SAN ANTONIO (AP)—Besides winning titles, there’s another reason Tony Parker loves playing in the NBA.
The San Antonio point guard thrives on a good 1-on-1 matchup, such as the one he’s got going with New Orleans’ Chris Paul in the Western Conference semifinals.
“It’s great fun, great matchup, a great challenge for me. So I’m having a lot of fun,” Parker said Saturday. “It’s always good when you play against the best players. That’s why you want to play in the NBA, to play against the best.”
Parker certainly has that in Paul, and Paul in Parker.
The two point guards matched each other almost point-for-point, assist-for-assist in Game 3 of the series on Thursday, and figure to do so again in Game 4 on Sunday.
The Hornets have a 2-1 lead and the Spurs want to even things up before returning to New Orleans for Game 5.
Parker, who turns 26 on May 17, racked up 31 points and 11 assists in the Spurs’ Game 3 win. Paul, who turned 23 on Tuesday, had 35 points and nine assists.
“They’re both very good basketball players,” said Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. “They’re both very unselfish. They both have the ability to score, at the same time use their teammates, to help their teammates to score.”
Hornets coach Byron Scott agrees, and sees a few differences.
“I think Chris Paul is a true point guard. When I say true point guard, he’s a pass-first type point guard. I think Tony Parker is more of a scoring point guard,” Scott said. “I think both of them are extremely quick. CP shoots it a little bit better, Tony’s probably a better finisher. But they’re both very good at what they do.”
The numbers these playoffs seem to bear out Scott’s opinion. Parker has the slight edge on scoring so far in the first two rounds, 26.6 points to Paul’s 25.6. Paul has 11.8 assists per game to 6.8 from Parker.
“They are kind of similar. I think that Chris Paul is getting really good getting to the paint and finding the open teammate,” the Spurs’ Manu Ginobili said after Game 3. “I think Tony plays faster. He’s deadly in transition. So I think Paul uses more of the pick-and-roll and is getting very smart and very used to that kind of system with those teammates. … They are two of the most impressive point guards in the league for sure.”
Paul was runner-up for MVP this season as he led the Hornets to the Southwest Division title and No. 2 seed (they finished with the same record as the third-seeded Spurs but won the tiebreaker) after not even making the postseason last year.
Parker was voted the MVP of last year’s NBA finals after leading the Spurs to a sweep of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“Both of them are unbelievable players,” the Hornets’ Peja Stojakovic said. “(Paul) led us to the second round and he is a true leader. And Tony also, Tony, his results speak for (themselves). … It’s a great battle.”
In Game 3, Ginobili and Parker—who often sticks his tongue out of the side of his mouth as he drives to the basket—got to the rim consistently. Paul said the Hornets don’t want to let that happen again.
“They shot a lot of layups. Him and Manu had 62 points, probably more than half of them was layups,” Paul said. “So we just got to control the paint like we did in the first two games and we’ll be fine.”
Paul had the shot of the night Thursday. In the third quarter he spun around, his back to the basket, then he flipped up the ball, sinking the shot and getting fouled in the process.
Controlling Paul has been a challenge for the Spurs, who acknowledge that the third-year star will probably score no matter what they try on him. In Game 3, the Spurs switched top defender Bruce Bowen from Paul to Stojakovic, who was largely shut down and scored only eight points.
“We’re going to try to still take care of the role players” in Game 4, Ginobili said. “But at the same time try to bring Paul and (David) West a little down, too.”
Whether the Spurs can stop Paul is anybody’s guess. But Parker isn’t planning to change his game Sunday.
“I just think for me to help my team I just have to be aggressive,” he said. “I have to try to do both, score and pass the ball. So I don’t really look at it like I have to match him. I’m just trying to do whatever I can to help my team win.”