SAN ANTONIO -- San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich gave his young guard quite an earful and followed it up with a seat on the bench.
This all happened Thursday night in Los Angeles, in front of 19,000 people at Staples Center, in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals.
Point guard Tony Parker, two days shy of his 21st birthday, had a lazy runner in the lane blocked by Shaquille O'Neal late in the first quarter, and then didn't get back downcourt fast enough on defense.
As Derek Fisher caught a pass and stepped up for a 3-pointer on the wing, Parker leaped into the air for the block. He missed and ended up knocking Fisher to the floor as the ball swished through the net to start a four-point play that pretty much wiped out a five-point San Antonio lead.
The sloppy defense is what set off Popovich and the coach's outburst apparently did the trick as Parker promptly straightened up his game at both ends.
He scored 27 points while limiting Fisher to six as the Spurs routed the Lakers 110-82 to eliminate the three-time defending NBA champions.
"I'm going to be relatively harsh on him at times when some might think stroking might be more appropriate," Popovich said. "I think it's working quite well."
Parker says he has no complaints about how he was handled Thursday.
"I thank Coach Pop," he said. "You need to give him a lot of credit. He gave me, Manu (Ginobili) and Jack (Stephen Jackson) a lot of freedom."
The Spurs are built around two-time MVP Tim Duncan (37 points, 16 rebounds on Thursday), but the team's playoff fortunes may rise and fall with Parker, a fleet second-year player from France who is about to turn 21.
"His aggressiveness, not only on the offensive end but the defensive end, is important for us to come out and set a tone," teammate David Robinson said.
In the series with the Lakers, the 6-foot-2 Parker averaged 18.2 points in San Antonio's victories, while he was held to 8.0 in its losses.
In Game 6, Duncan and Parker combined for San Antonio's final 20 points in the third quarter and the first four of the fourth. Parker scored eight points in the final period, which had been a weak stretch for the Spurs in earlier games against the Lakers.
"He's a scoring point guard - we need him to score," Popovich said. "We're a lot better when he scores."
On Monday, San Antonio will host Game 1 of the conference finals against the winner of Saturday's Game 7 between Dallas and Sacramento.
Parker has played well against both teams this season, averaging 19.2 points against the Mavericks in four regular-season matchups, and 16.2 points and 4.5 assists against the Kings.
Since Robinson announced his plans to retire after this season, fans in San Antonio have been debating whether his freed up $10 million annual salary should be used to lure free agent-to-be Jason Kidd from New Jersey.
And every time Parker struggles in big games, the volume of that debate grows louder.
But on Saturday, as Parker cuts into his birthday cake, the chatter will be barely audible.
"Tony and I have this relationship," Popovich said. "I tell him I know he's 20. I want him to play like he's 32. He plays in a business where quick maturation is important."
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