C'est Magnifique! Outplaying Jason Kidd, Paris-schooled point guard Tony Parker helped stake the Spurs to an early lead

June 15, 2003

The story line grows more irresistible with every game. The
wonder boy from the foreign land confidently directs the
veterans with a wink and a smile. At the same time, he embraces
the showdown with the All-Star who many believe will take his
job next season. The personal touches are beguiling too. The
sly PEOPLE's-50-most-beautiful-people grin that reveals no
trace of fear. The delightful, French-accented references to
San Antonio Spurs teammate Tim Duncan that come out as "Teemy"
or "Teem." Is he married? (No.) Still available? (Won't say.)
Does he like French wine and goat cheese more than the Alamo
City's Tex-Mex cuisine? (Most definitely.)

Through the first three games of an NBA Finals that was more
bare-knuckle brawl than high-caliber ball, Tony Parker--21 years
old, 6'2" and 180 pounds (maybe)--had cast a larger shadow than
either two-time MVP Teemy or the New Jersey Nets' Jason Kidd, the
soon-to-be free agent who was expected to demonstrate, even to
those amoureaux de Parker, how point guard is supposed to be
played. It's not that Kidd, who learned his hoops on the rugged
playgrounds of Oakland, was bad; he was sensational (30 points,
seven rebounds) in the Nets' 87-85 Game 2 victory last Friday in
San Antonio. It's just that Parker, a product of the National
Institute of Sports and Physical Education, an elite sports
school in a verdant section of Paris, was better.

On Sunday night, as the series continued with Game 3 at
Continental Airlines Arena and the Tony Awards were handed out
across the Hudson, San Antonio's Tony assumed the leading role in
what at times resembled a midseason yawner between the Cleveland
Cavaliers and the Atlanta Hawks that included a 27-point second
quarter, the lowest total for a period in Finals history. Parker
scored a game-high 26 points, handed out six assists, turned the
ball over only once and for the most part kept his slender body
in front of Kidd (12 points on 6-of-19 shooting, 11 assists, four
turnovers) in the Spurs' 84-79 victory, which gave them a 2-1
series lead. Four nights earlier, in Game 1 at the SBC Center,
Parker had also outplayed Kidd in a 101-89 win.

Looking at Parker from the perspective of 14 NBA seasons, the
last of which is upon him, Spurs center David Robinson notes an
uncanny resemblance to another teammate. "I see Tim," says the
Admiral, who after an inspired Game 1 (14 points, four blocked
shots) had limited impact. "Tony's a patient guy, like Tim, a guy
who learns from his mistakes, a guy who, like Tim, won't get
caught up worrying about the media."

Robinson refers, of course, to the will-Kidd-get-a-free-agent-
offer-from-San-Antonio-this-summer question, which had already
been repackaged more ways than Law & Order. After Game 3 a
reporter asked Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, "Could you talk
about your point-guard situation two or three years down the
road?" Popovich smiled and replied, "I think point guard is a
very important position. We should have a point guard." Parker
would rather hunker down over a plate of nachos and an orange
soda--this is a man who dared order room-service creme brulee
during the Western Conference final in Dallas (and got sick
from it)--than deal with the question. But early in the Finals
he arrived at the perfect answer: "If I was the general manager,
I would keep me."

Despite Parker's excellence, there was no certainty that the win
on Sunday would turn the tide irrevocably in San Antonio's favor.
After all, the Nets had played poorly in Game 1 and bounced back
in Game 2, and the Spurs were too unreliable on offense (they had
38 turnovers in Games 2 and 3) to suggest a juggernaut like the
Los Angeles Lakers of last year, who swept New Jersey in the
Finals.

While the Nets did a credible job on Duncan (unstoppable in Game
1, with 32 points and 20 rebounds; sluggish in Game 2, with 19
points and seven missed free throws; solid in Game 3, with 21
points, 16 rebounds and seven assists), they have to find a way
to stymie Parker, who was almost the sole responsibility of Kidd,
a three-time All-NBA defender. Though he was concise in his
praise of Parker ("Tony's a real good player," "He's handled
himself well," etc.), the 30-year-old Kidd showed some signs of
crankiness after Game 3. "There's no pressure on us because we're
not even supposed to compete," he said. "We're just supposed to
lay down." That was a reference to the Spurs' being heavy
favorites entering the Finals, supposedly superior in most areas
except for, well, point guard.

Parker and Kidd offer a fascinating contrast. The 6'4", 212-pound
Kidd gets himself into the paint using a combination of muscle
and guile, while Parker can do it on pure speed. Other than the
Philadelphia 76ers' Allen Iverson, Parker may have the quickest
first step in the game. Kidd is a true set-the-table point,
partly because he is a below-average shooter; he made only 21 of
60 attempts in the first three games. Parker, despite his classic
point-guard size, often functions as a shooting guard--partly
because he's such a good shooter, partly because the offense
primarily runs through the 7-foot Duncan in the post and partly
because the Spurs need Parker to score. (Through Game 3 they were
26-2 this season when he racked up more than 20 points.) As
Mavericks assistant coach Avery Johnson puts it, Parker is "kind
of a halfway-between guard."

