Commentary

Parker's savvy puts Spurs on track

Originally Published: April 29, 2012
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

SAN ANTONIO -- Those textbook runners and floaters. That knack for the circus layup. His sentimental side, too.

Tony Parker brought it all to Game 1 of San Antonio's first-round series with the Utah Jazz.

Pretty much the full Parker repertoire was on display in a Sunday afternoon complete game at the AT&T Center. He was zooming in and out of the paint to peak penetrate-and-create effect, working on avenging the success Utah's Devin Harris had when they dueled back in 2006 … and even brushing off the questions he didn't like to illustrate his total command.

Asked to describe how it felt to start and win in the playoffs alongside fellow Frenchman Boris Diaw, his close buddy since their teens, Parker quickly rewound through the years and proclaimed it to be "a dream."

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D. Clarke Evans/Getty ImagesTony Parker and Tim Duncan worked hand-in-hand at the start of the 2012 playoffs.
Asked to share his sense of satisfaction stemming from this 106-91 playoff baptism of the untested, jittery Jazz -- or maybe relief given that San Antonio had dropped its six previous Game 1s -- he claimed to be oblivious.

"I didn't even know," Parker insisted about those six straight 1-0 deficits.

The most you could get on that topic from Parker's selective memory was a grudging admission that no one around here has forgotten how the postseason wound up for top-seeded San Antonio in 2011, as well as the fact Parker's own struggles against the Memphis Grizzlies contributed plenty to the early, humbling exit to that No. 8 seed.

"We don't even talk about it," Parker said. "I think everybody knows what happened last year.

"Everybody is very motivated this year."

It certainly looked that way at the launch of San Antonio's latest postseason journey, despite the inevitable (and justifiable) focus on Parker thanks to his decisive 28 points and eight assists and how, in Manu Ginobili's words, Parker "got us the lead and let us keep the lead early when no one else was playing well."

You should know by now that the Spurs never do it with one Spur and that you can't talk about Parker or Ginobili for very long without bringing the conversation back to the older gentleman who on Wednesday celebrated another birthday. Now 36, Tim Duncan commemorated that milestone by winning a notable duel of his own against Utah's Al Jefferson, totaling 17 points, 11 rebounds and five assists in 31 minutes to more than neutralize Jefferson's fairly muted 16 and nine.

"To me," Jefferson offered later, "he's not as old as everyone says he is."

It's not just you, Big Al. Anyone watching Sunday's proceedings closely will have noted that Duncan looked unmistakably spry when he pump-faked Jefferson off the floor in the third quarter and beat Paul Millsap to the rim for the sort of momentum-changing dunk in traffic that Memphis never saw. Maybe the collective lack of playoff experience among the Utah big men was the key factor Sunday -- since Jefferson hadn't tasted the postseason since his rookie year in 2004-05 and with Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter making their playoff debuts -- but the Spurs believe there's more at work than the mere fact Duncan isn't trying to keep up with the more polished and potent duo of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol at the same time.

"Timmy's moving better than he has in years," Spurs newcomer Stephen Jackson said.

Said Utah's Josh Howard, recipient of an unexpected Game 1 start after choosing the Jazz over the Spurs in free agency: "I had a chance to work out with Tim at Wake Forest [last] summer. I knew he still had a lot left in the tank."

Our best advice for the Jazz from here would actually be to dial down the respect. The gamble on starting Howard (scoreless in 16 minutes) over DeMarre Carroll obviously failed to pay dividends for Ty Corbin in his first taste of the playoffs as a coach, but the bigger problem might well be that Jefferson and Millsap are showing Duncan too much reverence. Hopefully this was just a case of over-the-top politeness at the podium, but both Jefferson and Millsap sounded a touch too humble after absorbing a 58-44 beatdown in points in the paint.

"Like I told [Duncan] before the game, it's just an honor to go against him in the playoffs," Jefferson said.

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Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesParker finished with 28 points and eight assists in Game 1.
Said Millsap when it was suggested that the Jazz didn't match the vets' intensity: "Not the whole game and that's what we're learning, that's what we're trying to get better at. … We're learning and we still have a few more games left."

I repeat: Hopefully Utah's starting frontcourt twosome was simply being especially cautious for public consumption and aren't as resigned to more of the same in Wednesday's Game 2 as their comments made it sound. (I'd also like to see Favors get more time after sparkling back-to-back rejections of Duncan and Ginobili in a productive first-half stint.)

Then again …

If Parker and Duncan continue to work in concert like this, there's probably not much that the Jazz can do in this stage of their development. Especially since Manu will not continue to mistime his takeoffs on his dunks as the series unfolds. Unquestionably healthier than he was a year ago, when he was forced to sit out that Game 1 loss to the Griz and spent the next five games playing with his mangled right elbow housed in a bulky black protective contraption, Ginobili will surely uncork a game or two like Parker just did.

And such is the growing reverence for Parker that it scarcely caused a ripple in the interview room when, in very un-Spur-like fashion, he actually used the words "my team" to describe these Spurs, explaining how an offseason accusation from Pop that he plays harder for France -- along with Ginobili's early-season injury woes -- thrust the 29-year-old into the broadest leadership role of his 11 NBA seasons.

It seems that several Spurs, one game in, are ready to fall in line behind him.

"That's not the same guy as when I was here before," said Jackson, who rejoined the Spurs in a trade with Golden State in mid-March after helping Duncan, Ginobili and Parker win their first of three championships together in 2003.

"We've all grown since then, but Tony is a true leader now. He wants to lead. If he keeps playing like that, we're gonna be tough to beat."

Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics