One of Gregg Popovich's top priorities in the final weeks of the regular season was making sure the San Antonio Spurs got veteran point guard Tony Parker healthy and in rhythm for the playoff push.
More than seeding or home-court advantage, Popovich said, the Spurs needed Parker in order to stay competitive against the other heavyweights in the Western Conference playoffs.
Now that Parker will miss the rest of the post-season with a leg injury, the Spurs will be tested like they rarely have been before.
The Spurs said Thursday that Parker has a ruptured quadriceps tendon in his left leg. The injury likely will require surgery to repair, meaning the Spurs will have to go through the rest of the post-season without their floor leader.
Next up is Game 3 of their tied second-round series with the Rockets on Friday night in Houston.
"If he's not right or he can't play, we're going to have a tough time staying with the big boys," Popovich told The Associated Press in a late March interview. "When he's been healthy we've had a rhythm, he gets into it defensively and has set a tone on the perimeter for us along with Kawhi (Leonard). His organization of the team is really important, understanding time and score, what's going on on the court.
"He's a great source for me to read what we're doing that night in that game and what might be needed."
While the 34-year-old Parker is not the dynamic playmaker he was in his younger days, he is still hugely important to the team. After the Spurs were blown out in Game 1, Parker responded with 18 points in 25 minutes before getting injured.
He appeared to land awkwardly while taking a shot with 8:34 to play Wednesday night and crumpled to the court. The Frenchman needed to be carried off the floor by teammates, casting a pall over San Antonio's victory.
Popovich said after the game that it didn't look good, and the Spurs' fears were confirmed after an MRI on Thursday. The team said there is no timetable yet for his recovery.
"What he brings to their team, I don't know how you replace that," Rockets forward Trevor Ariza told reporters in Houston. "Not saying they don't have good enough players to step in. But what he brought to that team, I think it's unmatched."
With Parker out, backup Patty Mills could move into a starting role and the Spurs likely will give Leonard more ball-handling responsibility. Rookie Dejounte Murray is another candidate to see more playing time.
Perhaps most disappointing is that Parker had found another gear in the playoffs after an underwhelming regular season, two weeks before his 35th birthday. His 10.1 points-per-game average in the regular season was his lowest since his rookie year in 2001-02. But he averaged 15.9 points on 53 per cent shooting in eight playoff games, including a vintage 27-point night in Game 6 against Memphis to clinch that series.
Back in March, Popovich contemplated how important Parker had become, especially after Tim Duncan's retirement. His point guard had come under scrutiny from fans who said his best days were behind him, but Popovich marveled at how the soft-spoken Parker's leadership had "increased exponentially" in their first season together without Duncan.
"If we don't have him, it's going to be a lot tougher to hang with teams like Houston and Golden State, the Clippers, that kind of thing," Popovich told The Associated Press before the season ended.
Now it will be up to Mills, Murray and anyone else the Spurs can scrape up to chase James Harden, Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams and the Houston's 3-happy guards all over the court.
The Rockets were breathing no sighs of relief on Thursday. To a man, they expressed concern for Parker's health and his future. This figures to be a long, arduous rehabilitation. And with one year left on his contract, nothing is certain.
"You never want to see a player injured, especially a guy like TP, who is closing down at the end of his career," Harden said. "He's been playing well all post-season . It's tough. We say a prayer for him."
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Jon Krawczynski, The Associated Press