SAN ANTONIO – Clinging to a four-point lead late Thursday, already down two games to none to these young, relentless New Orleans Hornets, the San Antonio Spurs had seen their season, their dynasty dreams, reduced to this: Tony Parker hunched over the scorer’s table, begging the team’s TV analyst for a little magic.
Parker grinned at Sean Elliott and rubbed his fingers together.
“Give me some of your jump shot,” he said.
Elliott laughed. Nine years ago he authored the Memorial Day Miracle, launching the franchise’s championship era with a snap of his right wrist. He had long since retired his jumper for the comfort of an analyst’s chair, but if Parker needed his help…
Elliott leaned over and touched Parker’s hand. With that, the Spurs point guard turned and jogged onto the court. Less than two minutes later, he pulled up from 17 feet and fired. Chris Paul could only watch as the ball arched then settled into the net.
Parker followed by finding Bruce Bowen for a three-pointer. The Hornets scrambled for a timeout. On his way to the bench Parker stopped to thank his benefactor.
“I just loaned him a little of my touch,” Elliott would later say.
Parker might want to hold on to it for a while longer. On Thursday, Popovich turned his point guard loose on the Hornets with just one order: Attack. Parker responded with 31 points and 11 assists to mute Paul’s 35 and nine, and the result was a 110-99 victory for the Spurs.
Parker isn’t going to stop Paul. Who has? But the Spurs have decided he at least needs to go back at him. In San Antonio’s Game 2 loss, Parker was too tentative, too intent on trying to get his teammates involved.
“I probably screwed up trying to get him to make perfect decisions or something,” Popovich said. “We know he’s better when he’s aggressive and trying to score.”
Give Parker credit. He doesn’t scare easily. Paul has rampaged through the season and now the playoffs, punishing one victim after another. Each game brings a new comparison. Tiny Archibald. Isiah Thomas. Magic Johnson. At times, Paul has seemed part of them all. On Thursday, he even unseated two-time MVP Steve Nash on the All-NBA first team.
“After watching him in the playoffs you’d have to say he’s a Hall of Famer,” gushed one NBA scout. “A lock. The guy is just a…beast.”
There was a time when Parker would melt under the weight of such matchups. Stephon Marbury bullied him for at least a couple seasons. In the second round against Dallas two years ago, Popovich pulled him from two of the series’ biggest possessions to get a better shooter on the floor.
The Spurs can’t live without Parker. He helped carry them through the first round against Phoenix and if they have any hope of making this a competitive series, he’ll have to do some more heavy lifting. On Thursday, that meant also guarding Paul.
Such duties often don’t make for much fun. Bowen chased Paul for much of the series’ first two games and Paul simply picked apart the Spurs with his passing, making Peja Stojakovic one of his favorite targets. Realizing as much, Popovich opened Thursday with Bowen on Stojakovic. Having frequently tormented Stojakovic in Sacramento, Bowen again kept him in check.
Popovich also made one other important adjustment: He turned the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year into a starter. Manu Ginobili has long been used to his coach’s flip-flopping. When the Spurs lost the opening game of the 2005 playoffs against Denver, Ginobili bet his teammates that Popovich would ask him to move to the bench for the next game. He won.
“This time,” Ginobili said, “I had only a little bit of a gut feeling.”
No matter. The move worked out well for everyone involved. Ginobili matched Parker’s 31 points and took control of the game early in the fourth quarter when he converted a four-point play then followed with a three-pointer. Michael Finley, who Ginobili replaced in the lineup, scored 11 points off the bench.
The Spurs also received some good fortune. Though Duncan has downplayed his illness this week, team sources confirmed he had a 103-degree fever after Game 1 and he remained sick enough for team owner Peter Holt to seek near-daily updates on his condition. Only on Thursday did Duncan truly begin to feel a little better. Ginobili, likewise, also reported some improvement after being slowed by a sore left ankle he injured in the first game of the playoffs.
Healthy or not, the Spurs are worried by these Hornets. Even in victory, they spent much of the game seemingly trying to hang on. As talented and athletic as the Hornets are, their resiliency has impressed even more. “These guys,” one Spurs coach said, “just don’t seem to care that the playoffs are supposed to be hard.”
Paul has had a lot to do with that attitude. Still, Parker has embraced the challenge to go against him, and there’s a theory for that: The two are as much friends as rivals. At Wake Forest, Paul used to watch film of Parker. He already knew Tim Duncan through their Demon Deacon ties and when Paul arrived to the NBA, Dale Allen, a sports marketing manager for Nike, had Parker meet him for lunch before a preseason game in Oklahoma City.
The two quickly bonded and Parker, at the wise age of 23, became a mentor of sorts for Paul. “Tony said in order to be a real threat you have to have three guys who can really go off,” Paul recalled earlier this season.
The Spurs now wish Parker had kept his advice to himself. The Hornets’ triple threat of Paul, David West and Stojakovic might as well expand to a quartet with the number of lob dunks center Tyson Chandler has thrown down in this series.
“He’s got almost perfect players around him,” Parker said of Paul.
Paul also has worked to turn himself into the perfect point guard. Like Parker, he has improved his jump shot. But while Parker rates among the best finishers in the game, his decision-making and vision can’t compare to that of Paul. Not many do. “It’s unheard of what he does,” Popovich said.
But on Thursday? Parker gave nearly as good as he got. His back-and-forth battle with Paul was one of the most entertaining matchups in a playoff year that has so far lacked much competitiveness. Late in the third quarter, Parker bolted to the rim for a layup. Paul immediately ran the ball back at him, absorbing a bump from both Parker and Duncan that spun him around backward as he nonchalantly flipped in a shot over his shoulder. Parker and Paul smiled at each other on more than occasion in the game, and when Paul has gotten frustrated with Bowen’s defensive tactics, Parker has laughed at them both.
“Sometimes it’s hard to just sit back and watch them,” Allen said of his two young clients. “I’m going, ‘Be nice, guys. Be nice, guys.”
The two get along even better away from the court. They had dinner together after Game 1 and plan to do the same this weekend. Parker said he’ll pick up the check.
On Sunday there will likely be another game that needs saving. The Spurs will ask Parker to lower his head and attack. In this series, against this point guard, against this friend, he’ll need to find some more magic.