Spurs are champs out West as Parker continues to keep promise
Whenever he’s had the chance, Tim Duncan has made it a point to remind Tony Parker of the promise he made after last season’s bitter Western Conference Finals loss to the Thunder. Quite simply, the Spurs’ point guard has been given a single objective this year: get the Big Fundamental his fifth ring.
On Memorial Day of 2013, 14 years after Sean Elliott’s Miracle pushed his team closer to the franchise’s first title, Parker led the Spurs back to their fifth NBA Finals berth with a dominant season-high 37-point performance in a sweep-capping 93-86 win over the Memphis Grizzlies. It’s been six years since the streets of downtown San Antonio were in gridlock over a Western Conference championship, but that familiar feeling of June basketball is back in the Alamo City.
And right now, Parker looks impossible to stop.
He darted in and out of pick and rolls from every angle on the floor, leading anyone who tried to guard him through a gauntlet of screens that left defenders no chance to keep up with the Spurs’ water bug. For a Grizzlies team already exhausted by desperation, it was a torture chamber.
It was a nightmare for Memphis, one of the league’s elite defensive groups, having to make adjustment after adjustment in an attempt to blockade the Spurs’ offensive motor. When they collapsed on him, he found the open man. When they stuck to their assignment, Parker found the lanes through and around the Grizzlies’ bigs at will on his way to the rim. It’s been clinical execution from the time Game 1 tipped a little more than a week ago, and for a limited offensive team like the one in Memphis, it felt like there was a perpetual hump that was impossible to overcome.
And make no mistake about it, the Grizzlies are a hell of a team. The Spurs were just firing on a level they were unable to match.
Parker’s 37 points — the fourth-highest single-game point total of his playoff career — came on a ridiculous 15-for-21 performance from the floor and were accompanied by six assists. He scored nearly 40 percent of his team’s points on this night, leading the way for the Spurs’ Big 3 that together will soon make their fourth Finals appearance in the last decade. On Monday night, Parker, Duncan and Manu Ginobili become the only trio of players in history to make it to the NBA’s final destination for the fourth time for a team not named the Lakers or Celtics. On top of that, it will be 14 years between Duncan’s first appearance in the Finals and his latest with the same team, a league record.
The big man pitched in with 15 points, eight rebounds and four blocks in 35 minutes, and in front of the media was business-like as usual.
“My sole focus is to just get this done, try to get another championship,” Duncan said. “I don’t care (about) records, I don’t care (about) age, I don’t care (about) any of that stuff. I just want to do what I have to do to try and win a championship.”
But the cameras caught the jubilation his teammates felt for their franchise cornerstone. Just as they had done after Game 3’s win, Spurs players couldn’t keep their hands off of Duncan. After all, they’re doing this for him, in a league far too often lacking in selflessness and humility. Patty Mills and DeJuan Blair saw only moments on the court throughout the series, yet were the first ones off the bench to embrace the big man. His teammates know he deserves their best.
The sting of the Western Conference Finals of 2012, where San Antonio took a two-game lead into Chesapeake Arena in Oklahoma City only to be capsized in four consecutive games, has been on their collective brain all season. This time around, there were no extravagant winning streaks or sure things. It’s been a grind since the end of the regular season left most pining for more than the struggles they endured down the stretch.
But Duncan had Parker’s word.
“Since last year, I promised to (Duncan) that we will go back to the Finals and get an opportunity to win the whole thing. I try to do my best, try to be aggressive every night, and I think everybody on the team really wanted to do it for him,” the point guard said. “We won the West and now there’s one more step. This is the hardest one. We know it’s going to be tough, but right now let’s enjoy it and we’ll focus on who we’re playing later.”
To a man, it’s been an all-out effort. Even for San Antonio’s Hall-of-Fame sixth man, whose struggles are becoming more commonplace than aberration, it’s been about doing all the little things the right way.
“We all try to help Tony and TD, they’ve been of course our best players. If it’s with a steal, rebound, block or whatever, we are there,” Ginobili said after the game. “This was an unbelievable series by everybody. (The Grizzlies) are a tough, hard-nosed team. We’re very proud of what we just accomplished.
“I can’t believe we are (this) close.”
And it’s easy to be surprised, especially when you look back two years to when these teams last met in the playoffs. Then, the beaten-down, overmatched Spurs fell prey to the hungry Grizzlies as the No. 1-seed was toppled by an eighth seed in one of the most shocking playoff defeats in the franchise’s history. Zach Randolph’s domination was a big reason for it at the time.
But the affectionately named Z-Bo disappeared over the last week amidst the barrage of Spurs defenders that consumed him through the sweep. And whether it was the San Antonio game plan or Randolph’s inability to remove himself from between his own ears, the human wrecking-ball was as detrimental to his own team as he’s ever been.
In that 2011 series, the Grizzlies’ power forward lit up the Spurs for 21.5 points per game on 50 percent shooting, playing a style of basketball for which San Antonio had no answer. But over the course of the recently completed four-game sweep, Randolph’s numbers were putrid. He was stifled by silver and black jerseys every second he was on the floor while he gritted his way to 11 points a night on just 30 percent shooting.
The message was sent loud and clear from San Antonio: not this time, Z-Bo.
“There’s no magic. We didn’t come up with some new defense to guard him. We were aggressive, we did a lot of denying, a lot of pressure on the passer who was trying to deliver the ball,” Gregg Popovich said. “We fronted and three-quartered and showed a lot of looks on the post, we didn’t just stay behind (Randolph). We made it difficult for him to catch. For the most part, I thought the post defense, the foot-movement, the commitment, was fantastic.”
Last season, San Antonio cruised into the postseason with the whir of a bandsaw slicing effortlessly through any defense it faced. But to steal a term that motivated Memphis all season, it’s been a grind for the 2013 version of the Spurs. A revamped defense and a paramount placed on precise execution has taken San Antonio to where it is today, and regardless of the team they face in the NBA Finals, both aspects of the game plan will be as crucial as they’ve ever been.
Duncan was unsurprisingly stoic in front of the cameras and microphones shoved in his face as the Spurs narrative grows increasingly more interesting. He said (and didn’t say) all the right things as he realizes there’s still another step to take. And as Popovich shooed his players off the celebratory podium before the cameras even stopped rolling, you could see the piercing focus undeterred in the coach’s eyes. The job is not finished. There’s still one hurdle ahead looming larger than the rest before it.
But thanks to social media and the private access it provides to the outside world, you can see their smiles through the lens of a cellphone camera. While not satisfied to stop where they are, the Spurs are excited by what they have accomplished. The young players who have never felt this stage under their feet are all ecstatic to be standing there in a photograph with their teammate, the great Tim Duncan. And make no mistake, they’ll do anything to bring him what he covets most.
There are nine days before the Finals begin on June 6, and whether it be a Game 1 in Miami or a series-opener in San Antonio against the Indiana Pacers, the Spurs have more time than they’d like to deliberate, to game plan and to recuperate. But they’ll take a sweep over any other option, and they’ll take advantage of the period of rest that lies ahead. For Parker, it’s a chance to gear back up for what could be the test of his life.
And there’s no reason to think he won’t be ready for the platform on which he won the 2007 Finals MVP. Besides, up to this point, he has done everything needed of him to make good on a very important promise.