The story line grows more irresistible with every game. The wonder boy from the foreign land confidently directs the veterans with a wink and a smile. At the same time, he embraces the showdown with the All-Star who many believe will take his job next season. The personal touches are beguiling too. The sly PEOPLE's-50-most-beautiful-people grin that reveals no trace of fear. The delightful, French-accented references to San Antonio Spurs teammate Tim Duncan that come out as "Teemy" or "Teem." Is he married? (No.) Still available? (Won't say.) Does he like French wine and goat cheese more than the Alamo City's Tex-Mex cuisine? (Most definitely.)
Through the first three games of an NBA Finals that was more bare-knuckle brawl than high-caliber ball, Tony Parker—21 years old, 6'2" and 180 pounds (maybe)—had cast a larger shadow than either two-time MVP Teemy or the New Jersey Nets' Jason Kidd, the soon-to-be free agent who was expected to demonstrate, even to those amoureaux de Parker, how point guard is supposed to be played. It's not that Kidd, who learned his hoops on the rugged playgrounds of Oakland, was bad; he was sensational (30 points, seven rebounds) in the Nets' 87-85 Game 2 victory last Friday in San Antonio. It's just that Parker, a product of the National Institute of Sports and Physical Education, an elite sports school in a verdant section of Paris, was better.
On Sunday night, as the series continued with Game 3 at Continental Airlines Arena and the Tony Awards were handed out across the Hudson, San Antonio's Tony assumed the leading role in what at times resembled a midseason yawner between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Atlanta Hawks that included a 27-point second quarter, the lowest total for a period in Finals history. Parker scored a game-high 26 points, handed out six assists, turned the ball over only once and for the most part kept his slender body in front of Kidd (12 points on 6-of-19 shooting, 11 assists, four turnovers) in the Spurs' 84-79 victory, which gave them a 2-1 series lead. Four nights earlier, in Game 1 at the SBC Center, Parker had also outplayed Kidd in a 101-89 win.
Looking at Parker from the perspective of 14 NBA seasons, the last of which is upon him, Spurs center David Robinson notes an uncanny resemblance to another teammate. "I see Tim," says the Admiral, who after an inspired Game 1 (14 points, four blocked shots) had limited impact. "Tony's a patient guy, like Tim, a guy who learns from his mistakes, a guy who, like Tim, won't get caught up worrying about the media."
Robinson refers, of course, to the will-Kidd-get-a-free-agent-offer-from-San-Antonio-this-summer question, which had already been repackaged more ways than Law & Order. After Game 3 a reporter asked Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, "Could you talk about your point-guard situation two or three years down the road?" Popovich smiled and replied, "I think point guard is a very important position. We should have a point guard." Parker would rather hunker down over a plate of nachos and an orange soda—this is a man who dared order room-service cr�me br�l�e during the Western Conference final in Dallas (and got sick from it)—than deal with the question. But early in the Finals he arrived at the perfect answer: "If I was the general manager, I would keep me."
Despite Parker's excellence, there was no certainty that the win on Sunday would turn the tide irrevocably in San Antonio's favor. After all, the Nets had played poorly in Game 1 and bounced back in Game 2, and the Spurs were too unreliable on offense (they had 38 turnovers in Games 2 and 3) to suggest a juggernaut like the Los Angeles Lakers of last year, who swept New Jersey in the Finals.
While the Nets did a credible job on Duncan (unstoppable in Game 1, with 32 points and 20 rebounds; sluggish in Game 2, with 19 points and seven missed free throws; solid in Game 3, with 21 points, 16 rebounds and seven assists), they have to find a way to stymie Parker, who was almost the sole responsibility of Kidd, a three-time All-NBA defender. Though he was concise in his praise of Parker ("Tony's a real good player," "He's handled himself well," etc.), the 30-year-old Kidd showed some signs of crankiness after Game 3. "There's no pressure on us because we're not even supposed to compete," he said. "We're just supposed to lay down." That was a reference to the Spurs' being heavy favorites entering the Finals, supposedly superior in most areas except for, well, point guard.
Parker and Kidd offer a fascinating contrast. The 6'4", 212-pound Kidd gets himself into the paint using a combination of muscle and guile, while Parker can do it on pure speed. Other than the Philadelphia 76ers' Allen Iverson, Parker may have the quickest first step in the game. Kidd is a true set-the-table point, partly because he is a below-average shooter; he made only 21 of 60 attempts in the first three games. Parker, despite his classic point-guard size, often functions as a shooting guard—partly because he's such a good shooter, partly because the offense primarily runs through the 7-foot Duncan in the post and partly because the Spurs need Parker to score. (Through Game 3 they were 26-2 this season when he racked up more than 20 points.) As Mavericks assistant coach Avery Johnson puts it, Parker is "kind of a halfway-between guard."
In the first Finals featuring two franchises sprung from the womb of the ABA, designated team legends Julius Erving of the Nets and George Gervin of the Spurs were ubiquitous, but it's safe to say they didn't see much that reminded them of the offense-oriented style of those red-white-and-blue-ball days. The Spurs prepared long and well to slow New Jersey's fast break, which produced 51 points over the first three games, a palatable sum for Popovich. During pre-Finals scrimmages he would suddenly yell, "Turnover!" and the first team would have to scramble back; he also allowed the second team to start its offense without taking the ball out-of-bounds after made shots.
The Spurs were willing to sacrifice offensive rebounds (they had 33 compared with the Nets' 42 in the first three games) to get back quickly and prevent Kidd from going into the paint and finding a teammate storming in from the wing. Thus he was stuck directing a Nets half-court offense for which most doors—especially their beloved back ones—were closed. San Antonio bodied up well ( Bruce Bowen had particular success limiting small forward Richard Jefferson, who was 11 of 31 from the field in the first three games) and at times deployed a 3-2 zone that seemed to discombobulate even the heady Kidd.