SAN ANTONIO – Tony Parker(notes) slogged through the season's dreary winter months, through the grind of an NBA schedule, and all he dreamed about was what lay ahead. I just want the playoffs to start, he privately told friends and family. He played on a tender ankle and a sore heel, robbed of his game-changing speed, and yet the San Antonio Spurs began to wonder if more was wrong with their point guard than his feet. Had he lost interest? Had Hollywood swelled his head? I can't wait for the playoffs, he answered. He broke his shooting hand, and in the month of rehab that followed, his message remained the same.
Just get me ready for the playoffs. You'll see.
Parker wanted the games to mean something again. He wanted the stage, the pressure and, on Friday, he finally got it all. The ball rotated to him, and he rose and coolly stuck a jump shot, just like the ones he'd stuck on the Spurs' previous two possessions. He had turned a deficit into a lead, leaving less than a minute on the clock. The Dallas Mavericks called a timeout to collect themselves, and Parker pumped his fists and screamed, howling along with the sellout crowd.
He'd waited all those months for this. Along the way, he lost his starting job as the Spurs gained traction without him. He wondered what he'd done wrong and, now, with every shot, he seemed determined to prove why they still needed him.
"My dad told me this is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business," Parker said. "People can forget."
The Spurs own a 2-1 lead over the Mavericks in no small part because Parker has played well off the bench in each of the three games. He's accepted his reserve role, and the person who made it easier for him to do so is the same busted-nose guard who put Parker in position to play the hero in Game 3.
"If Manu could do it all those times," Parker said, "then I can."
Of the 110 playoff games Manu Ginobili(notes) has played for the Spurs, only 35 have come as a starter. Five years ago, the Spurs lost their postseason opener to the Denver Nuggets and coach Gregg Popovich sent Ginobili to the bench the following game, triggering the franchise's run to its third championship. Popovich wasn't thinking this far ahead when he made the move, but as soon as Ginobili gave the Spurs an instant jolt off the bench, he also gave his coach an All-Star precedent. If Ginobili could accept the role without complaint, then wouldn't everyone else have to do the same?
The Spurs tested the theory earlier this season when they sent Richard Jefferson(notes) to the bench for a stretch of games. Jefferson didn't make an issue of the move. But Jefferson also isn't a former NBA Finals MVP. Parker carried the Spurs through their 2007 championship series against the Cleveland Cavaliers, and he did his best to carry them in their first-round loss to the Mavericks a year ago, averaging nearly 29 points in the series while Ginobili was out. Even after Parker spent the final two weeks of the regular season as a reserve, he figured he'd reclaim his starting job once the playoffs began, and why not?
"I've been a starter for nine years," Parker said.
Popovich, however, had searched all season for a winning combination, and he found one after Parker broke his hand and Ginobili moved into the backcourt with George Hill(notes). Parker accepted the move more than he embraced it, but he's also sounded more and more comfortable with his role after each of the past two games. Winning makes believers of everyone. Parker has even given himself a new nickname: Manu Jr.
Parker has played like Ginobili, too, and that shows how much his game has grown over these past few years. There was a time not too long ago when Parker was rarely afforded opportunities like Friday. When the playoffs got tight, the ball usually found its way into the hands of either Ginobili or Tim Duncan(notes). On occasion, Popovich would remove Parker from the floor altogether for a more trusted shooter.
Parker was forever the young kid dreaming of someday becoming one of his older brothers, and he was treated as such. He's often had to shoulder much of the criticism when the Spurs fall short. Rarely does he get a pass for his mistakes or injuries the way Duncan or Ginobili might. This comes from inside the organization as well as outside of it. When Popovich lit up Parker after a loss this season, one Spurs newcomer was stunned at the harshness of the rebuke.
