We all expected the Spurs to go on a run sooner or later. They're The Spurs, after all. But a four-game losing streak last week and a listless season by their standards in general had many questioning whether the end had finally come.
But these being The Spurs, the car quickly was put in reverse. San Antonio has now won five games in a row, the latest being a 116-105 home victory over the Bulls on Sunday. The Spurs are now 39-23 and tied with the fifth-place Clippers in the loss column. The Spurs are back.
While it's often dangerous to tie an entire team's turnaround to the performance on one player, it fits in the case. The Spurs' quick about-face has everything to do with Tony Parker.
In late February, Parker went through a stretch where he scored a total of nine points in three games. It's not like he was spending most of his time on the bench or being a facilitator in those contests: he played a total of 69 minutes and dished out a measly 14 assists. It was one of the worst stretches of his career. As shown by our Jason Patt, the Spurs were actually better with Parker off the floor. They scored just 101.4 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor to that point, per NBA.com. That number would rank in the bottom half of the league.
Once one of the best in the league at getting into the paint and breaking down a defense, Parker was no longer finding ways to penetrate. He was taking more mid-range shots and three-pointers than ever before. His free throw attempts had dropped. His assists were down and turnovers were up. He was having trouble creating points out of the pick-and-roll.
Here's his shot chart at that point in the season, via NBA.com.
Whether it was a hamstring injury he suffered in early December or something else, it was clear Parker wasn't right.
"I've been through a lot of tough challenges in my career," he said at that point to Yahoo! Sports. "Right now, this is up there."
And then everything changed. Below is what Parker's shot chart looks like over his last five games. Note the large uptick in the percentage of shots at the rim and the conversion rate on those shots. Parker is also taking fewer jumpers and is more efficient near and around the paint.
Parker is averaging 20 points per game in the Spurs' last five contests. Not surprisingly, the Spurs again look like the offensive juggernaut that wiped the Miami Heat off the floor in last year's Finals. With Parker on the floor, San Antonio is scoring a ridiculous 120.3 points per 100 possessions over its last five games, per NBA.com. The league-leading Clippers, by comparison, have an offensive rating of 109.4.
Parker was at his best Sunday against the Bulls. He scored 32 points on 13-19 shooting, and eight of those baskets came in the paint. He sliced through the Bulls' vaunted defense time and time again, just like he has against so many defenses over the years.
Tim Duncan may still be the Spurs' best player and Kawhi Leonard may be their biggest difference-maker in the playoffs, but it's Parker that makes the offense go. He's the only the Spur that can break a defense down and set off the chain of events that lead to San Antonio's beautiful ball movement. Without him at his best, no one on the team can challenge a defense off the dribble and force a defender on the opposite side to step away from his man.
Yes, there are caveats. The Spurs' wins during this streak have come against the Kings (twice), Suns, Nuggets and Bulls, which isn't exactly a murder's row of opponents. But that's not what's important. For the first time all year, Tony Parker appears to be healthy. Not coincidentally, the Spurs finally look like The Spurs.
The Western Conference is as wide open as it's been in years. If Parker can play at this level for the rest of the season, a Spurs championship repeat could finally be in the cards.