic Batum to Parker, though, as Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney pointed out, that decision would come with its own set of risks:
"Even cross-matching Matthews comes at a cost, and were Terry Stotts to bend further by lining up Nicolas Batum against Parker, he’d risk Kawhi Leonard going to work against a much smaller guard as a trade-off."
Such is the effect that a player of Parker's talents can (and so often does) have. He's just as liable to create mismatches and wreak havoc by way of his own quickness and craftiness as he is in the midst of a pick-and-roll.
In truth, Parker isn't someone who can be slowed down—much less stopped—by one defender or another. He demands the attention and the effort of an entire team, operating on a tailored game plan, lest he take over entirely.
In the Blazers' case, that effort will have to be extraordinary. Their defensive scheme emphasizes sticking to three-point shooters, often at the expense of yielding shots inside via dribble penetration and the pick-and-roll.
That may help Portland limit its opponents' looks from deep, but it does little to slow down a guard like Parker, who specializes in getting to the rim while rarely launching threes. According to NBA.com, the Blazers have allowed 37.9 shot attempts per game within the restricted area in the playoffs—by far the most of any of this year's 16 postseason participants.
Which should come as no surprise, since the Blazers gave up the second-most restricted-area shots (29.8 per game) during the regular season. Portland's done relatively well to contest those looks—opponents shot 56.8 percent in the restricted area against the Blazers during the season, and they have since seen that number drop to 55.5 percent in the playoffs.
But giving Parker that same leeway is a dangerous game for any team hoping to beat San Antonio.
Parker regularly ranks among the NBA's most prolific and most efficient interior scorers, and this season has been no different. The plurality of his shots (38.1 percent, to be exact) came within the restricted area. Parker once again managed to convert those tries at a clip close to 60 percent, despite being the same guy who's slight of frame and light on athleticism for a player of his preferences.
The Blazers, for their part, are well aware of Parker's capabilities in the paint. Heck, Lillard's tried to work Parker's tricks into his own repertoire over the years.
"The biggest thing I tried to take was his game in the paint," Lillard told McMenamin of ESPN. "With him not being the most athletic guy and going in there and finishing over those people, he's still crafty enough to finish in the paint over these huge, big guys in the paint. That's floaters and reverse layups and different finishes."
It's probably too much to ask the Blazers to shift their entire defensive philosophy in the middle of the playoffs, to account for a single opposing player. And, really, Stotts has some other cards he's yet to play in this regard. Batum could make a difference. A defensive platoon between Portland's two starting wings could make life just tough enough for Parker so that he can't get hot early.
Only time will tell, though, what repercussions Stotts' next move has on the rest of San Antonio's alignment. Might Leonard take over against smaller defenders? Will Danny Green get more clean looks from outside if the Blazers do more to clog the paint? And what happens if/when Ginobili, who chipped in two points and five assists off the bench in Game 1, is enjoying one of his signature games?
Neither team will know for sure until one or the other blinks. Fortunately for the Spurs, Parker's devastating opening salvo—and his scary potential for more—all but assures that the Blazers will flinch first.
The Spurs are gonna Spur, and Twitter's gonna tweet.