By JEFF LATZKE
SAN ANTONIO — Even if the San Antonio Spurs can’t help but feel a touch uneasy about their 2-0 lead in the Western Conference finals, Tony Parker is completely comfortable.
For the second straight year, Parker used a sensational Game 2 to give the Spurs a two-game lead to start the conference finals. This time, it was a 15-point, 18-assist masterpiece that featured Parker scoring or assisting on 14 of the Spurs’ 18 baskets after halftime.
Asked Wednesday if it was a performance reminiscent of John Stockton, the NBA’s career assists leader, Parker said: “No, Tony Parker.”
“I don’t want to be anybody. I just want to have my own identity,” he added. “I always fight with (coach Gregg Popovich) for that because he wanted me to be — no disrespect to Avery Johnson — but like Avery, and then like John. I was like, ‘I want to be me.’ I want to do both. I want to be aggressive, and I just try to find that balance.
“That’s the thing through my whole career is to find the happy middle between scoring and passing.”
Parker has already won three NBA titles with San Antonio and seemed to have the Spurs rolling toward another one last season when he scored 34 points on 16 for 21 shooting — and also dished out eight assists — in a 120-111 victory against the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 2 of the West finals.
It was San Antonio’s 20th straight win, a streak spanning seven weeks. And then — poof! — the season was over a week later following four straight losses to Oklahoma City.
That history puts this year’s strong start to the series in a completely different perspective.
“We understand that we didn’t do anything. We just protected home court and we have a long way to go because we know we’re playing a very good team,” Parker said. “People who know basketball, they know they are a very good team and you can’t take anything for granted.”
Parker informed reporters before practice that he plans to use the three-day break before Game 3 on Saturday in Memphis to have an MRI on his troublesome left calf today “just to make sure” he’s improving on schedule. He said the knot that developed after he got kicked in the calf during the Golden State series was the biggest he’s had in his career, but has been feeling better.
“Slowly and surely, I’m turning the corner and so hopefully, I’ll be fine,” Parker said, not expecting to miss any time.
Last year’s Western Conference finals turned when the Thunder deployed 6-foot-7 defensive ace Thabo Sefolosha against Parker and began routinely switching screens on defense. Parker’s shooting percentage dipped to 39 percent and he had four assists in each of the next three games. Even his 29 points and 12 assists in Game 6 weren’t enough to save the Spurs.
Even before Tuesday night’s loss, Parker had been the focus of several defensive adjustments by the Grizzlies, and more figure to be on the way.
“On pick-and-rolls, they had such good spacing that it allowed him to manipulate and move the ball different ways, get into the paint and draw and kick,” Memphis point guard Mike Conley said. “When you have a guy that’s able to create plays like that for other people, it really puts the defense at its mercy.”
While Parker presents an entirely different challenge, the Grizzlies found success in the last round by continually decreasing the effectiveness of three-time NBA scoring champion Kevin Durant.
“We’ve played against a lot of great players all year long, and you just have to go out and compete against them the best you can and try to limit some things and find a way to win,” coach Lionel Hollins said.
Parker said he believes he has become a better passer over the years, and his career-best assist total from Game 2 was also a product of the ball being in his hands more than ever. He had assists on San Antonio’s first seven baskets after halftime, then scored the next two. After coming out for a rest, he returned and hit back-to-back shots to extend the Spurs’ lead to 83-70 before he finally went cold and Memphis rallied.
“He goes through his phases. He’s to the point now where he can do it both ways. He kind of reads what they’re giving him, what he’s being asked to do, and you see (Tuesday) night where he just decided that the pass is what was there,” Tim Duncan said. “Guys knocked down shots for him, which was great, but he controlled the entire game.
“I think having that much on his shoulders really wore him out towards the end there, but he’s the one that got us the lead that we had.”
Parker acknowledged he wore down late in regulation, when he missed five straight shots, in part as a residual effect from a long Golden State series and in part because of his heavy load so far in this one.
Even so, he had assists on two of Duncan’s three baskets in overtime that enabled San Antonio to win and go up 2-0.
“We’re in a great spot, but if you look at it, it’s the same spot that we were last year. It doesn’t mean at all that we are going to make it just because we won the first two,” Manu Ginobili said. “We’ve got to go there and try to grab one. … We’ve been here. We know that it’s not over until you win the fourth.
“We’ve just got to stay humble, keep working hard and definitely try to get one from Memphis.”