PHOENIX – After watching the San Antonio Spurs dismantle the Phoenix Suns 117-93 on Thursday night, two things were clear to me: One, Steve Nash is this season's Most Valuable Player, and two, Tony Parker may win the award in the future.
Nash's absence (due to a sprained ankle) changed the entire complexion of Phoenix's team, and it served as a reminder that Nash indeed makes every one on his team infinitely better. Without him, the Suns couldn't sustain the relentless pressure they normally put on their opponents because each player had to take on more responsibility.
Shawn Marion didn't shake free for easy hoops around the basket. Eddie House found his jump shots harder to come by. Boris Diaw became the sole playmaker and suddenly saw more attention from the defense. Phoenix went from a free-wheeling offensive juggernaut to a rudderless ship trying to steer itself to safety.
Parker, meanwhile, continued his sizzling play with a remarkable display of perimeter shooting.
Though he ranks second in the NBA in field-goal percentage at 55 percent, most of Parker's shots have been taken in the paint. The Suns decided to guard him with Marion, the idea being to close off the lane and force Parker into jump shots. Marion's job was also to leave Parker and double-team Tim Duncan each time San Antonio's big man caught the ball on the block. The Los Angeles Clippers had some success with a similar strategy Tuesday night in L.A., using lengthy players like Quinton Ross and Shawn Livingston to play off of Parker and keep him on the perimeter.
The first part of Mike D'Antoni's plan worked – Marion kept Parker out of the lane – but what D'Antoni didn't count on was Parker making jump shot after jump shot.
Parker's marksmanship was just another example of his progress with shooting coach Chip Engelland, whom the Spurs hired this season specifically to work with Parker. Engelland adjusted Parker's thumb placement on the ball, getting him to widen the right thumb in order to get a better grip on the ball and to ensure that the release of the shot comes off his middle and forefingers. In the past, Parker's narrow hand placement led to the ball sliding off his outside fingers, which caused much of his inconsistency.
Engelland estimates that Parker's production from a revamped shot won't really blossom for a year or so, but in the meantime his improvement is apparent. Parker has also gotten smarter, using better shot selection to increase his field-goal percentage. After averaging close to 200 three-point attempts his first four years in the league, he has taken just 26 threes all season.
Parker now realizes that he is so fast and so adept at finishing in the lane that he doesn't ever have to take a shot outside 18 feet. But with more and more teams forcing him to make shots from the outside by packing the paint, Parker's improved shooting is imperative for the Spurs. When he begins to consistently make shots from the perimeter, as he did against the Suns, he will be virtually impossible to guard. And the Spurs will be very tough to beat.
So while Nash is the frontrunner to win the MVP award this season for his work in leading the Suns, his counterpart in San Antonio has the look of a future Most Valuable Player. And in all likelihood, if Phoenix plays the Spurs in the playoffs, the performances of each point guard will be the key to which team wins the series.