Tony Parker ,Norris Cole , Chris AndersenHe is so much more of a player than he is typically given credit for, so much higher up on the list of this era’s greats than you probably realized, so much better than so many of the exciting young point guards we marvel at in the regular season while completely forgetting about him: Tony Parker.

These poor Miami Heat. As if banging with Roy Hibbert was not bad enough, now they have to chase Parker around the court. Coming into this NBA Finals between the Heat and the Spurs, the bulk of the discussion involved how San Antonio would stop LeBron James. Now the question becomes, how can the Heat stop Parker?

Parker was nearly flawless in the Spurs’ 92-88 victory in Game 1, outdueling James, who had 18 points, 18 rebounds and 10 assists in a virtually incomparable performance of his own. Parker’s 20th and 21st points, coming with five seconds on the game clock, were the biggest of all, but that indescribable bank shot — essentially from his knees as the shot clock expired — was just the punctuation to a game-long statement of Parker’s status in the game for anyone who might not already have been aware.

Honestly, no one is going to pity the Heat, not as long as James is teamed up with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. But from a purely basketball standpoint, they could not have drawn a worse pair of matchups for their last two series. The Heat have two glaring holes, at the point and in the post, standing like tottering bookends at either end of the lineup. In the Eastern Conference finals, Hibbert dominated the paint and nearly led the Pacers to a shocking upset. On Thursday, Parker turned Miami inside out, leaving Mario ChalmersNorris Cole, Wade and even James to look utterly foolish against his array of pull-up jump shots, feathery floaters and nifty layups.

Parker did what he has done for years, in other words, and now James and the Heat have some very serious thinking to do.

This was not simply about Parker’s 21 points, six assists, two steals and zero turnovers. It was the way he did it. The Spurs’ final play, when Parker held the ball for all 24 seconds of the possession before his game-clincher, started and ended with James checking Parker. James, not content to just be the reigning Most Valuable Player, hissed earlier in the playoffs that he should also have been named Defensive Player of the Year for his ability to defend all five positions.

James must have felt comfortable, then, when he squatted just inside the 3-point arc while Parker dribbled at the top of the key. They momentarily got separated when Miami switched on a screen, but Parker dribbled down the right side of the lane, directly into James’ grasp. In real time, it looked like a mistake. In hindsight, it may have been a direct challenge — like Parker wanted James as much as James wanted him.

James almost won the battle. With nowhere to go, Parker dribbled around aimlessly, fell down, kept his dribble, lost his dribble but managed to keep his pivot foot, and finally turned and flipped up a soft bank shot that nestled into the net.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s keep in mind that the Heat lost Game 1 of the finals last year, too. With all due respect to the Thunder and Kevin Durant, in that Game 1, Durant was no Parker. That Miami defeat was nowhere near as demoralizing as this one, partly because there was no 6-foot-2 point guard challenging the game’s greatest player and partly because that series was expected to be close. This one? Let’s just say the oddsmakers seemed fairly confident.

Looking at James’ night, which featured only four points scored after the 6:48 mark of the third quarter, this game might be billed as James’ failure. Every Heat loss invariably acquires that narrative, anyway. This Spurs victory was the work of Parker, however, as has been just about every big victory for the Spurs over the last six or seven years. Parker belonged on that court Thursday, taking those big shots. The Heat saw what he did to them, and they won’t soon forget it.

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