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Be it hamstring or LeBron, Heat have to slow Parker

Photo: Eric Gay/AP

If Tony Parker plays in Game 4, the Heat will have to find a way to contain the Spurs' star guard.

SAN ANTONIO -- The little French star is injured, but vowed to play. The powerful American star used his off-day press conference as a therapy session, including one well-placed curse word. "I played like (a Bobcat)," LeBron James said, adding that after his Game 3 debacle, "I didn't particularly care for myself."

I'd like to give LeBron an antidepressant and a warm, damp washcloth, but then Tony Parker would think I am soft. Parker has a grade 1 hamstring strain, which means he is day-to-day. He said "If it was the regular season I would definitely have rest. I would not play."

But it's not the regular season. The safe prediction is that Parker will play. Parker has pretty-boy looks but a warrior's soul. Nobody in the NBA drives into the paint as often or as hard as Parker. So I expect him to play. The question is whether he can play well. Toughness and willpower are great, but Parker has to be able to get into the lane.

What hinges on this? Not much.

Just the NBA title.

Fittingly for Parker's career, he may have to sit for people to fully understand his worth. The Spurs exploded offensively in Game 3, with Gary Neal and Danny Green making one three-pointer after another, and this is a terrific offensive team, so it is easy to think they can get by without Parker. But he is far and away their best penetrator, and the key to the entire San Antonio offense.

Parker's MRI shows hamstring strain, hopes to play Thursday

In a drive-and-kick league, San Antonio thrives on ball movement -- crisp, smart passes that make the ball hop around the floor before the defense can adjust. It works largely because the Heat have to worry about Parker. He loosens the defense. Without the threat of Parker slashing, the Heat can guard guys like Green and Neal.

And this brings us back to James. As Erik Spoelstra figures out how to improve his team's shaky defense in this series, it's logical to wonder if he will ask James, his most versatile defender, to guard Parker more. Small point guards tend to get frustrated against longer players -- teams have used this strategy against Parker for his whole career, and Spoelstra has done it with LeBron. (He has done it at times throughout this series.) Parker's advantage is that he is quicker than the big guys.

But on this night, with his tender hamstring, Parker is unlikely to be as speedy as he normally is. James has a better chance of staying with him.

JENKINS: Parker's injury could be series-altering for Spurs

Putting LeBron on Parker brings another benefit: It can make James feel like he is having an impact on the game no matter what he does offensively. That should unburden him, and enable him to relax (and dominate) when he has the ball. James knows how good he should be every night, and it weighs on him sometimes.

There is a risk to this -- mainly that James could get into foul trouble. But I think it is a risk worth taking. This would allow the Heat to cut off Parker's drives, which was their top defensive priority coming into the series, and it would mean less help on Parker, which would mean defenders could stick to guys like Green, Neal, Kawhi Leonard and Manu Ginobili on the perimeter. That would limit ball movement and slow down the Spurs offense.

GALLERY: Classic photos of Tony Parker over the years

In a way, the Heat would be stealing a page out of Gregg Popovich's playbook, to which Popovich has no comment. Popovich's Spurs have not made any significant changes to their defense in three games. They sag on LeBron, daring him to shoot three-pointers -- which he can do, but which he doesn't really want to do. This has slowed down the Heat offense, because when Miami's players are rolling, everything they do goes through LeBron.

And when the Spurs' offense is rolling, everything goes through Parker. The Heat have to find a way to guard him with one man, even if he scores 20 points that way. His strained hamstring may help. Maybe James can help, too. Maybe it will be someone else. But somehow, the Heat are going to have to deal with Tony Parker.

Parker's health causes concern for Game 4
SI.com's Ben Golliver and Michael Rosenberg discuss Spurs PG Tony Parker's injury and how it could affect Game 4 of the NBA Finals.

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