Tonight, the San Antonio Spurs tip off the 2012 Western Conference Finals against the Oklahoma City Thunder as the hottest team in the NBA, which is not unlike 1999 (another lockout-shortened season), when the Spurs won their first of four championships.
With a quiet resolve, the Spurs remain relevant and a model of consistency year after year, something most franchises only wish they could achieve. This year’s version, however, is arguably the most complete team in basketball and an 18-game winning streak serves as confirmation.
However, there is something different about how this team functions. The defense remains a stabilizing force, as well as precise execution on offense. But gone are the days of post players as the focal point when they have the ball. David Robinson, the Hall of Fame center, is retired and watches in admiration. Tim Duncan has played inspired basketball lately, but he isn’t exactly the “Big Fundamental” of his sensational prime years.
Rather, the Spurs have been led by the mesmerizing point guard play of Tony Parker. He didn’t exactly choose a leadership role this season; it was essentially assigned to him by coach Gregg Popovich, who watched Parker lead France to it best EuroBasket finish in 60 years last summer. Witnessing Parker command of the team, Popovich asked his 6-foot-1 floor leader to take more of a leadership role in San Antonio. Parker, who had acquiesced to Duncan all these years, obliged. Parker has delivered not only brilliant play, but he has directed the team in times of duress and been the vocal leader to rally the team.
“With the national team, it’s always been my team,” Parker told ESPN the Mag. “I just tried to fit in here. Pop told me, ‘This year, you need to lead, and Timmy and Manu (Ginobili) will follow.’ Only Pop could say that. I felt it was time too, but to me, it’s always been Timmy’s team.”
Under Parker’s leadership, the Spurs flourished, finishing with the best record in the Western Conference and tied with Chicago for the best overall record in the NBA. Parker averaged 18.3 points and 7.7 assists in the regular season and 19.1 and 7.1 in the postseason.
Duncan said of Parker: “This is more his team now. You can see him turning it up.”
Parker will have to keep it going at a high level against the Thunder, as OKC’s 23-year-old point guard Russell Westbrook has been one of the keys to the young team’s emergence. Clearly, Parker, 30, does not fear the challenge.
“I’m definitely going to go at him,” he said.It’s not going to be like Dallas or the Lakers, where their point guards are not as aggressive. I’m going to go at him and make sure he works a little bit.”
Exactly what coach Pop expects.