MIAMI (AP) - As Tony Parker arrived at the podium for an interview session Wednesday in Miami, he crossed paths with San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich, who was just departing.
Popovich made a joke, and Parker laughed.
A few years ago, that might not have happened.
Several summers ago, the Spurs were trying to sign Jason Kidd, which in some circles was incorrectly perceived as Popovich deciding that he no longer wanted to have Parker around. That couldn't have been more wrong, since what the Spurs were actually thinking was that a veteran like Kidd would have been the perfect mentor for Parker as he was continuing to mature and learn the NBA game.
Kidd never joined San Antonio. Parker ended up just fine without him.
Even in a year where Tim Duncan was able to turn back the clock and post one of the best seasons in his long career, Parker is probably the biggest reason why the Spurs are in the NBA Finals for the fifth time. And he'll be the focal point of the Miami Heat defensive gameplan on Thursday night, when the teams get together for Game 1 of the title series.
"It seemed to me that it would be a great move if we could get Jason to help mentor Tony," Popovich said. "My illustrious NBA career ended after a week and a half. So what the hell am I going to teach him about being a point guard? ... Tony did not love that idea at all. But we still tried to do it."
Parker - one of four former Finals MVP's in the series, joining Duncan, Dwyane Wade and LeBron James - doesn't need much help anymore.
He's averaging 23 points and 7.2 assists in these playoffs, playing at even a higher level than he did during an outstanding regular season, and is coming off a Western Conference finals performance against Memphis in which he shot 26 for 43 and averaged 31.5 points in the Spurs' two road wins that finished off a four-game sweep of the Grizzlies.
"Against Miami, it's the last step," Parker said. "It's going to be the hardest one, because winning a championship is very hard. Especially against a very good team in and LeBron, four-time MVP, it's going to be really tough. But it's a great opportunity for us to try to beat them."
The Spurs love him, and the Heat rave about him, so much so that Miami may offer Parker what they would consider to be the ultimate compliment on Thursday night.
They may have James guard him at times.
Mario Chalmers will start off against Parker, but if the Heat want a different look or if their starting point guard gets into foul trouble, Miami will not hesitate to give James a chance to guard the Spurs' star. After all, Miami calls James "One through five" for a reason, a nod to how he can guard all five positions on the court.
"I'm looking forward to it a lot," Chalmers said of the assignment against Parker. "It'll be a matchup with one of the great point guards in the game right now and it's going to be my job to contain him."
But the Spurs will be ready to see James standing in Parker's way.
It's not uncommon for teams to try to put someone bigger against Parker; in fact, the majority of the league does so fairly regularly. But it's rare that someone 6-foot-8, 250 pounds and possessing the combination of size and speed goes up against a point guard.
"No matter what they do, we just have to live with it and play," Popovich said. "At this point in the season we're not going to change very much what we do. There's no time for it. And as far as anticipating what people might do, I try to stay away from that, because you can drive yourself crazy. That's what the game is for. You make adjustments during the game, hopefully to help your team. But whatever is presented is what has to be dealt with."
Parker is not the Spurs' only offensive option, of course. At times, Duncan is the key to everything. Other times, Manu Ginobili is the catalyst. But more often than not, how Parker fares in a game pretty much is the right indicator to show if the Spurs won that night or not.
The Spurs are 42-8 this season when he scores 20 points.
When he plays and doesn't score 20, they're just 17-13. And Duncan doesn't see any comparison between Parker's game now and the game he had when he was good enough to be Finals MVP in 2007 after San Antonio swept James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
"I think he's a lot better," Duncan said. "I think he's a lot better player. He is asked to do a lot more. I think he has a lot more responsibility for making our team go than he did then. And I think he's a lot more prepared to do that. So as good as he was then, I think he's even better now."
That's basically because the Spurs demanded he be that way.
Parker was issued a challenge two years ago. The Spurs watched what he did with the French national team and were duly impressed. He controlled the games. He was his national team's unquestioned leader. And it didn't take long for Popovich and the rest of the Spurs organization to decide that the time was right for him to assume an similar role in San Antonio.
Parker has more than responded. It's no coincidence that the Spurs are back in the finals.
"He was the best player in the Western Conference playoffs each game, and we're well aware of that," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "Every time he stepped on the court, he was the best player, the most impactful player, and he was driving their success. Now, they have obviously Hall-of-Famers and a well-oiled system. ... But he's a great player, an MVP candidate each year."