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Without Tony Parker, Spurs Need Kawhi Leonard to Channel His Inner James Harden

Mike Monroe@@Monroe_SAFeatured ColumnistMay 4, 2017

May 3, 2017; San Antonio, TX, USA; San Antonio Spurs point guard Tony Parker (9) is helped off the court after being injured against the Houston Rockets during the second half in game two of the second round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports
Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

SAN ANTONIO — A Thursday morning MRI on San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker's left leg revealed what the four-time All-NBA player and the club feared after San Antonio's Game 2 win over the Houston Rockets on Wednesday night: a complete rupture of the left quadriceps tendon that will require surgery.

Parker was carried to the locker room in the fourth quarter after crumbling to the court following a driving jump shot on which he was untouched. Teammates Dewayne Dedmon and Dejounte Murray served as human stretchers.

But the show must go on. Without Parker for the remainder of the playoffs, Gregg Popovich and the Spurs will have to get creative staffing their point guard position in their quest to advance beyond their Western Conference Semifinals series against the Rockets, now tied at one game apiece.

Murray may be asked to take some of the point guard load for as long as the Spurs' postseason run continues. He started eight games this season while Parker recovered from a variety of nagging injuries, including soreness in his left quad. The Spurs went 7-1 in those games, including a 118-115 road win over the Cleveland Cavaliers in which he scored 14 points and had five assists in 22 solid minutes.

It was enough for some Spurs fans to call for Murray to become the permanent starter at the point, Parker or no Parker. But Murray is a 20-year-old who missed 17 of the final 18 regular-season games with a groin injury. He has not been in Popovich's playoff rotation and does not figure to get significant time now even with Parker out.

The most likely immediate approach to Popovich's point guard conundrum: Patty Mills as the starter, with support from Manu Ginobili, Kyle Anderson and occasionally Murray.

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The real solution, though, may well be to ask Kawhi Leonard to approximate James Harden.

Eric Gay/Associated Press

"We are playing a different style game now, with Kawhi holding the ball a lot and running those high pick-and-rolls and creating for others," Ginobili said. "We don't need, as much as in the past, a point guard that creates for everybody and runs all those pick-and-rolls. So, in that sense, I guess we're going to have to find rotations without point guards for moments."

Indeed, Popovich has asked Leonard to be a point-forward in crunch time of close games all season with latitude to create, either for himself or teammates. He is not as creative as Harden, the NBA's assists leader, though he had a career playoff-high eight assists in Wednesday's victory. But putting the ball in Leonard's hands more often seems like a no-brainer with Parker unavailable to facilitate the Spurs offense.

Parker had rolled back the clock to his days as one of the NBA's prime scoring point guards this postseason and was the team's No. 2 scorer in eight playoff games, averaging 15.9 points per game. He exited the court Wednesday after scoring 18 points in the first three quarters. His steadying influence will be missed as much as his point production.

"Besides the fact that Tony is our point guard, we're going to miss him in having him around," said Ginobili, the 39-year-old who has played alongside Parker for 15 seasons. "His experience, his big games, his big shots—it's more about them than just who is going to start. We're going to miss his presence. So it's going to be a tough one, but no excuses. We've just got to go compete and try to play our best games in Houston."

Ironically, the Spurs are going to miss Parker nearly as much on the defensive end. He is hardly a defensive stopper, but after 16 seasons under Popovich he is rarely out of position in the team defensive scheme that is vital to Spurs success. There is no overstating the importance of a defender who rarely makes mistakes in the execution of Popovich's defensive game plan.

Mills is a scrappy defender but physically limited. As for Anderson, is it reasonable to expect a player nicknamed Slo-Mo to keep up with the run-and-gun Rockets?

Murray, with length and quickness, has tremendous defensive potential, but his lack of experience in the team scheme constrains his effectiveness.

Popovich hadn't had time to digest the bad news in the immediate aftermath of Game 2, so he offered not even a hint of his point guard plans moving forward.

If he moves forward with his MVP candidate small forward as emergency point guard, it won't surprise anyone.

The team must ponder the possibility that such a devastating injury threatens the career of a soon-to-be-35-year-old whose effectiveness has always been predicated on speed and quickness.

Parker has one season left on the three-year, $43 million contract extension he signed before the 2014-15 Spurs season. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, complete recovery from a ruptured quadriceps tendon takes at least four months.

Even if Parker's recovery follows such an arc, which would allow him to be ready for training camp for the 2017-18 season, it seems unlikely he will retain the quickness that has allowed him to get to the rim throughout his tenure in San Antonio.

    

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.