In the first Finals featuring two franchises sprung from the womb
of the ABA, designated team legends Julius Erving of the Nets and
George Gervin of the Spurs were ubiquitous, but it's safe to say
they didn't see much that reminded them of the offense-oriented
style of those red-white-and-blue-ball days. The Spurs prepared
long and well to slow New Jersey's fast break, which produced 51
points over the first three games, a palatable sum for Popovich.
During pre-Finals scrimmages he would suddenly yell, "Turnover!"
and the first team would have to scramble back; he also allowed
the second team to start its offense without taking the ball
out-of-bounds after made shots.

The Spurs were willing to sacrifice offensive rebounds (they had
33 compared with the Nets' 42 in the first three games) to get
back quickly and prevent Kidd from going into the paint and
finding a teammate storming in from the wing. Thus he was stuck
directing a Nets half-court offense for which most
doors--especially their beloved back ones--were closed. San
Antonio bodied up well (Bruce Bowen had particular success
limiting small forward Richard Jefferson, who was 11 of 31 from
the field in the first three games) and at times deployed a 3-2
zone that seemed to discombobulate even the heady Kidd.

The task of containing Duncan was shared by several Nets,
including 7'2" Dikembe Mutombo, the most fascinating ancillary
character in this Finals. Mutombo, who makes $16 million this
season, $6.8 million more than Kidd, had been quietly chafing
over his reserve status and found ways to turn most questions
toward that subject. Asked after Game 1 what had happened when a
Robinson elbow opened a gash on his lip that required six
stitches to close, Mutombo said that Robinson was greeting him:
"David say, 'Welcome, Mutombo. What you been doing sitting on the
side?'" Mutombo was effective in Game 2 with three blocked shots
and four rebounds in 20 minutes, but much less so on Sunday with
zero blocks and three boards in 18 minutes. It will be
interesting to see how much he plays in the remainder of the
series because coach Byron Scott appears not to have confidence
in him.

Duncan's primary shadow was 6'9" Kenyon Martin, who among the
Nets played with the most passion and precision in the first
three games. When the refs allowed Martin to muscle up, he could
push Duncan out to 17 or 18 feet, where TD's options are much
more limited. (However, Martin fouled out of Game 1 and drew his
fifth in Game 3 with 7:26 still remaining.) And when the double
team came and Duncan got rid of the ball, most of the Spurs
weren't comfortable shooting.

Most, but not all. Though Parker often misfired on Sunday with
his teardrop--that high floater released before a taller defender
can block it--he bloodlessly tormented the Nets from the
perimeter. Two Parker three-pointers a minute apart late in the
third period gave San Antonio momentum, and he hit two more in
the fourth, the last with 5:21 left, to give the Spurs a 73-62
lead. As is their wont, the Spurs had trouble holding their
advantage, and the Nets cut the deficit to 78-75 with 1:30 left.
Duncan, however, got an offensive rebound on a missed free throw
and fed Parker, who motored along the baseline, looking for a
receiver. Swingman Manu Ginboli read the situation, stepped into
a seam to get the pass and made a leaning eight-footer that may
have been the most important basket of the game.

For Parker, handling the Finals pressure seemed as natural as
sipping a glass of red wine, which became legal for him on May
17. Asked after Sunday's game why he is so efficient at running
the high pick-and-roll, he answered, "I don't know. I just try to
play out of it." One might as well have asked 16-year-old Steve
Winwood how he was able to pull off the lead vocal on I'm a Man
with the Spencer Davis Group. Some things can't be taught.
Refined, but not taught.

So who holds title to this lad, born in Bruges, Belgium, to an
American father and a Dutch mother, schooled in Paris, now
schooling others in the States? Certainly France has a strong
claim, and Parker's performance has aroused Paris's pride.
Stories about him have spread from L'Equipe, the French sports
newspaper, to the front pages of Liberation and Le Figaro,
Paris's major dailies. "The French want to make sure everyone
knows he's a product of our club system," says George Eddy, who
covers the NBA for Canal+, France's national TV network. "Because
Tony is playing so well at so high a level, and because he has
such an American-sounding name, we want to pull him back, let
everyone know he's ours."

For now, though, Parker belongs to the Spurs, and even if they do
make an offer to Kidd next month, it's a near certainty that TP
will remain with TD. Exceptional halfway-between guys are hard to
find.

COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO [T OF C] SPUR OF THE MOMENT San Antonio's Tony Parker will fire away at the Nets in Game 5 on Friday (page 54). COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN W. MCDONOUGH TONY THE TIGER Not even a gantlet of Nets could faze Parker, who averaged 21.0 points in the first three games. COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO HIGH AND DRY Though Kidd put on an acrobatic floor show in Game 1, his poor shooting doomed the Nets.

"Tony's a patient guy, like Tim, who LEARNS FROM HIS MISTAKES,"
says Robinson, "and who won't get caught up worrying about the
media."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)