Spurs-Rockets: With Tony Parker out, rookie Dejounte Murray could be an X-factor

Now that Tony Parker is out of the San Antonio Spurs' lineup for the rest of the postseason with a ruptured left quadriceps tendon, their second-round series against the Houston Rockets is much more challenging. Parker's performance has been a good barometer for the Spurs' offense in the playoffs, and his 18 points on 8 for 13 shooting were vital in their 121-96 Game 2 victory on Wednesday. While his individual stats have declined this season, Parker is still important because of the way he runs their system and the fact he can still use his quickness to get in the paint. Without him, San Antonio has some decisions to make before Game 3 on Friday. Who should start? What will the second unit look like? Where is the extra scoring and playmaking going to come from?

The obvious plan: Start Patty Mills, use Manu Ginobili as a point guard off the bench and rely even more on Kawhi Leonard as a creator. There is nothing wrong with this. Mills is one of the best backup point guards in the league, and at this point you can make the case that he's a better overall player than Parker because of his 3-point shooting and aggressiveness on both ends. Ginobili is a better facilitator than an attacker now, and it's not as if the Rockets would be happy about having to deal with Leonard as the primary playmaker for more possessions. Reserve forward Kyle Anderson is also capable of initiating the offense, as he was a point guard for most of his life. 

There is, however, another way the Spurs could go. During the regular season, coach Gregg Popovich elected to start rookie guard Dejounte Murray eight times when Parker was inactive. In each of those games, Mills came off the bench in his normal role next to Ginobili, so he could play off the ball and spot-up for 3-pointers. Mills, after all, is not a traditional floor general. Sometimes, Murray played so well that he wound up getting more minutes than Mills. Other times, the 20-year-old was a starter in name only. This is more or less how things worked with Parker and Mills, too; Parker averaged just 25.2 minutes in the regular season and Mills averaged 21.9 minutes. 

Popovich did not choose to start Murray every time that Parker was hurt. Mills had eight starts, too, and since-waived rookie Nicolas Laprovittola had three. As a starter, though, Murray averaged 9.5 points, 3.3 assists and 3.1 rebounds in 22.6 minutes, shooting 50.8 percent and 41.7 percent from deep. Most memorably, in January he scored 24 points on 7 for 11 shooting in a win over the Denver Nuggets, then followed that up with a 14-point, five-assist performance when San Antonio beat the Cleveland Cavaliers on a national televised game. Both Popovich and Jeff Van Gundy raved about his poise. If he can summon that same sort of calm confidence on a bigger stage, the No. 29 pick in last year's draft could prove to be extremely valuable. 

There are potential advantages to starting Murray. For one, it gives the Spurs more defensive versatility in their starting lineup. Murray is five inches taller than Mills, and he is more than capable of switching onto wings. He can also closely mimic Parker's style, deferring to Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge but staying ready to punish Houston with mid-range shots and floaters when left alone. This would allow Mills to do what he always does when he checks in, providing San Antonio with speed and scoring. 

There is also, of course, risk. Murray has only seen the floor in garbage time in the postseason, and the last time he played significant minutes for the Spurs was on March 9. Whether starting or coming off the bench, expecting him to be immediately comfortable in an important, high-intensity situation like this would be asking a lot. Despite Wednesday's blowout, San Antonio does not have a whole lot of room for error against the Rockets. Every minute matters, and the Spurs can't afford anyone on the court to be jittery. 

The Spurs don't have media availability on Thursday, and if they did, it wouldn't matter -- there is no way Popovich will tell reporters what he has decided to do before he has to submit a lineup card. If Murray does end up playing a real role in this series, though, don't be surprised. Injuries necessitate creativity, and this is precisely the type of bold move that San Antonio shouldn't be afraid to try. 

CBS Sports Writer

James Herbert is somewhat fond of basketball, feature writing and understatements. A former season-ticket holder for the expansion Toronto Raptors, Herbert does not think the NBA was better back in the... Full Bio

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