HOUSTON – It was altogether fitting that the starting point guard in the first Spurs playoff game in 16 years in which that role was not filled by Tony Parker was a rookie, Dejounte Murray.
Parker, who underwent successful surgery to repair a ruptured left quadriceps tendon on Friday morning, was the first rookie ever to start at point guard for the Spurs, in 2001, at age 19. Murray became the second when Gregg Popovich opted to open Friday’s Game 3 of his team’s Western Conference Semifinals series against Houston Rockets with the 20-year-old who started eight regular season games when Parker was injured or being rested.
If he was nervous on getting the news from Popovich, he did his best not to show it. In fact, he turned the tables on his coach.
“I told coach, ‘Don’t be nervous,’” Murray said. “I’m going to be fine.”
In fact, it turned out to be a mixed bag for Murray, thrown to the NBA’s junkyard dog of defenders, Patrick Beverley. He played only 14 minutes, made only 1-of-5 shots totaled two points, two rebounds, no assists, and committed two turnovers, picked clean by Beverley on two occasions as he tried to initiate the Spurs’ offense.
But on Friday night, adjusting to life without Parker was less about a youngster feigning confidence than tested veterans stepping to the fore. In the 53rd playoff game of his career, LaMarcus Aldridge emerged from the offensive funk that had beset him in Games 1 and 2, when he made only 8-of-22 shots. Looking more aggressively for his shot and taking it confidently, Aldridge scored 26 points, on 12-for-20 shooting, and grabbed seven rebounds. He also blocked four shots and helped limit Rockets power forward Ryan Anderson to 0-for-4 shooting.
Making his first shot of the game, Aldridge said, worked wonders.
“I think any scorer plays well when the ball goes in,” Aldridge said. “That’s part of the game, but it just felt good tonight. My rhythm felt good. I was into it. I did some things to take advantage of mismatches a little better tonight.”
Popovich seemed relieved to have Aldridge back as a reliable scoring option to Kawhi Leonard, already carrying a huge portion of the playoff load for the Spurs. Parker had jumped his scoring average by nearly six points per game in the playoffs, but Aldridge was under-performing before Friday’s outburst.
“This was his best game,” Popovich said. “He felt good tonight. He was loose, as far as his physical nature, his legs and everything. He wasn’t too stiff. It showed. He moved up and down the court well. He was able to push off on the block, and he felt good shooting the ball. In addition, he busted his butt on defense and trying to get the boards for us.”
Knowing they had to make up for what they were missing from Parker obviously inspired all the Spurs.
“It’s hard,” said center Pau Gasol, who had 12 points, nine rebounds, four assists and two blocks. “But at the same you’ve got to work through and get over adversity. We understand how much Tony means to this team, what he brings to the table and how well he was playing for us in the playoffs, making huge plays at critical points in critical games. He will be missed on the floor and off the floor, because he’s an emotional leader for this team. He brings a lot of poise, a lot of leadership.
“But an injury occurred and now you have to move on. You have to play with the guys that you have and you have to compete and you have to bring it. All the guys that have an opportunity to play have to step up and get the job done. That’s just the nature of this business. So, tonight we did that and we didn’t allow the emotional hit of the injury of Tony to affect us in a negative way.”
Murray didn’t let it make him nervous, or so he tried to convince Popovich.
Parker fared considerably better than Murray in his first playoff start as a rookie, on April 20, 2002. Facing the league’s elite point guard defender, Seattle SuperSonics Hall of Famer Gary Payton, Parker made 9-of-12 shots and scored 21 points in a 110-89 Spurs win.
But, for Popovich, Parker, and the Spurs, it’s only that final outcome that really counts, and in that regard, the second rookie in club history to start at point guard in a playoff game did just as well as the first.
“I compare floor minutes to driving,” said Danny Green, who made 3-of-5 3 pointers and blocked two shots. “When you’ve got a guy like Pat Beverley, he’s a junkyard dog out there hounding you, full-court, it’s not an easy task, but I thought he got a little more comfortable as the game went on; started understanding where he could pick and choose his moments. But, we still have full confidence in him. He did a great job for his first start in the playoffs.”