Parker's new grip on Spurs evident against Jazz
By PAUL J. WEBER
SAN ANTONIO (AP) Before Tony Parker took the reins of the San Antonio Spurs, he first needed to disappoint them.
Not just with his words, but with how he played.
Both instances came after Parker retreated to Europe last summer while the top-seeded Spurs were still reeling from a first-round bust. That's when Parker told French journalists that the trio of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and himself likely had no more championship runs left in the tank.
Maybe more troubling to coach Gregg Popovich was later seeing Parker on the court in London.
"Pop was mad at me when he came to London and saw me play with the national team," Parker said after leading the Spurs to a Game 1 playoff victory over Utah. "Thought I played harder with national team. I told him, `I'll play good this year and I'll play with a different attitude.'"
So far, Parker is holding up his end of the bargain.
Popovich on Monday reiterated how his All-Star point guard this season has played like never before, continuing to heap praise after Parker scored 28 points in the playoff opener against the Jazz, helping give the Spurs their first 1-0 series lead in four years heading into Game 2 on Wednesday.
On the surface, Parker's performance in the 106-91 victory Sunday was nothing remarkable by his standards. There was his signature slashing, acrobatic layups and the precise pick-and-rolls with Duncan. Even as far as playoff scoring goes, the game didn't come close to cracking Parker's top 10.
But somewhere between a preseason sit-down with Popovich and Ginobili - the fiery, competitive soul of the Spurs - and breaking his hand in January, Parker decided to become more aggressive. Popovich noticed him becoming "more demonstrative" and teammates described him as more determined. His assists shot up to a career-high 7.7 average, all while still leading the Spurs in scoring at 18.3 points per game.
Sometime around then, Parker said, is when it happened.
"It became my team," he said.
Ginobili, who admitted to having seen Parker coast through games from time to time, said the attitude is unlike any he's seen from Parker in their decade together.
"He's always been a great player, don't get me wrong," Ginobili said. "But he took some games off after having a good week. But this year he was so steady for two months. He brought it every game. He took care of business."
Parker, of course, has starred in this same story before.
As far back as three seasons ago, when Parker averaged a career-high 22 points, headlines about the hitting-his-prime Frenchman finally seizing the reins with Duncan in decline were common. Mavericks guard Jason Terry called Parker "the head of the snake" in their 2009 playoff series, and Erick Dampier went a step further, vowing to put him "on his back" after Parker scorched Dallas in San Antonio's only playoff win that year.
And that's to say nothing of Parker's coronation in 2007 as the Finals MVP.
So what's different now?
Popovich can point to a handful of examples. During timeouts, Parker won't hesitate to speak over Popovich and make the huddle aware of exploitable matchups. Other times, just as Popovich is walking down the scorer's table to signal a play, Parker will wave him off - he's got something better in mind.
"It's always a process, especially for someone who's not a natural point and is a scoring point," Popovich said earlier this month. "We always talked about a spectrum. John Stockton's over here, and we didn't want Tony to be the exact opposite and just scoring. We want him to come halfway toward Stockton."
From the vantage point of Stockton's old team, Parker has reached that desired midpoint.
"He's seen it all," Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said Monday. "They talk about him not being able to shoot jump shots for years, but he's still able to get to the paint. So you have to give him different looks, have to make sure you're determined to keep him out of the paint and do what you can."
Parker turns 30 in May. Aside from having already won three NBA championships, all that extra effort Popovich thought Parker exerted over the summer paid off, since France qualified for the Olympics for the first time since 2000. Spurs center Boris Diaw - who has been staying in Parker's guest house since signing in March - said the do-or-die nature of Olympic qualifying may have left an impression on his French teammate.
That lesson: Always push harder.
"Because if you don't," Diaw said, "maybe you'll be done in a week."
Updated April 30, 2012