MIAMI – One of them is the NBA’s Most Valuable Player and preeminent performer, period. The other is the league’s best point guard, certainly of the moment, and a guy who lately has gotten a little separation between himself and a couple Hall of Fame-bound teammates.
LeBron James and Tony Parker, respectively, are the top talents on the Miami Heat and San Antonio Spurs. Starting Thursday with Game 1, their teams will clash in the 2013 Finals. And despite their differences in position and physical stature, chances are good that the two are on a more direct collision course.
Parker, at 6-foot-2 and 180 pounds, gives up about six inches and 100 pounds to the Heat superstar. But whatever advantage that affords him in quickness and slipperiness likely won’t be enough to discourage the bigger, more powerful James from locking in defensively on the Spurs playmaker. If not in whole, at least in part as the series plays out.
Certainly, there’s precedent. When James and his Miami crew in its first incarnation faced a dominant point guard in the 2011 Eastern Conference finals, the multi-dimensional small forward volunteered for defensive shifts against Chicago’s Derrick Rose. It wasn’t a full-time thing – just enough to turn the Bulls’ victory in Game 1 of that series into four straight Miami triumphs.
James bottled up the irrepressible Rose at his own MVP best that spring. How effectively? Over the final two games, Rose shot 1-for-15 with three turnovers when guarded by the stronger, more formidable defender.
A couple weeks ago, James took some turns on Bulls guard Nate Robinson, whose explosiveness and streaky scoring had helped Chicago to another Game 1 victory. The result was the same – a Heat sweep from that point – though this banged-up Bulls team offered less resistance.
None of it qualifies as big news anymore, because people around the NBA have come to almost take James’ remarkable versatility at both end of the floor for granted. But it’s worth noting that Heat coach Erik Spoelstra refers to James as “1 Through 5″ for his ability to play every position (OK, so it hasn’t caught on as a nickname). And the latest edition of Sports Illustrated featured a cover story on James’ various permutations, position by position.
The point guard section included this from Golden State coach Mark Jackson, one of the NBA’s all-time great playmakers:
Defensively, he’s guarded other point guards. We’ve seen it in situations where they’ve needed a stop. He guarded Steph Curry against us and used his size and strength to be disruptive. Even if he had to play only point guard on both offense and defense, he’s my Number 1 pick at the position right now.
Parker just finished having his way with the Memphis Grizzlies as the Spurs swept through the Western Conference finals. He averaged 24.5 points, 9.5 assists and 3.5 rebounds in 39.5 minutes while shooting 53.2 percent from the floor and 86.7 percent from the line. Those aren’t quite LeBronian numbers – James is at 26.2 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 6.4 apg, 51.4 percent and 77.2 percent – but they’re not far off.
Parker, for much of his 12-year NBA career, has been lumped together with Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili in the Spurs’ more organic Big 3 (drafted and homegrown, rather than signed instantly as free agents the way Miami’s was). That’s not bad lumping-together company but in truth, Parker has gotten his stand-alone due as an elite point guard for a while now.
He has received MVP votes six times and, on three of those occasions, he was tops among Spurs players in the balloting. Duncan finished ahead of Parker in 2006 and 2007, and Ginobili was eighth to Parker’s 12th in 2011. But in 2009 and the past two seasons, Parker was the San Antonio drawing the votes, first among so-called equals on his team.
This spring, Parker finished sixth with two second-place votes, seven thirds, eight fourths and 13 fifths. That was good for 86 points. James, of course, was the nearly unanimous winner with 120 first-place votes and one second for 1,207 points.
So, yeah, there is a gap in impact, in capabilities and in perception. And we saw what James did against Indiana’s Paul George in Game 7 of the East finals Monday, after mere talk of some MVP love for the Pacers small forward in George’s future.
Oh, and if James needs any added motivation – beyond a second championship ring and the opportunity to further burnish his image – there’s that little matter of Parker texting tips to his pal George Hill, the Pacers point guard whose team pushed Miami to that seventh game.
The chances that Parker would lock into a point guard matchup with James the way James might move onto him defensively are pretty much nil. There is no way Spurs coach Gregg Popovich would allow or even dare it, aside from the stray, impromptu switch on an occasional possession. While James’ size would allow him to play back from Parker to cut down the shifty guard’s angles while still contesting his shots, Parker would quickly find himself steamrolled by the powerfully built Heat star.
Parker no doubt knows it too. During a recent interview, he smiled throughout his comments about James and the vast improvement – transformation, really – he has undergone since San Antonio faced the Cleveland version of The King in the 2007 Finals. He wasn’t quite Mr. “1 Through 5″ back then, just a budding force of nature on the basketball court.
“In 2007 he was still young,” Parker said, “and he was doing unbelievable stuff, and he brought Cleveland all the way to the NBA Finals. But now he’s got more help. He’s got Dwyane Wade and [Chris] Bosh and he’s more mature and he’s got a lot more experience. And he’s a four-time MVP so it’s gonna be a different story. But we’ll be ready for him.”
Just as the Heat – with Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole as the first two lines of resistance but James as the imposing back wall as needed – will be ready for Parker.