With the release of every last three-pointer, dropping on the heads of the Miami Heat like a relentless tropical rain, all the players on the San Antonio Spurs’ bench inched forward in their chairs and rose in anticipation of the inevitable. They whipped towels. They ran sprints along the baseline. They leapt beneath the basket. Only one of them sat still amid the din.
Everything went right for the Spurs on Tuesday night, in a shocking and rollicking 113-77 rout of the Heat, except a thing they can’t afford to go wrong. Lost in the jubilation was point guard Tony Parker, still the most crucial player in this series, tweaking his right hamstring in the third quarter. An MRI Wednesday morning revealed a right hamstring strain, putting Parker’s status for Game 4 in doubt.
The Spurs were still able to win, and win prodigiously, behind breathtaking shooting displays from Gary Neal and Danny Green, who drained a combined 13 threes with only six misses. But they need to beat the defending champs two more times and they cannot count on Neal and Green to lift them like this again. They need Parker bounding off screens and probing the paint.
He could not remember a specific play or moment when he suffered the injury, but it was in the middle of the third quarter and sent him limping to the locker room. “It was a weird feeling,” Parker said. He returned to start the fourth but played less than two minutes before going to the bench for good. A trainer massaged the leg during timeouts and Parker resisted the temptation to hop around with his teammates. “Pop didn’t take no risks,” Parker said. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich didn’t have to test his star point guard, with the Spurs beating the Heat in a runaway, but the decision could be more difficult heading into Game 4.
Parker’s typical pregame routine was abbreviated Tuesday by what he called the worst traffic jam he’s experienced since arriving in San Antonio 12 years ago. “It took me two hours to get here,” he admitted. He and Tim Duncan, driving separately, pulled into the AT&T Center parking lot at 7:05 p.m., less than one hour before tip-off. Parker would not say whether he was able to stretch as extensively as usual. He scored just six points with eight assists in 27 minutes, 21 of which were in the first half.
Indirectly, Parker still influenced the outcome. For more than a week, he has been telling Neal, “We need a big game from you.” Parker saw how the Heat were defending him on the pick-and-roll, sending two defenders to trap him, and knew the Spurs’ snipers would be left alone for open threes. Neal found a groove with Parker in the game and he stayed in it even when the point guard left. Afterward, Neal told Parker, “You called it.”
If Parker is unable to play moving forward, or is unable to move as nimbly as usual, the Heat won’t have to direct so much attention to him.
In the past three years, the Spurs have morphed from Duncan’s team to Parker’s. The ball is constantly in his hands and the Spurs often run multiple pick-and-rolls per possession to free him. They have played without Parker for stretches before, most recently in March, when he sprained his ankle and Cory Joseph assumed the point guard duties. But Joseph is in only his second year out of Texas and served five stints in the D-League this season alone. After Tuesday’s outburst, Neal would also get time at point guard, with Green and Manu Ginobili on the wing. The Spurs are hoping they don’t have to consider those options.
The NBA is a point guard’s league, but many of the brightest among them have been lost at critical times: Derrick Rose, Rajon Rondo and, most recently, Russell Westbrook. The Thunder amassed the best record in the Western Conference, but without Westbrook, they hobbled out of the playoffs in the second round. The beneficiary was San Antonio, which swept the Grizzlies and reached the Finals, based largely on Parker’s dervish drives. Now they must pace, as a euphoric night in San Antonio turned anxious.