By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com
OKLAHOMA CITY — After two thoroughly dominant wins at home to open the Western Conference finals by the Spurs, Manu Ginobili was asked where a dud like Game 3 comes from.
“It’s the mysteries of the human head,” he replied.
More specifically, la tete of Tony Parker.
“He’s our best player,” said coach Gregg Popovich.
Not Sunday. On a day when the Spurs needed their point guard to have a foot-on-the-neck attitude, Parker was softer than a freshly baked croissant and the Thunder ate him up.
Indeed, Serge Ibaka was back in the OKC lineup and that meant the HOV lane to the basket was no longer open for any Spur who wanted a layup or dunk.
The Thunder power forward gets all the credit in the world for the recuperative powers that put him back into the thick of things just eight days after he’d been declared done for the playoffs. Ibaka gets credit for creating better spacing and more options in the OKC offense and for cutting off passing and driving angles on defense.
What Ibaka can’t get credit for is changing the attitude or the style of play by the Spurs. But he did. Most especially, he altered Parker. After controlling the series in the first two games with his scoring and his passing, Parker did little of either in Game 3, finishing with only nine points on 4-for-13 shooting, four assists and a matching four turnovers.
All Popovich would say to virtually any question asked about Parker was that he had to play better.
“That’s for sure. He’s right,” Parker said. “I have to play better. I know and gotta bounce back.”
Trouble is, it has become a pattern for Parker, these strong starts to a playoff series at home and then going flat on the road.
It’s happened twice before, once against the Lakers in 2004 and also against the very same Thunder in 2012.
The Spurs went from being in complete control to being on the sidelines in a heartbeat. His heartbeat. It was Parker’s more than any other’s pulse that stopped pumping steadily and began to grow erratic and irregular. Those are the only two playoff series in his career that Popovich has ever lost after winning the first two games.
That’s why the coach’s neck still tense up and his eyes became steely even on the day after whenever the topic turned to his point guard. He cracked jokes about Ginobili’s sore left foot. He spoke in glowing admiration for Ibaka’s defensive abilities. He talked about the lasting friendships that endure even through the heat of competition in the coaching fraternity.
He needs to play better.
That’s what Popovich would say over and over about Parker, like a hammer coming down on an anvil.
When a team loaded with veterans gets hammered 52-36 on the boards, gets beaten to most loose balls and doesn’t play solid defense to stop OKC from repeatedly getting to the foul line, there are other problems.
But as Tim Duncan and Ginobili tiptoe closer to their NBA dotage, more of the responsibility and the burden has fallen on Parker’s shoulders. More of those fiery and angry words from the very same coach who nurtured and goaded him every step of the way to this elite level and now relies on him more than ever.
There are those days when Parker appears unstoppable and the other ones when he doesn’t seem to have the spark to light his own fire. Another one like that on Tuesday night and the Spurs suddenly find themselves dancing not only with a rejuvenated Thunder team now, but also those ghosts of two years ago.
Parker missed his first shot of the game, an open, mid-range jumper, then he made one and then a scoop shot that probably would have fallen in a few days earlier missed when Ibaka came over to cover up.
Did Parker pull back and become more tentative because Ibaka was playing goalie at the rim for OKC? Did he find himself getting into the paint without a clear and decisive idea of what he was going to do next?
It’s the mysteries of the human head.
And nobody has their tete on the line more in Game 4 than Tony Parker.