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Spurs follow Tony Parker's lead; take 2-0 edge over Thunder in West finals

SAN ANTONIO – The news arrived at Gregg Popovich's doorstep in the dead of another brutal South Texas summer. The San Antonio Spurs had been bounced out of the first round of the playoffs by the Memphis Grizzlies, Tony Parker had headed home to France to start his vacation, and suddenly there was a report coming across the Atlantic that the Spurs' point guard was proclaiming their dynasty days officially over. Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili were getting old, Parker said.

"We will always have a good team," the French media reported Parker as saying, "but we can no longer say that we're playing for a championship."

Naturally, this didn't play well at 21 Spurs Lane. "I thought the same thing Pop said," Ginobili recalled. " 'Shut up!' "

Ginobili says this with a laugh. Parker quickly denied the report, saying his true comments had been lost in translation, and, besides, who cares now? All that matters is what Parker did next: When the NBA lockout ended, he arrived more committed, more focused, more driven, than ever.

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Tony Parker made 16 of 21 shots in the Spurs' Game 2 victory. (AP)

Parker has carried the Spurs through this magical season and he carried them again Tuesday night. His 34 points and eight assists came amid a dazzling display of shot-making that staggered the Oklahoma City Thunder and delivered the Spurs their 20th consecutive victory and a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference finals. For much of the 120-111 victory, he ran the Spurs' offense to near-perfection as San Antonio carved up the Thunder with quick, crisp passing.

"When you have Coach Pop screaming at you every day," Parker said, "it will make you pass the ball."

Parker didn't arrive here overnight. He's weathered Popovich's scolding for years and emerged stronger for it. The tug-of-war between point guard and coach has played out over the seasons, and the growing pains Parker and Popovich endured are not unlike those that now test the Thunder's Russell Westbrook and Scott Brooks.

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Oklahoma City's point guard and coach are forever on trial, and they will be judged by how this season ends. Heading home for the next two games, the Thunder can still make this a series. If they don't? If they fall in these West finals the way they fell in last year's when the Dallas Mavericks beat them in five games, then the Thunder will ask themselves how much progress they've made.

For Brooks, his negotiating leverage is dictated by each win and loss in these playoffs. His contract ends after this season, and his representative and the team have yet to find a middle ground on a new deal. If the Thunder lose this series, team officials will have to decide how much money and time to commit to Brooks while waiting to learn whether he's capable of guiding them to a championship.

The Thunder have few reservations about Westbrook. He played a strong game, totaling 27 points, eight assists and seven rebounds without a single turnover. He hounded Parker as best he could, crowding him despite the Spurs running him through screen after screen. And yet with each loss the Thunder suffer, Westbrook's performance is often measured by his shot count (24) compared to that of Kevin Durant (17). If the Thunder win, he's praised for his aggressiveness. If they lose, critics often blame his selfishness.

Parker knows the drill. He's heard the same criticism over the years from outside and inside the Spurs' locker room.

"It's always been a battle my whole career when you're a scoring point guard," Parker said. "Pop wants you to score then he wants you to pass. You go back and forth. It's always been the biggest room for me to improve is to find that happy middle between scoring and passing, and find that good balance."

Parker arrived to the Spurs fresh-faced and 19 years old. Popovich already had one championship under his belt and a system in place. He's also coached with an edge Brooks will never have: He's his own boss.

Early in his career, Parker once dared to shake off a play call from his coach. Popovich called a timeout and blasted Parker before he could even reach the bench. "You know I'm crazy!" Popovich yelled. "Do that again, and I'll play Steve Kerr 95 minutes a night if I have to!"

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Parker used to hear some of the criticism that now falls on Russell Westbrook. (Reuters)

Popovich's tough love continued. In the Spurs' 2003 championship run, he often used Parker's backup, Speedy Claxton, to close games. For a couple seasons afterward, Parker would still sometimes find himself on the bench or standing in the corner of the court as Ginobili initiated the offense in crunch time.

"At times he can get frustrated with Pop getting on him and stuff like that," said Spurs forward Boris Diaw, one of Parker's closest friends from their childhood days in France. "But he knows it's for his own good. He's been here for [11] years. He knows that whatever Pop is telling him is not personal, it's going to make him better, it's going to make the team better."

[Also: LeBron James laughs at Kevin Garnett in Heat's Game 1 win]

Parker's toughness grew, and after the Spurs gave him assistant coach Chip Engelland, one of the sport's great shot doctors, his game went from good to great. Throughout all the years, Parker's had to prove himself in ways that Duncan and Ginobili never did. A couple weeks after the 2003 title, the Spurs brought Jason Kidd to town in hopes of making him their new point guard.

"I know I'm the best point guard for this team," Parker complained. "I can lead this team."

The doubts persisted through two more titles and a Finals MVP award. A few seasons ago, the Spurs called the New Orleans Hornets about a possible deal for Chris Paul. Nearly every summer since, Parker's name has risen in trade conversations, even if the talks rarely scratched the surface. Yet for all the concern that Parker lusted for a bigger market and grander stage, it was he who initiated contract extension negotiations early last season at the expense of his free agency.

The Spurs used to joke the franchise was forever in synergy because Ginobili always said the right thing, Parker usually said the wrong thing and Duncan rarely said anything. So when Parker's comments last summer made their way from France to San Antonio, the Spurs again had reason to roll their eyes. Wasn't this just Tony being Tony?

At the start of the season, Popovich had one request of Parker. He'd seen how aggressive Parker had played for France during last summer's European championships. He wanted Parker to play the same way for the Spurs.

Parker accepted and met the challenge, delivering the greatest season of his career. "He's got the whole package," Ginobili says.

Parker and Popovich will still bark at each other, and they did again Tuesday night after the Thunder clawed back into the game. But on this night, in this season, Parker sits no more. The ball found its way into his hands in the closing moments, and he darted through the Thunder for one final twisting layup.

After all these years, Parker's leading the Spurs just as he always said he could. After all these years, it's his team, his time.

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