About four months ago, some NBA people were seriously discussing whether or not Tony Parker could make a legitimate claim to being the league's Most Valuable Player this season. That discussion was mostly bunk, on account of LeBron James existing, but it was an important step up in recognition for the evolution of the San Antonio Spurs point guard's game over the past few years — the vision, pace and timing he's added to his speed and quickness, the subtle in-and-out moves and slight feints he's mastered to keep even first-rate defenders off-balance, the feel he's developed for when to hunt his own offense and when to facilitate for others to make sure San Antonio's offensive machine is in prime working order.
After skewing a bit toward the former with a team-high 14 shots and a game-high 20 points in the Spurs' Western Conference finals-opening win over the visiting Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday, Parker clearly veered back to the latter in Tuesday's Game 2, keeping Memphis' perimeter defenders at arm's length and dominating the opening three quarters of the game en route to a career-best 18 assists in a 93-89 overtime win that gave San Antonio a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
Sure, there might have been a little bit of home-scorer's cooking on a couple of those credited dimes, but Parker's overall control of the game and mastery of a hard-working Grizzlies defense was undeniable.
"He was unbelievable," longtime running buddy Tim Duncan said after the game. "I know he's exhausted. We asked a lot of him. He was controlling the ball every time down the floor and he was making every right play there was. He was finding people, and people knocked down shots for him."
That fatigue was evident in the latter stages of Game 2. The combination of dominating the ball, orchestrating Gregg Popovich's offense and defending dangerous Memphis guards Mike Conley and Jerryd Bayless for 28 1/2 minutes through three quarters seemed to weigh heavily on Parker's legs in the fourth quarter. As Parker goes, so goes the Spurs offense, and when he waned — missing six of eight shots without an assist — so did San Antonio, sputtering to just nine points in the frame and opening the door to a Memphis comeback that was aided by a bad Manu Ginobili flagrant foul (and highlighted by some timely embellishment from Tony Allen).
The dead legs seemed to persist into overtime for both benches, but luckily for the Spurs, Duncan had one last burst left. He scored six points in less than five minutes in the extra frame, and added a critical block of a Marc Gasol layup that would have tied the game at 89 with just over 90 seconds remaining. Not only that, but Duncan followed his rejection by making a floater on the other end to put San Antonio up by four ... and give Parker his career-high 18th assist. The total topped Parker's previous career high of 17, notched last season against the New Orleans Hornets, and his prior postseason high of 14, posted against the Utah Jazz back in 2007. (It's also two shy of the Spurs franchise record for assists in a playoff game — Johnny Moore had 20 in a 1983 win over the Denver Nuggets.)
As San Antonio Express-News columnist Buck Harvey put it, "Popovich had wanted him to be John Stockton when he drafted him, and, a dozen years later, Parker made it." And now, Parker actually joins Stockton in a pretty exclusive club of playoff performers.
Parker's now the 14th player since the 1985-86 season (as far back as Basketball-Reference's database goes) to have posted an 18-assist playoff game. Only five players have had multiple 18-or-more assist games since '85: Magic Johnson (who did it 16 times), Stockton (10 times), Rajon Rondo (four times), Doc Rivers and Kevin Johnson (both twice). Mookie Blaylock, Sleepy Floyd, Tim Hardaway, Avery Johnson, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Mark Price, Spud Webb and now Parker have all done it once. And if you want to whittle the group down even further, only Parker, Magic and Kidd have put up at least 15 points, 18 dimes, five rebounds and three steals in a playoff game in the last 27 years. Decent company, huh?
(An aside: It's not easy to pick a "best" game out of that bunch, since they're all obviously pretty great. But Hardaway scoring 27 points on 50 percent shooting, dropping 20 dimes with one turnover and adding five steals and two blocks in 51 minutes might not be a bad place to start. Then again, his Golden State Warriors lost that game to the Los Angeles Lakers, so maybe it's not a great place to start, either. Maybe Kidd's 16-point, 16-rebound, 19-assist triple-double to send the New Jersey Nets past the Toronto Raptors in 2007? I don't know. Have fun deciding for yourselves.)
It's hard work setting up that many teammates in that many ways — slick aerial bounce passes, quick pocket passes off screen action, bullet passes to pick out backdoor cutters, dump-offs made possible by your dribble penetration — and after 42 minutes of hustle and flow, Parker copped to being exhausted.
“I just got tired,” Parker said, according to Harvey. “I can't speak for everyone else, but I know I was tired.”
Luckily, the schedule's on Parker's side — he now gets three days to rest and recover before Game 3 tips in Memphis on Saturday night. Those three days could help Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins, too, though — remember, Memphis dropped its first two games against the Los Angeles Clippers in Round 1, then came back to win four straight, and then ripped off four straight following a Game 1 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder in Round 2. Momentum can be a fickle thing in the NBA playoffs, which is why it's nice to have someone who can take control of a game and steer it in your direction. As Parker reminded us on Tuesday, the Spurs most certainly have that.
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