It was the fourth quarter of the Charlotte Hornets’ 100-87 win over the Brooklyn Nets Friday, and Tony Parker, the Charlotte Hornets’ 36-year-old late-game savant, looked to coach James Borrego like he needed a breather. So, Borrego subbed him out... or at least tried to.
“JB thought I was getting tired, so I just told him, ‘I’m not tired. I’m ready to go.’ So then he put me back in,” Parker said. “He’s always worried about my body obviously at my age, and thinking about big picture, because the most important time of the year is playoffs.
“But at the same time, I always joke with JB, ‘We still have to get in, though.’”
All total, Parker missed a minute and two seconds of the fourth quarter, all the while proving he never should have — and perhaps never should, period — come off the floor in the Hornets’ closest games.
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Parker entered the fourth quarter Friday having made just one of four shots for two points. But as the Hornets’ one-time 20-point lead slowly disintegrated, in came Parker to the rescue... again.
What transpired thereafter can only be described as vintage Tony Parker. He hit nearly every shot in the book that final quarter, everything from step-backs to reverse layups to floaters. He finished with 19 points, including one stretch where he scored six straight.
Picture him in an ‘08 San Antonio Spurs uniform, add a few gray hairs, and then copy and paste that image all over the Spectrum Center on Friday night.
“This is kind of what he does,” said Borrego, who was Parker’s assistant coach for about a decade in San Antonio. “I guess I’ve just been around Tony so long I just see him as Tony Parker, and I guess you just keep expecting it. I’m kind of surprised when he doesn’t deliver, to be honest with you.
“Tony’s a big-game player. He’s been in that role many times. Many of these close games that we’ve closed out, he’s been a major part of it. We needed him tonight.”
To some extent, Borrego is right. Parker, who signed a two-year contract with the Hornets this offseason, has brought a killer instinct late in games that can’t be taught in any film session — rather, it’s learned through tribulations and repetition, like 17 consecutive trips to the NBA playoffs and winning four championships.
Parker said as much himself.
“I’ve been in that situation so many times, with the Spurs, with the national team. ...I always loved pressure moments,” Parker said. “That’s what people remember. Big games, big shots, big performances, so I like to be in that situation. Over the years you have to prove yourself, too. You have to earn it, to have your number called in those tough moments.
“Since I’ve been here, we’ve talked a lot about they lost a lot of games in the fourth quarter and not closing out games, and so I feel like I can definitely help out in that area.”
That much is also true. In addition to his late-game experience and ability to thrive under pressure, something Borrego and Parker both said isn’t a universal trait in the NBA, Parker’s specific skill set makes him a perfect fit for the Hornets’ fourth-quarter needs. When teams clamp up and double team All-Star guard Kemba Walker, Parker provides an outlet.
And even more than that, he’s capable of initiating the team’s offense. That allows Walker to play more off the ball, which gives him the freedom to focus on scoring and shot-making instead of setting up his teammates.
Really, Parker’s value to the Hornets has been two-fold in that regard, in that he does as much good himself as he does by freeing up Walker to do his own damage.
Sure, except, there is a caveat to all that.
Walker is 28, in the prime of his career and in peak physical condition. He averages 34.9 minutes per game, tied for 15th-most in the NBA and more than All-Stars LeBron James and Steph Curry.
Meanwhile, Parker is well past those days. He and Borrego have stressed the importance of limiting his minutes earlier this season, with the obvious hope that he’ll still be fresh come playoffs. As a result, he’s playing just 19.2 minutes per game, the fewest of his 18-year NBA career.
So while Parker’s late-game heroics are certainly welcome — the Hornets wouldn’t be 17-17 without him — they also come with an asterisk:
How long can Tony Parker keep this up?
That is an answer that can only come with time. But for now, the Hornets are doing everything in their power to limit the stress on Parker’s body. That even goes so far as to sit him during the second half of back-to-back games, which already happened less than 10 games into this season.
Parker said after Friday’s game that he will not play against the Washington Wizards on Friday, nor would he travel with the team to D.C., in order to give him two full days to prepare for the Hornet’s next home contest against the Orlando Magic on New Year’s Eve.
“I’m trusting JB managing my body,” Parker said. “Right now I’m fine. Didn’t miss too many games, so I’ve been feeling really good and hopefully we can keep it going. Always nice when I get a day off on back-to-backs, too, because back-to-backs (are) the toughest.”
And if Parker’s age seems overblown, keep this in mind: Parker’s former Spurs teammate Tim Duncan was once listed out for a game with the designation “Old”... when he was 35.
There is no doubting that even at 36, Parker is capable of playing high-level, high-impact basketball. Through the first 34 games of this Hornets season, and especially so Friday night, he proved that.
At this point, it’s just time to switch the question.
Instead of asking, ‘Can Tony Parker keep doing this?’, it should be, ‘How long can Tony Parker keep doing this?’
Parker doesn’t know. Neither do the Hornets.
One way or another, they’re both going to find out.