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SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Tony Parker drove to the basket for what should have been a routine running lay-in against the Sacramento Kings. Only, nothing has been routine for Parker in recent months, including that shot, which, like many for the San Antonio Spurs point guard, failed to fall.
Shortly after that miss, Parker spun 180 degrees with his hands on his hips and stared blankly at Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. Popovich can be tough on his players, but with his veteran point guard fighting a hamstring injury, he responded with encouraging words and a clap of his hands.
"I've been through a lot of tough challenges in my career," Parker said. "Right now, this is up there."
Parker initially suffered a left hamstring injury on Dec. 5 against the Memphis Grizzlies and missed nine of the next 12 games. Since returning fully on Jan. 6, Parker's scoring average has dropped from 16.2 points per game to 13.8. His scoring average is his lowest since his rookie season 13 years ago. He's also playing the fewest minutes his career at 28.2 per game.
Parker brought a Spurs trainer with him during his vacation to Mexico during the NBA All-Star break to help him with his daily rehab. He appeared rejuvenated as he scored 21 points against the Los Angeles Clippers in the first game after the break, but averaged just three points the following three. He responded with a team-high 19 against the Kings on Friday but missed 10-of-13 shots in the Spurs' rout of the Phoenix Suns on Saturday.
"He has lots of miles over the last two years and he is one of the guys that only rests if he is hurt," one NBA advance scout told Yahoo Sports. "…He has not been making a lot of the layups and in-the-paint shots that he has in the past at a higher percentage.
"I don't think there is anything too dramatic in a drop-off of skills. I just think they are going big picture. His assists are down, too. His team is not shooting as well as we are used to."
Parker acknowledged that aggressive opposing guards also using his injury against him on both sides of the court. He said NBA players with similar hamstring injuries have told him that it could take two-to-three months to recover.
"I have not been the same since I came back, and it's still bothering me," he said. "Everybody knows. I am not going to use that as an excuse. I am just going to work it out until it gets better."
Parker hasn't wanted to take time off to rest the injury because the defending champion Spurs are fighting for a playoff berth in the tough Western Conference. The Spurs, who are 36-23 and in seventh in the West, are 7-7 without Parker. Their recent four-game losing streak, which ended in Sacramento, made their struggles all the more glaring.
"We're trying to go to the Finals for the third straight time," Parker said. "It's not just repeat. It's a third time to the Finals. It's hard. We went to the conference finals the last three times, seven times in 13 years. …No one is satisfied with our team.
"We always try to push for better. If I were satisfied, I would have relaxed when I was 29."
Parker will turn 33 on May 17, and his basketball miles already resemble NBA players who played close to their 40s. He is 16th overall in games played by active NBA players with 985. He is 12th all-time in postseason minutes (7,006). Teammate Tim Duncan (8,902) and Kobe Bryant (8,641), ranked first and third respectively, are the only two active players with more. Parker has played in seven conference finals, five NBA Finals and also has 12 years of experience playing for the French national team.
"Yes, it's a lot of games, a lot of miles," he said.
Parker says Duncan, 38, and Manu Ginobili, 37, have given him advice on dealing with injuries and other keys to success in the latter stage of one's career.
"Go back to the basics when you're struggling or coming back [from injury]," Ginobili said. "You have to take care of the body in every situation because the margin of error is huge if you don't rest enough. He will be fine. He's still young and he can do great for a lot of years."
Parker is far from the only player on the Spurs who has struggled. Kawhi Leonard is shooting career-lows of 44.2 percent from the field and 32 percent from the 3-point line. The usually efficient Spurs are 13th in the NBA in field-goal percentage.
"I am just trying to work it through it," Parker said. "Hopefully, it will be good pretty soon. At the same time, it's tough because the whole team is struggling and I'm struggling. It's a tough time right now."
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