Tony Parker is the NBA's toughest riddle. For the defense trying to cover him, that is.
Tony Parker is the NBA's toughest riddle because he's playing at an incredibly high level right now. Twenty-three points and seven assists on 47 percent shooting is absurd enough for a point guard, but it's the way he's zipped through defenses like the Millenium Falcon weaving through an asteroid belt that stands out. The Memphis Grizzlies had the Death Star of NBA defenses, and Tony Parker broke it down like Luke Skywalker speeding around TIE fighters and dropping the missile into the one spot that could blow it up.
Tony Parker is the NBA's toughest riddle because he doesn't really have that one defining characteristic that defenses can focus on stopping. He's just as good going right as he is going left. He's just as proficient getting to the rim as he is pulling up for a jumper. He can play on the ball or off it. He can attack in transition or slow it down and beat you in a half-court set. He can do all of these things equally well.
Tony Parker is not the NBA's best player. That is LeBron James. But Parker is the NBA's toughest riddle because there's no one way to stop him.
Tony Parker is now the NBA's toughest riddle because he's developed his skills. When he entered the league, he was a speedy young guard that could beat anyone in a full-court sprint. It didn't take him long to learn all those wrong-footed layups, crafty finishes with both hands and teardrops that allowed him to score inside over much bigger players. But he used to have skills that weren't developed. Those skills are now fully operational.
Tony Parker is now the NBA's toughest riddle because he has mastered the holy trinity of dribble moves. You can get a long way in this game if you can do three things while dribbling: hesitation moves, crossovers and inside-out dribbles. The former allows you to appear quick because defenses can't ever know how fast you'll go. Much like a pitcher that makes his fastball appear faster by using a great offspeed pitch, so too does a hesitation dribble make you more difficult to defend. The crossover and inside-out dribble allow you to dart laterally and act as counters to each other so defenses don't key on you going one way.
Tony Parker is now the NBA's toughest riddle because he can fool defenses with hesitation dribbles like this.
Tony Parker is now the NBA's toughest riddle because he's capable of crossing over low and tight on high pick-and-rolls to set up whatever he wants to set up.
Tony Parker is now the NBA's toughest riddle because he can do the same with an inside-out dribble.
Tony Parker is now the NBA's toughest riddle because he has turned shooting, once a major weakness, into his strength. During the regular season, Parker hit 45 percent of his jump shots from outside of 15 feet. During the playoffs, that number is at 43 percent. Both figures are better than Stephen Curry's over the same time period.
Tony Parker is now the NBA's toughest riddle because he is more than just a scorer. In the past, his passing was just average, but now he understands the full geometry of the floor. No player in the playoffs has assisted on a higher percentage of Spurs possessions while they're in the game than Parker has. He's now capable of delivering passes to the man in his peripheral vision, like he does here to Danny Green.
Tony Parker has become the NBA's toughest riddle not just because he's capable of doing it all, but because the Spurs' offense uses him in so many different ways. The real brilliance of Gregg Popovich is that he takes all these unique skills Tony Parker has and tosses them together in a dizzying series of sets that nobody else can match. Tony Parker does not only function with the ball in his hands at the top of the key running a high pick-and-roll. The Spurs have him do so much more, preventing the defense from keying in on any sort of play.
Tony Parker becomes the NBA's toughest riddle because the Spurs don't set screens conventionally. Most teams don't have big men skilled enough to pick the side they want to screen without being called for an offensive foul. The Spurs, though, do, and thanks to tremendous practice, they have the ability to keep both Parker and the screener moving, timing a pick perfectly so that the defense doesn't have the chance to set up its coverage. By the time they see the switch, it's too late. Just ask the Lakers, who were victimized when Matt Bonner started on Parker's right, then quickly darted to set the screen on Parker's left.
Tony Parker becomes the NBA's toughest riddle because the Spurs will set multiple ball screens for him. If at first they don't succeed, they often try, try again. Klay Thompson and Andrew Bogut have to do so much work here to contain Parker as he works a two-man game with Tiago Splitter.
Tony Parker becomes the NBA's toughest riddle because he does so much damage off the ball. The Spurs run him through so many baseline screens that he may as well be Reggie Miller. The most common: a single-double series on a set called "The Loop" that allows Parker to pick which screen he wants to use. He can stay on the "single" side and either curl off his screener nice and tight, like so.
Or, he can stay on the single side and make a wide curl off his screen.
Or, he can run along the baseline to the double screen on the opposite side and curl for a jumper.
Or, he could run along the baseline to the double screen on the opposite side, then come back to the baseline for a side pick-and-roll.
Tony Parker has become the NBA's toughest riddle because how is a defense supposed to predict where Parker is going if he can do all these things and more on one single set? This is enhanced by yet another thing that makes Tony Parker become the NBA's toughest riddle: He never gets tired.
Tony Parker has become the NBA's toughest riddle because he has free rein to attack in transition even without a numbers advantage. He's become an expert at dribble-probing on delayed fast-break situations, quickly going into a pick-and-roll and getting a look for himself or a teammate before the defense is set. In more traditional transition situations, his speed and creativity, along with the freedom Popovich provides, allow him to turn a situation like this.
Tony Parker has grown into the NBA's toughest riddle because he has so much creativity to ad-lib. No coverage phases him because he's able to quickly adjust to any sort of overplay.
Tony Parker has grown into the NBA's toughest riddle because he'll decline a ball screen every once in a while to attack or set up his now-lethal perimeter jumper. If you get caught leaning, like Thompson does here, you're toast.
Tony Parker has become the NBA's toughest riddle because you can never key on his off-ball movements. He'll cut backdoor when you overplay him, like he does to poor Tony Allen here.
Tony Parker has become the NBA's toughest riddle because he can't be trapped. This is especially important for the 2013 NBA Finals. The Heat, as they do with every team they face, will send two players to the ball-handler on pick-and-rolls in the hopes that they can force turnovers and mess up the timing of the Spurs' plays. But Parker is incredibly unselfish and decisive in these situations, willing to give up the ball and let his teammates play out the four-on-three scenario behind him. Nobody moves the ball and spaces the floor like San Antonio, and few help them take advantage of those skills better than Parker. Look at how quickly he read that Kawhi Leonard was the open man on the opposite side of the court when the Grizzlies tried to trap him on the sidelines.
Tony Parker has become the NBA's toughest riddle because he doesn't let you cheat. He knows your coverage before you even do and is zeroed in on solving in.
To this point, he NBA's toughest riddle has not been solved, even by some of the league's best defenses. If the Miami Heat want to be the first, they have to be on point in every little aspect of their coverage. Any little breakdown and Tony Parker is off to the races. Absolute precision, otherwise known as perfection, is Miami's only chance.
That's what makes Tony Parker the NBA's toughest riddle. Miami's best path to victory may be hoping that it's equally difficult for the Spurs to solve their gigantic, powerful, fast, versatile and physically imposing riddle.