Parker's heard it all by now, and he heard some more in Game 3 after the Mavericks went to a zone defense in the third quarter and ran off 17 consecutive points. Popovich ripped into the Spurs on the sideline for losing their aggressiveness. Most of his ire was directed at Parker. Missing for half of the run was Ginobili, who'd left a trail of blood from the court to the locker room after an elbow from Dirk Nowitzki(notes) fractured his nose.
Ginobili returned with tape across the bridge of his nose and gauze packing his nostrils to stop the bleeding. He's always had the heart of a prizefighter; now he has the beak, too. Time and again, Ginobili drove relentlessly to the rim until he'd stirred the Spurs from their slumber.
"This is a guy who beats up bats," Jefferson said. "No matter what he does, nobody is surprised."
There's a spirit to Ginobili's game that lifts the Spurs in a way that can't be matched by Parker or even Duncan. He's the fearless warrior, if there is such a thing in basketball, forever throwing himself into the teeth of the enemy. Brent Barry(notes) nicknamed him El Contusión, and Ginobili's latest battle scar only adds to his lore. Kobe Bryant(notes) once smacked him flush in the face after Ginobili blocked his shot. Ginobili's nose didn't break, but he showed up the next day with a black eye.
Ginobili didn't miss a game then, and he probably won't miss one now. He was cleared by doctors to play in Game 4 and was fitted for a mask on Saturday.
These Spurs feed off Ginobili's toughness, and he's taken ownership of this team unlike any other. That's why Popovich was hesitant to move Parker back into the starting lineup. Both guards do their best work when initiating the offense. Rather than have one mute the impact of the other at the start of games, the Spurs prefer to spread the wealth and extend the minutes where at least one is on the floor.
The dynamic between Parker and Ginobili, both on and off the court, has long been ripe for analysis. Ginobili has become a hero to the people of San Antonio, Parker a friend to the stars. Parker married an A-list actress, shares a second home in Malibu and once tried to launch a rap career. Ginobili? He's always stayed low-key, using his Twitter account to provide updates on the impending birth of his twin sons. Parker, too, has previously been hailed as one of People Magazine's 50 Most Beautiful People, a list Ginobili will have a more difficult time cracking now that his nose is a jagged mess.
Parker and Ginobili have each succeeded in their own way while teaming to win three championships. So far, they've also made their newest arrangement work. Parker's performance in the playoffs has been all the more impressive given that his broken hand healed only three weeks ago. During his month off, Parker was never cleared to practice once. The extent of his basketball work was limited to a single shooting session.
"It's different for me now because Manu is playing unbelievable," Parker said. "He's playing at an All-Star level and the ball should be in his hands. If he's tired, then I'll be aggressive and wait my turn."
Parker doesn't know whether he'll ever get a turn to start in these playoffs, and that's because Popovich can't know, either. The postseason makes such situations tenuous. A couple losses, a different matchup, Danny Crawford becomes Joey Crawford and the whole perspective changes. Just ask the Mavericks. Two games ago, Caron Butler(notes) was hailed as Nowitzki's next great sidekick. On Friday, he didn't get off the bench for the entire second half.
This summer will also raise other questions for San Antonio. Spurs chairman Peter Holt will pay the luxury tax for a winning roster. But if this season rates as a disappointment? Then the Spurs will likely need to get creative in their efforts to upgrade. Parker remains their greatest trade asset.
The Spurs had similar discussions a couple years ago, and ultimately decided Parker was worth keeping. The same could hold true again. In the meantime, Parker has what he's waited for all season: the big stage, the pressure. The playoffs had arrived and there he was, throwing in one dagger, then another. Parker headed to the sideline to find Popovich waiting for him, not with a scolding, but a play. With the Spurs looking for another basket to put the game out of reach, his coach finally called his number.
"I was surprised," Parker said.
Parker rose and buried that shot, too. Then, with the final seconds beginning to tick away, Ginobili found him with a sharp pass for a layup. Starter to reserve, reserve to starter. No one knows where this will lead or how long it will last, but Parker understands. People forget. But they can remember, too.