NBA Playoffs 2011: Tony Parker Must Lead Spurs' Sprint Back into Series

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NBA Playoffs 2011: Tony Parker Must Lead Spurs' Sprint Back into Series
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

"What's wrong with Tony?"

The question was direct, but Manu Ginobili sought clarification.

"Which one? Allen or Parker?"

These days, as the Spurs and Grizzlies clash in a bruising playoff series, it's difficult to ascertain which of the two needs more help.

Just after a Sunday practice session, Allen accused Ginobili of fabricating his right elbow injury, as if the Argentine was writhing in pain two weeks ago in a premeditated sympathy ploy.

"It's for the birds," Allen told the San Antonio Express-News. "Everybody is banged up. You don't see me running to my PR guy telling him about an injury."

Ginobili did not need to call up Media Services Director Tom James. Plenty of Spurs fans saw him hyperextend his elbow after fighting through a screen on a local telecast. Suns forward Grant Hill would corroborate his opponent's painful fall.

Whatever. Allen did not need to fake an ailment in the regular season finale. His coach, Lionel Hollins, did that for him. But no one on the Grizzlies, even a loudmouth defensive stalwart, is foolish enough to admit the Grizzlies tanked to set up a first-round wrestling match with the Spurs.

Everyone knows that's what Hollins did, and a 2-1 lead for Memphis suggests he never should have apologized to Tim Duncan.

The other Tony? He's been outplayed and outclassed by Mike Conley, an exorbitant, mediocre player who did diddly squat in the pros before this season. When the Rockets routed the Grizzlies a few months ago at FedEx Forum behind Kyle Lowry's 27 points, it appeared GM Chris Wallace had parted with the wrong point guard.

Tony Parker has seen rougher, stingier defenses than Memphis' deliberate hack attack. He has responded in those situations, too. Shaquille O'Neal leveled him in the 2008 postseason opener, and the massive hit caused him to blackout for a moment. He winced in pain, stood up and went right at O'Neal again on San Antonio's next possession.

The Spurs that day totaled 72 points in the paint, albeit versus a Phoenix Suns team not noted for its defensive excellence. They won that series, and another, because Parker refused to allow cheap shots, head blows, picks and body bumps to deter him from the basket.

He must embrace that mission now. San Antonio's championship hopes depend on it. The floor general who led all guards in field-goal percentage has been a passive bricklayer for much of his squad's first three playoff contests.

Parker hoisted a Finals MVP trophy in 2007. Few believe Conley, even after his early, modest success in this round, will ever live up to the mammoth contract he signed last fall.

This is not a rip on the Ohio State product as much as a reality check. If Conley continues to outduel his French counterpart, the Spurs 61-win season will end as early as Wednesday.

Ginobili has been his usual, reckless self since returning after a Game 1 absence. His RoboCop brace may affect his free-throw shooting, but it cannot suffocate his fearless spirit.

Duncan has done enough heavy lifting to afford the Spurs' a 3-0 lead. His teammates know not to expect 2003-level efforts from the franchise foundation. A 2007 performance, or an imitation of one, will do.

Antonio McDyess' hulky defense forces Zach Randolph to work for every shot.

The burden of evening this baffling series, then, falls on Parker's shoulders. How else to explain the Spurs' decisive rebounding edge in all three games and a points-in-the-paint tiff closer than a gas station and convenience store?

How can the Grizzlies dominate the middle when they clearly have not? What keeps Gregg Popovich sleepless might also flood him with encouragement. If his supposed "small" team can continue winning the glass war, why can't it win this series?

Has Memphis flustered and pounded Parker into submission? I don't buy it.

Punishment shaped his career. First Popovich abused him, sticking him with curse-laden insults like a voodoo doll. Then, he watched Speedy Claxton close out the 2003 Finals.

He parlayed his misery into his own form of cruelty. Steve Nash and Shawn Marion may never forget the way he tortured them so in a pair of playoff sojourns.

Nothing and no one stopped his layup parades in 2007. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph should not seem as menacing now. If such predictable defensive shows could contain him, he would be playing elsewhere in another league.

His game was built to withstand pushing and shoving. In the past, such familiar tactics just made him want to attack the basket faster and harder.

What's wrong with Tony? He was not himself when Steve Nash and the Suns beckoned again last spring. He has been out of sorts and without rhythm since this series' apex.

The Memphis fans naive enough to think a blown-up poster of his ex-wife can spook and mess with his head should stop flattering themselves. Only once in a brilliant regular season did the divorce appear to forestall him. That came in back-to-back situation against the L.A. Clippers.

Allen is physically gifted enough to harangue Ginobili. Conley should not have a chance versus Parker.

Popovich will not overhaul his gameplan after his team lost twice by a combined six points. A few more makes and lucky bounces could turn this series the Spurs' way.

Parker must make that happen. Popovich cannot cure his point guard with a clipboard. The Frenchman's playoff salvation will come from within, if it comes at all.

Only he knows what's amiss and how to fix it. Parker's drives should get Randolph and Gasol in foul trouble. They should open up the perimeter.

Those who think the Grizzlies are athletic enough to take away both weapons didn't watch enough Spurs basketball. Plenty of high-flying opponents struggled to balance stopping Parker and running at long-distance shooters.

He can change everything by introducing himself to the Grizzlies again. He did, after all, score 37 points in a December victory against Memphis. Randolph and Gasol did not impede his progress then.

Why should things be different now? If the three-time All-Star starts playing like one, the Spurs will regain an advantage many thought might tilt this series.

Mere months ago he said this season was the Big Three's "last chance," and he does not need a stenographer to remember that quote. Given that, he knows what is at stake tonight.

Win, and the Spurs retain home-court advantage. Lose, and a former No. 1 seed up I-35 will soon welcome some crestfallen company.

If Parker's funk continues, the next time a writer asks about Tony, Ginobili will not need a clarification. He'll know.

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