May 18, 2012

SAN ANTONIO -- Before he reached the modest age of 20, Tony Parker had played in 87 NBA regular-season and playoff games and considered it nothing more than normal. Everything in his life seemed to happen fast -- from a playing career that began professionally in France when he was 17, to the way he approached the game, which was roughly equivalent to the way Usain Bolt approaches a run in the park.

Parker had a milestone birthday Thursday when he turned 30.

He has not lost a step.

The man who either challenges defenses or simply outruns them repeated an act Thursday that now has been running 11 years. Parker led all scorers with 22 points, had five assists, five rebounds and outplayed Chris Paul to lead the Spurs to a 105-88 victory over the Clippers.

The Spurs have a 2-0 lead in the conference semifinal series with Games 3 and 4 to be played in Los Angeles on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.

"I thought Tony played very, very aggressively," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "[He] really focused knowing full well that he was going to get hit and he welcomed it, played through it and did one heck of a job."

Parker had scored only seven points in Game 1, but the Clippers double-teamed him for most of the game and he made only 1-of-9 from the field. He still did a good job running the offense, however, finding open teammates and ending the game with 11 assists.

He faced much the same alignment in Game 2 and had only eight points in the first half. But with Tim Duncan (14 points) and Manu Ginobili (10) effectively solving the Clippers defense, L.A. was forced to alter its approach after halftime, and Parker took over.

After the game, however, teammates were praising him more for his defense on Paul. The two did not guard each other the entire game, but were matched up for significant stretches, and Parker clearly won the battle.

"With players like Chris Paul, sometimes even if you play great defense he's going to score," Ginobili said. "He just had a bad game, but Tony set the tone and was very aggressive. When he plays that kind of defense, it's really contagious. He makes us all better."

If the Clippers are to hold their home court over the weekend and get back into the series, they will not only have to do a better job of containing Parker, but also a way to get Paul to play like the elite guard that he is. Paul is bothered by a right hip injury and that obviously didn't help as he had 10 points, four assists and three rebounds. Even worse, Paul had a career-high eight turnovers, giving him 13 in two games.

"I'm just trying to stay in front of him, trying to contain him and make sure he takes hard shots," Parker said. "It's not just me, it's the whole team. It's a team defense and everybody focuses on Chris to make sure he doesn't get going."

Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro was sensitive about Parker's superior performance in the first two games. "Tony had a fantastic year and he's very difficult to contend with in the open court," Del Negro said. "And Tony has a ton of weapons around him. He's obviously played at a high level with Tim and Manu and their guys for a long time. So we have to do a better job corralling him a little bit.

"Chris is in his first year with this group, trying to get a feel for it and he's battled some injuries."

Winning two games to get back into the series will be tough for the Clippers. Winning one, in fact, won't be easy. The Spurs have not lost a game since April 11. They have 16 consecutive victories and have won 27 of their last 29 games.

Although several playoff teams are playing high-level team basketball, the Spurs have made it an art form. Besides Parker, four other players scored in double figures including 18 from Duncan. But it wasn't only the big three. Boris Diaw had 16 points and was 7-of-7 from the field. Danny Green was 4-of-6 from three-point range and had 13 points.

Add that to the production of Parker, who was relentless as always. The Spurs jumped to a quick 15-point lead in the first quarter, but the Clippers battled back and trailed by only four at the half.

But the Spurs slowly built the lead in the third quarter with Parker setting the tone. With 4:49 left in the game, he made his best play of the night, shedding Paul, running into and bouncing off of Blake Griffin at the free-throw line, then dribbling directly toward center DeAndre Jordan. Parker went to his left, slipped under Jordan's arms, and banked a layup from the left side with his right hand. That gave the Spurs a 17-point lead and they coasted from there.

While Parker said he is thinking only about playing well for the team, there is little doubt that he relishes the challenge of matching up with Paul. Paul finished third in MVP balloting this year while Parker was fifth.

"In many respects, what makes great players great players is the great pride they have in their own talent and the will they have to want to defeat their opponent," Popovich said. "There's always a competition there just in general. It's just human nature. And it just becomes heightened as the series continues, as the playoffs continue for everybody."

It will continue in Los Angeles and unless Paul can find a way to compete evenly with Parker, the Clippers may have made their last road trip of the season.

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