Pop had actual words for Tony Parker, as we heard near the end of our “Sounds of the Finals” video (above).
“Great leadership,” Popovich told his point guard. “You didn’t get 30. You used great leadership and solid, solid play with the ball and your teammates. Great job.”
“I have to trust my teammates in this series,” Parker responded.
“Exactly,” Popovich said.
Parker was the Finals MVP the last time the Spurs won the championship, having torched poor Daniel Gibson for 24.5 points on 57 percent shooting in the 2007 Finals. If San Antonio gets two more wins before the Miami Heat get three in this series, Parker won’t be winning another MVP.
But he might be the Spurs’ most important player.
Back in October, before his team began its season by upsetting the Heat in its home opener, Philadelphia 76ers coach (and former Spurs assistant) Brett Brown was asked what the key would be for rookie point guard Michael Carter-Williams in his first game against the Miami defense.
“Getting off the ball,” Brown responded.
Parker is no rookie, but the same holds true for him. The Heat defense is attacking him with a second defender when he comes off pick and rolls …
… and the best thing he can do is get rid of the ball, so that it can eventually find the open man. And the faster he gets rid of the ball, the better shots his teammates will get.
“You have to move the ball against this team,” Brown said back in October. “The ball cannot stick.”
If that sounds familiar, it’s because Popovich talked about the ball sticking after the Spurs lost Game 2 on Sunday. And Parker was clearly the main culprit, having stopped the ball movement in attempts to go one-on-one too often.
In Game 3, Parker kept the ball moving. He had a couple of big games in last year’s Finals (including 26 points in a Game 5 win), but Parker knows that the offense generally has to come from somewhere else against the Heat, who are looking to get the ball out of his hands, either by doubling him on pick-and-rolls or defending him with LeBron James.
“It’s our key,” James told David Aldridge, “just to try to limit what he does.”
“For me the key is to find a happy middle between being aggressive or being patient,” Parker said Wednesday, “and looking at the advantage that we have. Because if LeBron’s guarding me, that means we have an advantage somewhere match-up-wise with Kawhi [Leonard] or Manu [Ginobili] or Danny [Green], so I have to be patient and make sure I call the right stuff.
“We talked about it with Pop after Game 2 because that’s the kind of series for me I just have to trust my teammates and move the ball. They’re trapping me on the pick-and-rolls, and then in the fourth quarter they’re putting LeBron. So I just have to be patient and look at what’s available for us, and just move the ball because Danny and Kawhi are going to have plenty of opportunities if LeBron’s guarding me.”
The numbers back up the notion that the Spurs are better when Parker is most willing to pass. His usage rate is lower in their five Finals wins against the Heat over the last two years (22.6 percent) than it is in their five Finals losses (26.8 percent).
And as he’s faced more aggressive defenses in this postseason, Parker’s usage rate has dropped every series, while the rate that he passes the ball has increased.
According to SportVU, Parker passed the ball 69 times per 100 touches in the first round against Dallas. That number stayed about the same in the conference semifinals against Portland. But it increased to 74 times per 100 touches in the conference finals against Oklahoma City and is up to 77 per 100 through three games against the Heat.
He still has the ball in his hands quite a bit. The offense still runs through him, but this is a trust-your-teammates series for Parker. The Spurs will have a better chance at another championship if he has little chance to be the Finals MVP.
Tony Parker by series
TOP = Minutes with the ball
Poss% = TOP/MIN
PP100T = Passes per 100 touches
USG% = Percentage of team’s possessions used (via shots, assists or turnovers) when on the court.