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Tony "Manu Jr." Parker Completes Spurs' Star Trio, Team's Circular Path

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It started with Manu Ginobili.

The doubts resurfaced. The Spurs' late-game execution faltered. They couldn't win close games down the stretch that used to be cakewalks.

Would the Spurs of old have blown a 10-point fourth quarter lead at the Rose Garden when Brandon Roy wasn't playing?

Ginobili topped 20 points in that February loss but clanged a wide-open three that would have knotted the score. He threw the ball into the stands when the Spurs had one last opportunity to remove their hands from their necks.

The detractors responded with a proposition Gregg Popovich and R.C. Buford clearly considered.

Trade Manu, critics said, while he still has some value. A Yahoo! Sports report even suggested the front office had considered packaging Ginobili in a deadline deal for Amar'e Stoudemire.

The rumored trade never happened for reasons that should be obvious. Stoudemire isn't a Popovich kind of player, and his dicey contract situation made him a gamble not worth the loss of a competitor who embodies the word "champion."

The Phoenix Suns brass decided jettisoning Stoudemire was a dumb idea it could never sell to the restless fans.

The Spurs stumbled through February and finished with a .500 record on their Rodeo Road Trip. They lost in discouraging fashion to the hapless Philadelphia 76ers and Detroit Pistons.

Next, Ginobili saved another game against the Oklahoma City Thunder and normalcy began its slow return. First, he rescued his own errant pass and threw it right to Richard Jefferson for a game-winner. Then, he bested his game-winning triumph a month later by blocking Kevin Durant's breakaway dunk.

A few weeks later, the injury many thought might cause the Spurs to miss the playoffs salvaged their season.

Parker fractured the fourth metacarpal on his right hand, just as Matt Bonner did in December, and missed a month's worth of games.

Popovich then instructed his players to climb on Ginobili's back. Could he be Manu again?

In his first start with Parker sidelined, he scored 38 points.

With each game thereafter, he provided the evidence the Spurs needed to prove they couldn't survive without him. The Spurs became the giant slayers of March, knocking off the Cavaliers, Magic, Lakers, and Celtics.

Buford's response? A near $40 million contract extension that will likely keep Ginobili in a San Antonio uniform until he retires.

Tim Duncan then slipped into a post All-Star break funk, and many of the same critics wondered if he, too, was finished.

Forget his four rings, his track record, and the undeniable pride, gamesmanship, and character that make him an all-time great. He's done, they said. It's time to invest in a career coffintime to sign the retirement papers.

A worrisome 1-for-10 shooting performance in Orlando and a 2-for-11 performance against the Lakers in the same month did not help his case. If Ginobili used the basketball version of tildes and accents to deliver his emphatic response, then Duncan used jump hooks and vintage efforts to make his point.

The "washed-up" Duncan is now averaging 26 points and 12 rebounds in the Spurs first-round series with the Dallas Mavericks.

Now, it's Parker's turn.

Rick Carlisle and the Mavs took strong blows from Duncan and Ginobili in Games One and Two. They haven't taken Parker's best shot.

His critics, big surprise, would disagree. Parker has heard it all.

He can't shoot. Never mind that game-clinching jumper in a Game Seven at New Orleans Arena.

He can't pass. Never mind his perfect throw to Roger Mason Jr. for a game-winning three on Christmas Day in 2009.

Some now wonder whether he will ever regain the explosiveness that has characterized his get-to-the-hoop-in-a-flash game.

Has any other 27-year-old, three-time champion had to answer questions about a potential curtain call?

Those who mistook unlucky breakstwo ankle sprains, food poisoning, a hip flexor, and plantar fasciitisfor a noticeable decline will soon know why they could never run an NBA franchise.

Parker doesn't have to be as lightning fast as he was five years ago to recapture his 2007 or 2009 form.

The Spurs still need three wins to oust the Mavs, and the people who picked Dallas haven't backed away from that prediction.

Yet, Parker has not erupted in this series. He can score more than 18 points, and he can attack the rim more than he did in the first two outings.

Even Shawn Marion knows from his days in Phoenix that stopping Parker is a lost cause when he's healthy. Parker might not heal enough to approach his All-NBA form from a year ago, and San Antonio could again bow to Dallas in the first round.

Another opening round exit should not change what a season of struggle and dissatisfaction has made evident.

The Spurs' star trio, when together, can still give foes fits. When the stars make an effort to involve Jefferson, George Hill, and Antonio McDyess, and they all defend, they become dangerous enough to beat anyone.

The team needs another seven-footer to spare Duncan additional wear-and-tear on his soon-to-be 34-year-old body. The Spurs won't beat the Lakers without more size.

If the Mavs prevail, then the "trade Parker" cries will grow louder. No one will give anything of value for Jefferson's bloated contract. The front office will have to consider dangling Parker, who could become a free agent after next season.

Buford should save his staff the unnecessary debate. The Spurs need Parker as much as they do Duncan and Ginobili. To sell any of those commodities would be to donate and disregard championship soul.

Parker has responded before, and he will do it again. If he handled daily lashings from Popovich early in his career, he can handle a sprained ankle and the same foot condition Duncan battled in 2006.

The French guard appears ready to forgo participation in the upcoming Worlds. Parker cares about his NBA status even more than Ginobili, and he won't risk another disappointing, injury-plagued season just to suit up for his home country.

He will rest. He will come back on a personal mission to prove his doubters wrong.

Ginobili brought the franchise to its knees with an MVP-worthy month of basketball. Now comes Parker's chance to do the same.

Asked about his unfamiliar reserve role after Game One, Parker called himself "Manu Jr.," and the self-prescribed nickname fit. He will soldier-on as a bench player just as Ginobili has, in the name of winning, even if he would prefer to start.

Some have used the words "throwback" and "vintage" to describe Parker's production against the Mavs. Those back-handed, "you're elderly" compliments do not apply to a youngster still in the prime of his career.

The Mavs haven't seen anything yet.

Parker's recompense gives the Spurs a reason to believe in this series and next year.

A roster with three stars, Jefferson, Hill, McDyess, Dejuan Blair, Malik Hairston, a re-signed Matt Bonner, and say, Tiago Splitter and a draft pick, can still compete in the Western Conference.

The Mavs know how to win at the AT&T Center. The Spurs' quest to protect home court begins tonightas does the delivery of a message the critics and the franchise's front office need to hear.

It started with Ginobili.

It ends with Parker.

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