At no point during Thursday's 100-88 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder did Tony Parker resemble Tony Parker, the brilliant scorer and facilitator who has led the San Antonio Spurs to the top of the Western Conference and was being talked up as an MVP candidate just six weeks ago. He looked steps slow and ill at ease, lacking explosiveness and seeming unable to get to spots on the floor he typically reaches with no problem. Part of the credit there belongs to an OKC defense that boasts enough length, athleticism and discipline to pack the paint, clog driving lanes and recover to contest perimeter jumpers ... but that pretty clearly wasn't all that was going into Parker's 2-point, 1-for-6-shooting performance. Something else was up.
And if I could see that, you know Spurs coach Gregg Popovich could, too. That's why he sat Parker for the final 7:08 of Thursday's game, and why he's more than a little worried about his 30-year-old triggerman, according to Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News:
"I saw him come across half court actually limping at one time, so that's when we pulled him," Popovich said. "I said 'Tony, you’ve got to stop, so we can figure out what it is.' He just couldn't go."
Heading into the game, Parker was dealing with a laundry list of bumps, including a bone bruise in his left ankle leftover from a sprain suffered March 1.
Popovich doesn’t believe what plagued Parker in OKC was necessarily that, but a previously unreported injury to his shin.
"My feeling is tendonitis, something in his shins or whatever, from the way it looked on the court, but I don’t know," said Popovich, who described himself [as] "very concerned" about his star guard's health.
"We thought he had just kind of recovered from his ankle, so this was something new tonight with his leg," Popovich said. "I just don’t know what it is right now."
After sitting for three weeks and missing eight games with a left ankle sprain suffered during a March 1 win over the Sacramento Kings, Parker had seemed to be in fine form since his return. The point guard had averaged 20.7 points and 7.2 assists per game (right around his stellar season numbers) in his first six games back, making 47.8 percent of his shots from the field and 90 percent of his free throws as the Spurs went 3-3 against six playoff (or, in the case of the Utah Jazz, near-playoff) teams, with two of the losses coming in the final second to the Miami Heat and Memphis Grizzlies.
But even after getting a night of rest in San Antonio's Wednesday win over the Orlando Magic, Parker was clearly not right in OKC on Thursday, and wasn't too keen on talking about it after the game, according to Jeff Latzke of The Associated Press:
"I'm not going to talk about all my stuff. I've got a lot of stuff going on, but I just have to get healthy," said Parker, who was just working his way back into form after missing time with a sprained left ankle.
"It's no excuse. I just have to get healthy." [...]
"We'll see," said Parker, who played 3 minutes in the fourth quarter. "I'll just talk with the medical staff and talk with Pop and try to make the best decision and make sure I'm 100 percent and healthy for the playoffs because that's the most important thing."
That much is certain — while San Antonio would love to once again enter the playoffs as the West's No. 1 seed, a distinction the 56-20 Spurs now hold by only a half-game over the 55-20 Thunder, Pop's top priority has to be getting his suddenly depleted squad in some semblance of proper health by the time the late postseason pressure starts mounting.
Popovich has leaned on the Spurs' depth all year, coaxing meaningful contributions from Boris Diaw, Gary Neal, Nando De Colo and others to support and help reduce the minutes of his core of aging stars Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili; injuries would never be accepted as an excuse on a Spurs team bursting with versatile and intriguing talents, all capable of performing functions within the construct of San Antonio's beautiful ball-movement-centric offensive scheme. But while role players like Diaw, Neal, De Colo and veteran swingman Stephen Jackson (who's now day-to-day with a mild ankle sprain) can plug gaps, and while emerging talents like Kawhi Leonard (who looked sensational on Thursday, going toe-to-toe with Thunder star Kevin Durant for 42 minutes) and Tiago Splitter (who was, um, less stellar against OKC's front line) will be expected to play up to their potential in the postseason, the Spurs are a precision automobile intended to be operated in adverse conditions — like, say, late-game situations against elite competition like OKC — only by expert drivers. With Ginobili sidelined for several more weeks with a strained right hamstring, the responsibility for steering San Antonio through the dangers of playoff competition in a crowded West rested squarely on Parker; if his legs won't let him slam on the gas come late April, we might have to pump the brakes on thoughts that this year's Spurs team could survive longer than last year's model.
Having now lost three of their last four and four of their last seven, questions have started to crop up about whether the Spurs — so brilliant and steady for so long this season — peaked too early and are sputtering out too soon. Duncan responded to that by preaching patience and treatment: "With health will come that momentum." But the flip-side is also true — without health comes disaster. Of course Pop's "very concerned" about Parker's legs ... wouldn't you be?