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Tony Parker making point with postseason run

6/20/2013

It's a fair argument to tout Tony Parker as the best player on the best team. You can quibble over San Antonio's exact status versus Miami’s or point to Tim Duncan's two-way impact, but Parker plays the most on a Finals team that just eviscerated the West's best defense, before having the Heat on the (golden) ropes in Game 6.

Better than simply "playing the most," Parker also just reversed a slump of recent postseasons, dazzling his way back into the "best-point-guard" conversation. Parker's always been a difficult player to assess because he's in such symbiosis with San Antonio's motion offense. It's hard to envision the Spurs without Parker and even more difficult to envision Parker without them. It's a problem not wholly dissimilar from separating the talents of Steve Nash from "Seven Seconds or Less."

After three consecutive underwhelming postseasons, it made sense to question whether Parker was the product of a system, a system that could crack under the scrutiny of an extended playoff series. That line of interrogation didn't happen much outside San Antonio, though, because the Spurs always manage to Eurostep away from media attention with the deftness of Ginobli. It also helped that Parker had an NBA Finals MVP on his resume, even if it was back in 2007.

In this 2013 postseason, Parker has quelled almost all criticism while demonstrating the virtues of mastering a system so completely. Yes, there are "unfair" advantages to Parker often getting the ball just as expertly-timed cross screens are disrupting the defense. But many other point guards would crumble under the weight of San Antonio's encyclopedic playbook.

Parker's mastery of what the Spurs do has occurred, in part, because he's been there for so long. At a certain point, when a man plays so much with one team, judging him against what he'd do elsewhere becomes irrelevant. Parker has been with San Antonio since age 19. Gregg Popovich has done much to mold his game into what it is today. Tony Parker is the Spurs; the Spurs are Tony Parker. You almost can't talk about what he'd be on another team because this particular team has influenced what he became, every step of the way. And right now, Parker's improved game is illustrative of how the Spurs changed in the best of ways.

Resoundingly, Parker showed that he could flourish by viciously threshing a Grizzlies defense, geared towards stopping him and equipped with Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol. Parker did this, and the Spurs did this, with beautiful passing, the likes of which you would not have seen from this team back when Tim Duncan was the offensive focal point. Against the Grizzlies, Tony Parker averaged 9.5 assists, as his team moved the ball with an ease that looked like telepathy manifest. The result was a four game sweep, with San Antonio hitting at least half its shots in all but one of the contests.

As Popovich opened up San Antonio's offense with shooting and pace a couple years back, Parker developed into a better distributor. Parker set career highs in assist percentage these past two seasons (40.3, 40.4), and the 2013 San Antonio Spurs led basketball in assists per game (25.1). It's carried over to the playoffs, where the Spurs again lead all teams in assists, even when adjusted for pace.

At age 30, Parker is more liable than ever to hurl crafty jump passes, the kind you'd associate with Manu Ginobili's untamed genius. Older and wiser, Parker is now far more likely to kick the ball out after drawing the defense in. The younger version, the one that drove Popovich crazy, might have wrongly called his own number against the Memphis iso-specialists. Tony, the veteran, knows better than to fall for a trap and knows just how to exploit a defense that loads up too much on any side.

Parker has also grown more comfortable splicing defenses with "pocket" bounce passes between two defenders, as he did time and time again to Memphis and Miami pick-and-roll coverages. In those old Spurs-Suns playoff battles, Nash appeared to be Parker's unselfish mirror image on the point guard spectrum. Every day, that's changing.

Don’t forget the shot-making, though, as Parker still has that in his arsenal. In Game 6, we were just on the verge of Parker’s biggest moment, after he sealed a Spurs championship with consecutive, ridiculously difficult makes.

We'll never know what Parker would be were he asked to run the basic offense that Chris Paul steers in Los Angeles. That hypothetical will cease to matter if the Spurs keep rolling and Parker continues to power basketball's most unselfish team. If Tony Parker continues to run the NBA's most balanced attack and if that attack secures a title, who cares about what another guy would accomplish with the reins?