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Parker finally puts fo(u)rth strong finish

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- One 3-pointer barely grazed the rim. Another missed the rim completely. Tony Parker was then invited to move in closer, from the faraway arc to the free-throw line, only to miss three out of four freebies in the final 90 seconds.

Doesn't sound like his best fourth quarter, does it?

Actually, somehow, it still was his best finish in these playoffs, even when you add in all of the above. On a strange evening, teeming with offensive ineptitude from two teams, Parker's late misfires could not detract from the fact that he finally made a couple of biggies, too.

Parker sank two 3-pointers in the fourth quarter Sunday night ... two more than Parker had sunk in San Antonio's previous 20 fourth quarters in these playoffs. Which pretty much confirms that he hasn't been discouraged by his failures, and that he doesn't get gun-shy.

Which explains, in turn, why the Spurs wouldn't at all be opposed to lining up Parker as a shooting guard if they were so lucky to pilfer Jason Kidd in free agency this summer. You don't even need to ask Parker if he thinks he could make a backcourt partnership work alongside Le Kidd.

"Tony is weird in that way -- nothing really bothers him," said Spurs forward Malik Rose, referring to Parker's ability to shrug in the face of endless Kidd questions and the stakes in this series. "Nothing affects his confidence."

"For a 21-year-old kid," Rose added, "I don't know if I could handle this (Kidd-related hoopla) at my age, 28."

If Parker is pensive about the future, or feeling burdened by what the Spurs are asking him to do so young -- or even aware how poorly he had shot the ball in fourth quarters throughout the playoffs -- it's impossible to tell. Parker didn't hesitate to let fly when the Nets, collapsing on Tim Duncan throughout this brick-fest, found some space behind the 3-point line. This time, at last, a couple went in, forcing you to pardon Parker's shaky finish.

It could be that Parker was simply due for a late swish or two, because his fourth quarters in the first three rounds really were unsightly. Parker showed up for his big showdown with Kidd shooting just 29.6 percent from the floor in fourth quarters in the postseason and just 65.4 percent from the line. In the Dallas series, the numbers were even uglier: 13 points in six fourth quarters on 4-for-19 shooting.

On threes? In previous series triumphs over the Suns, Lakers and Mavericks, Parker was 0-for-10 on 3-pointers in fourth quarters. He didn't even attempt a fourth-quarter triple in the first two games of the Finals.

Turns out Kidd also struggled with his shot in crunch time throughout the East playoffs -- shooting just 34.6 percent from the field in 14 fourth quarters and three overtimes -- but those struggles are easily dismissed as a product of fatigue. The implication is that Kidd is asked to carry such a load with the Nets, as a defender and even a rebounder on top of his QB-ing, that he inevitably tires late in games.

With Parker, the late struggles are circulated as hard evidence to back up the premise that he's not ready to lead the Spurs to a championship. Thing is, as even Parker admits, Duncan is "our quarterback." Duncan, not Parker, does the heavy leading in San Antonio, and it's safe to say the two-time MVP is ready to win a second ring, Duncan's own free-throw woes notwithstanding.

In this series, Parker mostly has to be ready to track back quickly in transition and stay in front of Kidd as best he can and make the open shots that come his way. If he does those things, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich can live with the flaws in Parker's still-forming floor game, an exercise Pop half-jokingly calls "a life-shortening experience for me."

Pop can joke because, three games into these Finals, it looks as though Parker is comfortably handling those other assignments. Parker also made two threes late in the third quarter, after the Nets had moved ahead by six, to total 19 second-half points.

Parker's typically shrugging explanation: "I try not to put too much pressure on myself."

David Robinson's more reasoned analysis: "Every series he's gotten better as the series has gone on. I think the first time when he played Stephon Marbury, Marbury got the better of him for two or three games. And then something kind of clicked and Tony kind of figured it out and started playing a whole lot better.

"It's kind of similar here. Kidd is such a great player, and I think Tony is kind of figuring it out as he goes along. He made those big shots tonight and kind of brought us back. He's learning on the fly."

Popovich suggests that such learning "doesn't happen in one season," but Parker's more recent numbers back up Robinson's getting-better theory. Parker scored nine fourth-quarter points in the Spurs' Game 2 defeat to give him 20 in the past two games. Popovich also saw fit to play Parker for every minute of the second half in this Game 3.

Thus it's tough to rap Parker for the two late threes he missed badly, or even the three missed free throws, given all the offensive ineptitude swirling around him at Continental Airlines Arena. The whole night was an affront to the ABA's free-wheeling heritage, and there were several offenders you'd point to before you got to Parker.

Even the Spur who wants Kidd most had to agree.

"I'm very comfortable with Tony and I love what he's doing, obviously," said Duncan, who rebounded the last of Parker's three missed free throws to set up a crucial bucket by Manu Ginobili, sealing the Spurs' 2-1 series lead.

"It's never been an issue between us."

Least of all Sunday night, after this fourth quarter.

Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here. Also, send Stein a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.