MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- This is the Tony Parker the rest of the NBA never wanted to see. The other Tony Parker, the original version, was scary enough. That Tony Parker was spooky-fast, a wisp of smoke who could get to the rim whenever he wanted and somehow finish there, even if he does stand 6-foot-nothing and can't dunk without a trampoline.
But that Tony Parker couldn't shoot. Not jumpers. Not 3-pointers. Not even free throws. Not at a high level, anyway. Not at a level that commanded another team's respect. Time was, a team could back off Parker, beg him to shoot, hope he actually did it.
This Tony Parker? He's still spooky-fast. Still a wisp of smoke. But this one doesn't merely shoot when the defense wants him to shoot. He shoots when he wants to shoot. The Spurs set screens for him like they always have, but they're no longer assuming he'll use that screen to turn the corner and wreak havoc in the lane. Now he's using that screen to shoot open jumpers.
Parker shot open jumpers Monday night in Game 4 of the Western Conference finals. He also shot contested jumpers, plus his other stuff. He shot flips and floaters and free throws. He shot a 3-pointer. And he made damn near all of them.
On a night when the Spurs were getting consistent offense from exactly nobody else, Parker carried the team into the NBA Finals with 37 points on 15-of-21 shooting from the floor, sparking a 93-86 victory and finishing off a sweep of the Memphis Grizzlies.
"Well, he's had a lot of very good games," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "Obviously this probably ranks up there."
Added Spurs forward Tim Duncan: "Tony gets better every year."
He does. He really does. How long can this continue? Not forever. Maybe not even much longer. The guy's 31 years old, and while that's not old, those have been some long years. He has averaged 33 minutes a game for 12 NBA seasons, and because the Spurs have been so good, he has played 166 career playoff games. That's the equivalent of another two seasons, plus all the time he has spent playing internationally.
Tony Parker's tank isn't empty -- good lord, it looked completely full Monday night -- but that gas light will come on pretty soon. It has to, doesn't it? Meantime, he has the Spurs back in the NBA Finals for the first time in six years. The Spurs are here because this team is his team, a not-so-secret fact even Parker is willing to confirm.
"It's an honor to be the guy for a franchise like the Spurs," he said. "You've got Timmy and Manu and all my teammates, and they're counting on me and Pop shows so much confidence that it makes me want to play great."
Said Duncan: "I'm riding coattails now. [Parker] has been great. He's the reason we're here."
Duncan remains capable of dominating in spurts, including the opening minutes of overtime in Game 2 and Game 3, but he's not the player he once was -- even if he did make the All-NBA first team this season. Duncan had 15 points Monday night on 7-for-15 shooting, plus eight rebounds. He was pretty good.
Manu Ginobili was pretty bad. After looking brilliant in Game 3 (19 points on 5-for-9 shooting, plus seven rebounds and five assists), Ginobili looked old in Game 4 (six points on 1-for-6 shooting, with six turnovers).
Still the Spurs won, and not just barely. They won handily, comfortably, setting the tone with an early 22-6 run. The Grizzlies never got closer than three points, and got there only briefly early in the fourth quarter and again in the final minute.
Each time, Parker had an answer.
"He was in a zone," Grizzlies point guard Michael Conley said.
When the Grizzlies pulled within 76-73, Parker attempted his only 3-pointer. He made it, of course. He also harassed Conley into his worst game of a bad four-game series, capped Monday by nine points on 4-for-13 shooting, seven assists and three turnovers. As the Grizzlies are constructed, they cannot win when Conley is that pedestrian. Tony Parker did that.
As good as he was on defense, Parker was even better with the ball in his hands. That's where the Spurs wanted it after Marc Gasol's bucket pulled the Grizzlies within 89-86 with 48 seconds left. Parker hit two free throws with 29.7 seconds left, and after Tiago Splitter blocked Jerryd Bayless at the other end, hit two more free throws with 21 seconds left. Now it was 93-86.
Tony Parker did that. He did it with hard work we don't see, hours shooting jumpers and free throws. In four series games against the Grizzlies, Parker shot 59 percent on jumpers outside of 16 feet. Any idea how terrifying that is? And it gets worse: A career 73.8-percent shooter from the foul line entering the season -- he shot just 65 percent from the line in 2005, when the Spurs won the NBA title -- Parker shot a career-best 84.5 percent in 2012-13. He improved his field-goal shooting from 49.2 percent to 52.2 percent. He got to the foul line more often than ever, and his assist-turnover ratio of 3-to-1 was significantly better than his career average of 2.3-to-1.
Parker made those improvements in his 12th NBA season.
"I think I'm improving every year," Parker said. "I try to improve in every aspect of the game, try to be good defensively, offensively be the engine for the team. Try to be a better passer, shooter, a better free-throw shooter and a better clutch performer in the fourth quarter."
Done, all of it. Next stop, NBA Finals. Parker has been there three times before, and the Spurs have won all three. He had a supporting role on those teams, a very good player if not a great one, but the Spurs aren't those teams and Tony Parker isn't that guy. He's the guy, as Parker and Duncan both said, and that was good enough to sweep the Lakers, grind out a six-game series win against Steph Curry and the Warriors, and then sweep the Grizzlies.
The Spurs should enter the 2013 NBA Finals as the favorite, even if the team awaiting them is the Miami Heat. Why? Lots of reasons, but the first reason is Tony Parker.