When Tony Parker made that spin move to the basket in the first half Friday, it looked impossible that he was 36.
Twenty-six, maybe. Past 30? Inconceivable.
“That was vintage Tony right there,” Hornets coach James Borrego said with a laugh after the 113-107 victory over the West-leading Denver Nuggets. “That’s just what he does. What he’s done his entire career, basically.”
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It’s been one long career: 17-plus seasons, all but this one with the San Antonio Spurs. Parker brought many things when he signed with the Hornets: knowledge, poise, skill, a sense of calm. The question, when the Hornets signed him over the summer, was whether he was bringing a healthy body to Charlotte.
So far it’s been marvelous, his impact as the Hornets’ backup point guard. Friday he finished with 19 points, including a pull-up 9-foot jump shot with 56 seconds left that was huge to closing this one out.
Parker is two years removed from a torn quadriceps tendon below his left knee. It was the sort of injury that could wreck basketball careers for players much younger than Parker. Had he retired, or chosen to stay in San Antonio as a third option at his position this season, you couldn’t blame him.
Instead, he accepted the sales pitch of former Spurs assistant Borrego and fellow Frenchman Nic Batum to fill what has been a gaping hole in the Hornets’ depth chart. The options to back up star Kemba Walker at the point had been bad to dreadful the prior two seasons. Ramon Sessions was at the end of his career, and then Michael Carter-Williams was alternately injured or ineffective.
Borrego knew Parker would be a force in the locker room and at practice. The only question was his physical readiness to play 20 minutes or so per game on a regular basis.
“When we looked at the signing, we really had to evaluate his body: Was he physically capable of doing this?” Borrego reflected.
“He was coming off a major injury. But I was with him the year he rehabbed. He put so much time and work into getting healthy again.”
So far, this has been a coup. Parker addressed this team’s greatest roster hole. Beyond that, he provided a closer on a team that was becoming infamous the prior two seasons for losing tight games.
It wasn’t complicated, discerning a team’s best chance to beat the Hornets: You did whatever it took defensively to limit Walker in the fourth quarter and dared anyone else in a teal jersey to go beat you.
“He takes so much pressure off me down the stretch to make big plays,” Walker said. “He’s been there before tons of times. ... We look to him to make those plays.”
Borrego said in the preseason he looked to close games with Walker and Parker together. It’s similar to what the Hornets had during the 2015-16 season, closing games with Walker and Jeremy Lin. Parker isn’t as big and strong as Lin, but he makes up for that in his playmaking.
It’s become Borrego’s go-to in the fourth quarter.
“It just gets us good looks. It settles us down,” Borrego described. “It allows us to move the ball from side to side and have another playmaker that’s been there before on the other side” of the basket.
“We were moving the ball from Kemba handling to Tony handling....When Kemba was trapped, we had Tony on the other side.”
This won’t work all the time. But it’s the best counter-measure on this roster when defenses throw everything they have at Walker.
“Teams in general the past few years have loaded up on Kemba. That’s just a reality,” Borrego said. “Now, we have a guy on the second side who has made big shots..”