The video tribute before the game was spectacular. The curtain call Tony Parker got in the last minute was charming.
But that was ceremony, and Parker prefers substance. So how his current team managed to beat his previous one is what gripped him afterward.
“Before the game they were all, ‘We’re going to do this for you, Tony! You deserve it!” Parker said of his teammates after the Charlotte Hornets beat the San Antonio Spurs Monday 108-93. “They played so hard that I said, ‘Why don’t we play like that every road game?’
“Come on guys, you have no excuse! I’m going to be on them now.”
When has Parker not been on his teammates this season? It started in a late-summer pickup game after he agreed to leave the Spurs following 17 seasons and four NBA championships. It continued the first practice of training camp in Chapel Hill and has flowed through this 20-23 half-season.
He demands, he challenges and he scolds. That isn’t just tolerated by the Hornets. It’s applauded.
“He is exactly what we needed,” said power forward Marvin Williams, closest to a peer of Parker’s in terms of NBA experience in his 14th season.
Excited or nervous?
Parker was back in San Antonio for the first time since this season started. The Spurs assembled a beautiful video montage on the AT&T Center scoreboard, and the fans chanted, “Tony-Tony-Tony” at the video’s conclusion. After the Hornets took control late and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich pulled his starters, Hornets coach James Borrego sent Parker back in with 17 seconds left to take a bow.
Parker hugged Popovich, whom he considers a second father, and waved with both hands at the fans who cherish what he achieved as part of a Spurs “Big Three” of himself, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili.
Duncan and Ginobili are retired. Parker could have re-signed with the Spurs as a sort of point guard emeritus, but there were no assurances from Popovich of playing time this season. So instead, Parker accepted the sales pitch of Borrego, a former Spurs assistant, and fellow Frenchman Nic Batum to be Kemba Walker’s backup at point guard.
From the day Parker got to Charlotte, he’s been telling new teammates not to mess with his streak of never having missed the playoffs. That goes all the way back to 2001, when the Spurs drafted then 19-year-old Parker late in the first round.
Monday morning at shootaround, longtime friend Batum said Parker seemed understandably nervous about this first game against his former team.
“I’m very tired,” Parker said after showering and dressing for the flight back to Charlotte. “It was draining mentally.”
No wonder. Beyond the obvious stimuli competing for his attention, Parker got a surprise about 1 1/2 hours before tip-off when he was greeted court-side by family he thought was a continent away.
“I talked to them this morning and they said, ‘Oh yeah, we’ll be up at 3 a.m. (in France) to watch the game,’” Parker recalled. “Then in warmups seeing them (dressed in his No. 9 Spurs jerseys) was wild. It gave me goosebumps.”
Parker was off his game early, missing his first four shots before scoring on a 17-foot pull-up jump shot with three minutes left in the third quarter. But he had impact in the fourth quarter, making three of five shots as the Hornets outscored the Spurs 32-21 over the last 12 minutes.
The Hornets haven’t often been great closers this season against quality teams on the road. This was just the sixth victory in 21 games away from Spectrum Center. Winning Monday salvaged a six-game road trip in which their only other victory was against the Phoenix Suns, the worst team in the Western Conference.
Parker saw something Monday he doesn’t witness often enough away from Charlotte.
“Our energy and defense,” Parker said of the difference. “We know we are going to score. We just have to make stops. Our defense is not like, together (often enough). Some guys will play with energy here and energy there, but we have to play with energy all five together. Everybody on the same page.
“That’s what we’re missing the most. If we can do that more over 48 minutes, we have a great chance to be in every game.”
One of Parker’s traits is a gift for diagnosis. Parker knows what great looks like and he got a glimpse of it Monday.
Find a way to provide that more than once a week, and the Hornets keep Parker’s playoff streak intact.