By JON KRAWCZYNSKI
AP Basketball Writer
One of Gregg Popovich’s top priorities in the final weeks of the regular season was making sure the San Antonio Spurs got veteran point guard Tony Parker healthy and in rhythm for the playoff push.
More than seeding or home-court advantage, Popovich said, the Spurs needed Parker in order to stay competitive against the other heavyweights in the Western Conference playoffs.
Now that Parker will miss the rest of the postseason with a leg injury, the Spurs will be tested like they rarely have been before.
The Spurs announced on Thursday that Parker has a ruptured quadriceps tendon in his left leg. The injury will likely require surgery to repair, meaning the Spurs will have to go through the rest of the postseason without their floor leader. The injury came as the Spurs are locked in a second-round battle with Houston, a series tied 1-1 with Game 3 on the road coming up Friday.
“If we don’t have him, it’s going to be a lot tougher to hang with teams like Houston and Golden State, the Clippers, that kind of thing,” Popovich told The Associated Press before the season ended.
While the 34-year-old Parker is not the dynamic playmaker he was in his younger days, he has still been hugely important to what the team does. After the Spurs were blown out in Game 1, Parker responded with 18 points in 25 minutes before getting injured to help San Antonio rebound to even the series.
He appeared to land awkwardly while taking a shot with 8:34 to play Wednesday night and crumpled to the court. The Frenchman needed to be carried off the floor by teammates, casting a pall over San Antonio’s victory.
Popovich said after the game that it didn’t look good, and the Spurs’ fears were confirmed after an MRI on Thursday. The team said there is no timetable yet for his recovery.
With Parker out, backup Patty Mills could move into a starting role and the Spurs will also likely give Kawhi Leonard more ball-handling responsibility. Rookie Dejounte Murray is another candidate to see more playing time.
Perhaps most disappointing is that Parker had found another gear in the playoffs after an underwhelming regular season, two weeks before his 35th birthday. His 10.1 points-per-game average in the regular season was his lowest since his rookie year in 2001-02. But he averaged 15.9 points on 53 percent shooting in eight playoff games, including a vintage 27-point night in Game 6 against Memphis to clinch that series.
“If he’s not right or he can’t play, we’re going to have a tough time staying with the big boys,” Popovich said during the regular season. “When he’s been healthy we’ve had a rhythm, he gets into it defensively and has set a tone on the perimeter for us along with Kawhi. His organization of the team is really important, understanding time and score, what’s going on the court.
“He’s a great source for me to read what we’re doing that night in that game and what might be needed.”
Now the Spurs move forward without Parker and, of course, without Tim Duncan, who retired last summer. Two huge voids as they go toe-to-toe with the high-powered Rockets in hopes of another trip to the Western Conference finals.
Even though Parker has always been on the quiet side, Popovich said he had seen a more vocal point guard this year as the team tried to find itself without Duncan there to provide guidance and leadership.
“His leadership has increased exponentially because he always deferred to Timmy. So now he’s kind of opened up,” Popovich said in late March. “But his health is majorly important to us.”