By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com
SAN ANTONIO — In a season the Spurs have spent exorcising ghosts from Miami, it could just be an eerie coincidence.
Or a scary bump in the night.
Tony Parker walked tenderly off the court with 8:46 left in the second quarter and limped to the locker room, followed by the team trainer and general manager R.C. Buford.
Tightness in the left hamstring. Tightness rippling throughout Spurs Nation.
Parker didn’t return in Game 5 against the Blazers. He didn’t have to. Not with Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Patty Mills leading the 104-82 closeout win with another tightrope walker’s display of instinctive balance.
In the end, the return flight from Portland for the Blazers was just the biggest waste of fuel since the invention of the Hummer as the Spurs wound up on top by an average margin of 19.5 points in their four wins in the series.
The Spurs now advance to the Western Conference finals for the 13th time in franchise history, ninth time in the Tim Duncan era and for the third season in a row. It is a testament to consistency and excellence.
Yet it will not be enough if the Spurs don’t at least get a chance to return to the NBA Finals to clean up unfinished business that left them ringless.
That’s the Parker question. That’s the haunting flashback to last June. That’s the painful reminder that one small tweak can lead to big consequences.
Long before those ugly last 28 seconds of Game 6 became a lost championship, the Spurs watched Parker limp off the court in Game 3 against Miami with tightness in his right hamstring. He came back to play the rest of the series, but he was never quite at the same crackling level. He often looked tired, worn out and was no longer explosive.
Now Parker will have an MRI on Thursday to determine the extent of any damage to his left hamstring and the Spurs will likely, for a night at least, become Clippers fans. It’s all about getting their point guard time to rest and rehab. If L.A. can win Thursday to force a Game 7 against OKC, that would push the start of the West finals back to next Wednesday, giving Parker a full week off.
“We hope for him to be back and healthy,” said Manu Ginobili. “It is too early to tell. I don’t know what’s going to happen. If we want to have a chance to make it to The Finals, we need him healthy.”
Because it’s been evident for at least the past two seasons that the baton has been passed and now it’s Parker who sets the tone and the pace for the Spurs and simply confounds defenses.
With the Blazers entering the conference semifinals feeling so confident after winning their first playoff series in 14 years, Parker simply blew them down like a house of grass and twigs.
Coach Gregg Popovich now has the deepest lineup in the league at his disposal and is not at all afraid to use every inch of it. He practically walks around in front of the Spurs bench wearing a tool belt and reaches for another implement when he needs one.
In comes Mills to replace Parker for the second half. Up pops Marco Belinelli, Boris Diaw and Aron Baynes and the Spurs roll over Portland. But this was a Blazers team with a lineup thinner than gruel. They used only two different starting lineups all season long and played the original lineup in 80 of 93 games from start to finish.
The Spurs could wear out and wear down the top-heavy Blazers with sheer numbers. That won’t be the case against the survivor of Thunder-Clippers. Or ultimately in The Finals.
It’s the grind of the playoffs, the minefield that has to be negotiated on tiptoes, knowing that a misstep can blow everything up, ruin a season’s worth of planning and growing together and building something special. One second you’re driving to the hoop to score and the next you’re limping to the locker room.
Minor coincidence? Or a scary bump in the night reminder of what happened in Miami?
Just say Tony Parker isn’t the only one feeling a little sudden tightness in San Antonio.