By Jeff McDonald
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — When the smoke finally cleared after the Spurs beat Memphis in a must-win Game 2 on Wednesday, it was impossible to miss that Manu Ginobili had been there lighting fires.
In his first action of the first-round series after sitting out Game 1 with an elbow sprain, Ginobili wrestled with Marc Gasol, scrummed with Shane Battier and traded blows and words with Tony Allen before coaxing a key offensive foul out of him in the fourth quarter.
“It was like he was everywhere at once,” Spurs guard Gary Neal said.
Now that Ginobili has joined the series, delivering the Spurs to a 1-1 deadlock as the feistiness shifts to Memphis for Game 3 tonight, it is time for his All-Star backcourt mate to do the same.
It’s not as if Tony Parker has been terrible. But, by playing Memphis point guard Mike Conley to no better than a stalemate, Parker hasn’t given the Spurs the clear backcourt edge most thought they had.
“The first two games, I’ve been a little off,” said Parker, a former Finals MVP. “Usually in the playoffs, I’m very aggressive and make my shots. The first two games, it didn’t bounce my way.”
Parker averaged 16 points and six assists in Games 1 and 2, not far off his season numbers. Yet the three-time All-Star is shooting just 33 percent (10 for 30), after leading all NBA guards at 51.9 percent in the regular season.
Parker has struggled with his trademark teardrop, clanged open jumpers and, on the rare occasions he’s found the path to the rim unabated, has had trouble finishing.
Faced with these facts, Parker smiled, shrugged and did the math.
“I guess the percentages are with me now,” he said.
As the series moves from the River Walk to the banks of the Mississippi — for a Game 3 many are calling the biggest game in Grizzlies history — the Spurs could use a vintage Parker tonight.
Memphis certainly isn’t making life easy on him.
With a defense designed to deny Parker access to the paint, hacking him if necessary, the Grizzlies have sent a clear signal they have no intention of allowing the first round to devolve into a layup parade.
Despite his opponent’s best-laid plans, Parker’s teammates have faith the stone-cold finisher who dumped 37 points on Memphis in December will show up at some point.
“He’s quick enough and smart enough to find a way,” said Ginobili, whose bum elbow appears to have survived Game 2 without further harm.
Some credit for slowing Parker goes to Conley, a 23-year-old playoff neophyte most predicted would spend the series inhaling French jet fumes. Conley is averaging 14 points and seven assists in the series, making Parker lose sweat at both ends.
“If we’re going to win, we’ve got to try to contain Tony Parker,” said Conley, who at times seems to be performing a Parker impression himself. “My job is to make it as tough on him as I can.”
So far, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said he’s been pleased with Parker’s approach, equal parts patient and forceful.
“He’s run the show well for us,” Popovich said.
Of course, Parker doesn’t have to score to affect the game. Back-to-back moments late in Game 2 underscored that.
With the Spurs desperate for baskets to fend off another fourth-quarter charge from the Grizzlies, Parker wiggled into the lane to find them.
As Memphis distracted itself with his drives, Parker hit Richard Jefferson for a corner three, then shipped a pass to Antonio McDyess for a layup.
“I try to pick my spots to be aggressive,” Parker said. “Overall, the second game, it worked out well.”
If Parker ever were to pick a spot for a playoff breakout, tonight would be the night. FedEx Forum will be howling. The Grizzlies will be electrified.
One game after introducing Ginobili to the 2011 playoffs, the Spurs would like nothing more than to finally welcome Parker, too.