It seemed like All-Star point guard Tony Parker was close to returning to the San Antonio Spurs' lineup. Turns out, he's ready to play.
After missing the last eight games with a sprained left ankle, Parker will be back earlier than expected Friday night as San Antonio tries to hand the slumping Utah Jazz their first eight-game road losing streak in eight seasons.
Out since March 1, Parker - the team leader with 21.0 points and 7.6 assists per game - went through a full practice on Tuesday and participated in a 5-on-5 scrimmage two days later. Gregg Popovich said after Thursday's session there was a chance Parker would return against the Jazz, and the team confirmed Friday morning that he'd be active and available.
"It just makes the game easier for us. He penetrates, finds us open shots on the floor and gets after it on defense as well," Kawhi Leonard said of Parker following Friday's shootaround.
The Spurs went 6-2 without Parker, and have won the first three on this four-game homestand after getting 25 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and four blocks from Tim Duncan in Wednesday's 104-93 victory over Golden State. Duncan is averaging 27.7 points, 14.7 rebounds and 3.3 blocks since sitting out a 107-83 loss at Minnesota on March 12 with a sore left knee.
"(My) body feels good and shots are going in," said Duncan, who is shooting 64.3 percent (36 for 56) over the last three games.
The Spurs' big man, three rebounds shy of passing Shaquille O'Neal for 13th all-time with 13,100, recorded a pair of double-doubles as San Antonio and Utah (34-34) split two earlier matchups this season, totaling 42 points, 32 rebounds and nine blocks. The last time these teams played, Duncan had 22 points, a season-best 21 boards and six blocks in a 99-96 loss in Salt Lake City on Dec. 12.
The Jazz certainly won't be happy to see Parker back on the floor. He's totaled 46 points and 17 assists in the two meetings and has scored at least 22 in his last four versus Utah.
The Spurs, 29-4 at home, have lost just twice in Utah's last 26 regular-season visits following their 110-100 victory on Nov. 3. That was the first time these teams played since San Antonio's first-round playoff sweep in 2012.
While the Spurs are trying to hold off second-place Oklahoma City for the top spot in the Southwest Division and the conference, Utah is fighting just to get into the playoff picture after falling three games back of seventh-place Houston with Wednesday's 100-93 loss to the Rockets.
The Jazz, losers of 10 of 13, are 1 1/2 games behind the Los Angeles Lakers for the eighth spot.
"We've slid and this is a tough loss for us, but we're still in the fight and we'll approach every game trying to contain and compete," said coach Ty Corbin, whose team hasn't lost eight straight outside Salt Lake City since March 4-April 6, 2005.
The Jazz need to do a better job of competing in the first half. They've been outscored by an average of 19.3 points in the opening 24 minutes of their last three road games.
"It's very frustrating (to fall behind), especially on the road," said Gordon Hayward, who's averaging 20.3 points and 6.0 boards starting the last three games after coming off the bench for his previous 45. "... We just can't let teams have those 5- (and) 10-minute pushes where they put up 17, 20, 25 points on us. It's unacceptable."
The Jazz have lost six of eight since Mo Williams returned from a lengthy injury absence (thumb), but the point guard has enjoyed some of his best moments of the season against the Spurs. He scored a season-high 29 points with nine assists in the November loss and hit the game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer that ended San Antonio's five-game winning streak on Dec. 12.
Including the postseason, the Spurs have won 29 of 31 at home versus the Jazz.