Tony Parker is back, and the San Antonio Spurs are better than ever

SAN ANTONIO – When LaMarcus Aldridge agreed to leave Portland in order to become the newest cog in the perpetual motion machine of success that has been the San Antonio Spurs over the last two decades, it appeared San Antonio had become the team with the best chance of dethroning the defending champion Golden State Warriors.

But despite all of the understandable excitement that surrounded the franchise after the combination of acquiring Aldridge’s signature and the continuing ascendance of Kawhi Leonard ensured a seamless transition from one era to the next, there was still one lingering question about the Spurs that needed to be answered before it could truly be known if they were a legitimate championship contender this season: how much did Tony Parker have left?

If anyone was still looking for an answer to that question, they shouldn’t be after Parker finished with a game-high 24 points on 11-for-18 shooting in just under 35 minutes Thursday night, lifting the Spurs to a 99-95 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers in their much-anticipated showdown.

The win improved the Spurs to 35-6 this season, including an incredible 23-0 at home, and once again proved to any doubters that the old Parker is back – not that he was worried about doing so.

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“I don’t really care about what people say,” Parker told The Washington Post after Thursday’s game. “I’m self-motivated. Everybody here, we understand we want to win a championship, so I don’t need the outside stuff to be motivated. I take a lot of pride to play well every season.”

Given how last season ended, and how Parker’s summer progressed, the lingering questions about his effectiveness moving forward were legitimate ones. After injuring his left hamstring in a game on Dec. 5, 2014 at Memphis, Parker never quite got back on track.

His performance against the Cavaliers Thursday night made it seem as though he’d never hit any rough patch at all. It was a vintage performance by the future Hall of Famer, one that saw him pull out all the tricks that have made him into one of the league’s best point guards for over a decade.

For all of the gifts Leonard and Aldridge possess, for all of the veteran guile and muscle memory Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili still have, the Spurs don’t look like the Spurs unless Parker is playing this way; orchestrating the offense while constantly moving around the court, probing the defense, getting to the rim.

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That’s why the questions about Parker’s effectiveness coming into this season cast such a shadow over their title chances. If San Antonio was going to be able to surpass its biggest rivals in the Western Conference and, in all likelihood, take down the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals to win yet another championship, this version of Parker was going to have to be at their disposal.

“I kind of knew we were going to have a more aggressive Tony [this season], playing with more determination,” Ginobili said. “The great thing with this team is we don’t need him, as a few years ago, to score 20 every game. There are games in which he’ll be able to take a break and just feed the bigs and wait. Tonight we needed him to score, and he gave us a great help.”

It was the kind of effort Parker wanted to give his teammates last year, but his body wouldn’t let him. Now that he can, he’s just hoping that doesn’t change.

“Right now, I feel great,” he said. “It’s not even close to how I felt last year. . . . I’m feeling great. I’m just praying that it stays like that, and I can stay healthy.”

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So is everyone else in San Antonio.