Tony Parker is with a quad injury suffered in the Spurs' Game 2 victory over the Rockets that evened the series at a game apiece Wednesday.
Parker is not just San Antonio's starting point guard but a franchise legend who has been a major part of every Spurs championship but one. With Parker sidelined, the entire series could change. Even the mighty Spurs have key players, and a veteran as tenured as Parker is certainly one of them.
Here are a few ways in which Parker's absence could impact this series:
Patty Mills has to step up
Patty Mills has been sneaky awesome for the Spurs this season. He averaged four less minutes than Parker, and there were times that it felt like he had earned the right to be San Antonio's true starting guard. Mills has the team's highest on/off net rating with a plus-12 and has been shooting better than Parker all season. In many ways he has been their best point guard.
Mills has been groomed for years. He has been sitting behind Parker that entire time. If anybody should be ready to step up it's Mills, but he has no room for mistakes now. The benefit of Parker is that he's the steady veteran hand. If Mills ever made a mistake of some kind, or became flustered like what happened to San Antonio in Game 1, Parker was there to calm everything down. He has been there before. It's now up to Mills to play that role. The security blanket is gone and Mills has to do this on his own.
Luckily for the Spurs, nobody is better prepared for this than Mills. He has been phenomenal this season. Perhaps this is the moment for Mills to become the permanent starting guard for San Antonio. It's certainly possible.
It will be interesting to see how the Rockets handle Mills. Parker is a weaker defender that Houston was able to exploit. Mills will not be exploited on that side of the ball despite Houston's attempts to do so. What San Antonio has lost in a steady hand it has gained in stronger defense.
The Spurs' rotation just got weird
Parker averaged about 25 minutes this season. Not a ton, but that's a hefty chunk of time that Popovich has to replace. Mills has never averaged more than the low 20s, meaning Popovich has to decide if he wants to increase Mills' minutes to the 30s, or spread it out more across the roster.
This is going to seriously mess with San Antonio's rotations for the rest of the series, especially if Popovich tries to continue keeping Mills' minutes low. Kawhi Leonard is going to see more time on the floor, and so will Manu Ginobili, maybe Jonathon Simmons, too. The Spurs have been running with only two "traditional" point guards all season. When Mills does sit it's going to be up to guys like Leonard and Ginobili to play that position.
However, it's not like these guys aren't used to running the offense. Ginobili spent years as San Antonio's sixth man because Popovich had him running the show in the second unit. Meanwhile, Leonard had a career-high usage this season and is already used to running the system through himself. The rotations are going to get weird, but the players will adjust to minutes without a point guard just fine.
This is an area that Houston should be able to take advantage of. The Rockets are going to exploit the weaknesses of any new lineups San Antonio throws out there. Houston will be ready whether it's Pau Gasol switched to James Harden, or Patrick Beverley putting Ginobili through pick-and-roll drills.
Leonard's role just got even bigger
Leonard is already doing everything for the Spurs. He's shooting more, passing more, anchoring the defense and has a career-high usage rate of 31.1 percent. Leonard doesn't just carry the Spurs. He is the Spurs. There is a system in place that allows Leonard to thrive, but the reason that system works is because of everything he does for it.
With Parker injured, Leonard's role within the team just got even bigger. Mills should be able to step in and replicate what Parker does, but when he sits there is a gap that has to be filled by Leonard and no one else. Ginobili will do his share, but Leonard is already the focal point of the San Antonio offense. He will need to do even more.
In one sense, this shouldn't be a problem for Leonard. Just run him out there as the point guard, he plays a handful of extra minutes per game, and the Spurs have no issues. However, something in his game is eventually going to dip. Even Leonard will get tired eventually.
This will be what truly swings the series. If Leonard has no issues with the increased workload, and it's business as usual for San Antonio, then their chances of beating Houston remain the same. However, if Leonard slips even a little, then that is where Harden and the Rockets pounce. The two MVP candidates. There's no reason that trend won't continue without Parker.