WHEN SPURS COACH Gregg Popovich saw how Tony Parker, his starting point guard, led Team France last summer to its best EuroBasket finish in 60 years, he had only one question: Why doesn't he play that way for us?
Parker's answer: All you had to do was ask. That Pop did ask may be the biggest reason the Spurs are title contenders (again), even though 36-year-old Tim Duncan is dragging his left leg, Manu Ginobili has missed nearly half the season and five new faces are in the rotation.
Parker has long been part of the Spurs' Big Three, with Duncan and Ginobili,
"With the national team, it's always been my team," Parker says. "I just tried to fit in here. Pop told me, 'This year, you need to lead, and Timmy and Manu will follow.' Only Pop could say that. I felt it was time too, but to me, it's always been Timmy's team."
Parker's role in earning France a EuroBasket silver medal irked Popovich, given Parker's tepid playoff showing less than five months earlier, when the top-seeded Spurs were upset by the eighth-seeded Grizzlies. Popovich's staff spliced together clips showing Parker leading all EuroBasket scorers with big shots and relentless defense and contrasted them with Memphis series lowlights, in which opposing point guard Mike Conley kept blowing by him and stripping him of the ball. "It gave me great fodder," Popovich says.
French teammate and recent Spurs acquisition Boris Diaw wasn't around for the Memphis playoff loss and didn't see Popovich's video mashup, so it's telling that to him, the 2012 Spurs' Parker and les Bleus' Parker are identical. "It's the way he's playing," Diaw says, "and what he demands from the other players."
Case in point: In a 120-99 late-season win over the Warriors, Spurs center DeJuan Blair picked off a pass but had his fast-break layup foiled by a tripping foul. Parker then confronted the 6'7" Blair about his forced shot over 6'11" Mickell Gladness two possessions earlier, reminding Blair how much he liked being fed the ball and of the need to reciprocate. At one time, Parker might have left that duty to Duncan, who at that moment stood to one side, silently observing. "This is more his team now," Duncan says. "You can see him turning it up."
Primarily by not turning it over. Parker, 29, has had better shooting and scoring seasons, but through April 24 he averaged a career high 7.7 assists and an assists-to-turnovers ratio of 2.96 -- signs that he has evolved from a terrific pick-and-roll scorer to a complete point guard.
"His decisions have been so much better," Popovich says. "He recognizes score, situation and time. He came back with a lot of confidence and a lot of purpose, and it has carried over. He's calling off a play I wanted because he sees something else."
Or, as Parker might put it, because Pop asked.