It's official: Spurs' torch has been passed from Tim Duncan to Tony Parker
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MIAMI - For Tony Parker, it's been a French evolution.
Parker was 19 when he joined the San Antonio Spurs in 2001. They had established stars David Robinson and Tim Duncan and strong-minded coach Gregg Popovich.
Parker continued to improve and became more of a focal point of the offense, but with Duncan still in San Antonio, he didn't feel comfortable being the vocal leader. But after Popovich saw the way Parker carried himself with the French national team in the 2011 European Basketball Championship, he told his All-Star point guard it was time.
"He saw that I was talking all the time and being very vocal and screaming in timeouts with my teammates," Parker said Friday. "He told me after the summer, 'I want you to play like that now. Timmy is getting older and Manu [Ginobili] is getting older. You need to go to the next step to a new level in your game.' It just arrived naturally."
Parker has proved that Popovich made another good decision. The Spurs are Parker's team now, and he has them up 1-0 on the Heat in the NBA Finals. Game 2 is Sunday night.
He had a brilliant Game 1 Thursday night with 21 points, six assists, no turnovers and what he called the "crazy" shot that sealed the game.
Parker bobbled the ball, stumbled, went down on one knee, got up, ducked under LeBron James and hit a bank shot with 5.2 seconds left to clinch the Spurs' 92-88 win.
It might not have been possible if Parker hadn't become the Spurs' closer and Duncan hadn't willingly passed him the torch.
"He's just been an incredible force for us," Duncan said. "Really proud of the fact that he's really doing all that he can to get us to the Finals here, and hopefully win this whole thing."
Popovich said the French national team experience and Parker's appreciation of how hard it was to win three NBA titles -- and a Finals MVP -- in his first six seasons changed his approach.
"With a little bit of maturity and understanding how difficult it is, he really committed himself to being mentally ready to play night after night after night," Popovich said.
Parker is the quintessential Spur. He keeps getting better, doesn't crave the spotlight and sometimes gets overlooked.
Chris Paul is widely considered the NBA's best point guard. When Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose are healthy, they're also in the conversation. But Parker again is showing he should be in the top two at his position.
"There's no question that this year, he was the best point guard in the league," Ginobili said. "After what he did this year, there's not many doubts he was the best point guard."
Parker averaged 20.3 points and 7.6 assists and shot 52.2 percent. He was sixth in MVP voting this season and fifth in 2012.
He has become a lethal pick-and-roll player, gets in the paint as well if not better than any other point guard and is a finisher both at the rim and in close games.
"He added the ability to close out games better than anybody," Ginobili said. "Now he has that ability to take over when it counts. That's what great players do."
Parker went back to his hotel room after Game 1 and watched highlights of his shot. He said it ranked in the top three of his career -- and could jump to first.
"It will only mean something if we win the championship," Parker said. "It's just one game. But if we go all the way, that shot you can put No. 1."