SAN ANTONIO - Two seasons ago, Tony Parker was Spurs coach Gregg Popovich’s favorite whipping boy.
Now we know why.
While it is always difficult to overlook the contributions of Tim Duncan when the Spurs take the floor — and while Manu Ginobili has been an Argentine assassin in this series — Parker took his turn in the spotlight in Saturday’s all-but-series-clinching 102-92 San Antonio win at SBC Center.
Knowing full well the Suns planned to throw long and strong Joe Johnson at him in Game 3, Parker was in attack mode from the get-go.
The Belgian-born point guard had 12 points in the first half, four assists and ran a nearly flawless offense as the Spurs put the game on ice at halftime with a 56-39 lead.
"He’s a really tough-minded individual," Popovich said. "He can handle critiques. You tell him ‘You gotta do this, you gotta do that,’ and he doesn’t take anything personally. He just wants to get better.
"When you have an athlete who’s talented like him who really wants to get better, it’s a wonderful experience as a coach. He’s been like that since he arrived at 19 years old."
The Suns had hoped Johnson would be able to slow and rattle Parker with his length and strength, but Parker rendered Johnson a non-factor, beating him off the dribble with some help from Spurs screens and breaking down the Suns defense repeatedly with his penetration.
"I wanted to make sure that just because they put Joe on me I wouldn’t slow down," Parker said. "That’s why I attacked him, especially early in the first quarter."
With the Suns mounting something short of a rally in the fourth period — Phoenix rattled off 11 straight points to slice the Spurs’ lead to nine with 7:49 remaining — Parker calmly drilled a 17-footer, then fed Bruce Bowen for a 3-pointer to silence the Suns.
Throughout, he also played a stifling brand of defense on Suns guard Steve Nash — one that Popovich praised as the tempo setter for his team. Nash posted a season-low (for games he finished healthy) three assists.
"I think because I’m young and sometimes have a tendency to be inconsistent, Pop wants to make sure he pushes me every game to be at the level Timmy (Duncan) is," Parker said. "It shows a lot of respect. He sees a lot of good in me and I just want to pay back all the confidence he has in me."
Life is good for Parker these days. He handles the reins of the NBA’s best team, he’s got the confidence of perhaps the game’s best coach and he’s dating "Desperate Housewives" star Eva Longoria, who made her third straight appearance of this series in support of her beau.
"Can’t complain," Parker said with a wry smile. "But at the same time I can’t be satisfied because it can all change quickly. At the end of the season maybe I can relax and say, ‘Ahh, this is good.’ "