AT&T CENTER--For a month upheaval has been the new status quo up and down the San Antonio Spurs lineup, with the instability finally seeping into the Spurs' play over that time.
Manu Ginobili's status remains unclear, though coach Gregg Popovich assured reporters he's progressing. Boris Diaw could be out for a month, his season-long nagging back spasms turning out to be a condition necessitating surgery. And of course there was the Stephen Jackson, whose release from the team was made public knowledge just hours before tip-off.
But tonight the Spurs took baby steps towards reclaiming some of the stability that has become a trademark of this franchise. Tonight, Tony Parker returned.
"Tony was spectacular. You know, coming back I didn't think he'd have that kind of wind," Popovich said. "I thought he did a great job."
Parker began the game getting his previously battered legs back underneath him, content to feel the defense out and finding open teammates. It wasn't until the end of the second quarter that the Spurs got a glimpse of the explosive scoring potential missing in Parker's absence.
It began unassumingly enough, with Parker and Duncan connecting on the same high post-back door cut combination that the Spurs have been using to free Parker up for lay-ups over the years. Over the next few possessions Parker made a concerted effort to get into the paint and draw contact or finish at the rim.
When his one-man scoring burst was over, Parker had accumulated 13 points on 5-5 shooting and three free throws in just the final 3:38 of the first half.
"Starting the game he probably would have had a thousand assists, but nobody could make a shot," Popovich said. "He decided if he couldn't get an assist that he might as well score, so he started shooting it finally."
It wasn't just the scoring (22 points) or assists (of which he had 10), but the attention he drew from the (admittedly poor) Sacramento Kings defense. His presence on the court opened up recently scarce driving and passing lanes for teammates to exploit.
Alongside Parker, Danny Green--whose performance is always a good indicator of the Spurs ball movement on any given night--once again flourished, shaking free for open three-pointers (2-3 from the three-point line, 4-6 overall for 12 points) and picking up three assists while operating against a broken defense.
Reunited with at least one of his pick and roll partners, Tiago Splitter once again found comfort diving to the lane for 12 points on 4-7 shooting while also contributing six assists.
With most of the Spurs system accessible again due to Parker's presence, tt was, at last, a completely balanced scoring attack with every member of the starting lineup scoring in double figures and only Tim Duncan (18 points, 7-18 shooting) hitting under 50 percent of his shots.
"We finally got [Tony Parker] back after losing him for a couple games, so we had our offense going tonight," Kawhi Leonard said. "He started passing the ball early and got everyone involved, which is why he is an NBA All-Star."
Tonight's game certainly isn't a complete absolution of what has plagued the Spurs in recent weeks, but if Parker truly is at a reasonable level of health it is perhaps the biggest step towards that. Three games remain before the playoffs, leaving the Spurs precious little time to prepare for the playoffs.
"Everybody needs to be in a rhythm," Popovich said. "The whole team has to be together and know what's going on. We're trying to get that rotation down too. No one wants to be in that position at the end of the year, but that's the way it is and you've just got to deal with it and move on."
Moving forward, even past injuries and unexpected roster upheaval, is a lot easier with Tony Parker back at the helm.