Updated: April 7, 2006, 5:12 PM ET

SPECIAL WEEKEND EDITION Enjoying life in the fast lane

Editor's note: ESPN.com senior NBA writer Marc Stein supplies each item for this around-the-league notebook edition of the Daily Dime.

No one really catches up with Tony Parker. Not this season.

Moving faster than ever, and finally shaking what even he describes as "my not being consistent," Parker has already realized one goal with his season-long flurry of layups.

"The challenge," he told me back in December, "is to do this for the whole year."

It started early and has lasted for 75 games. We've gotten only occasional looks at Parker's improving jump shot because he continues to rack up points in the paint at a ridiculous rate for a point guard.

Yet when you ask Parker to stop and sit down for a chat, you learn that the Frenchman -- who also has managed somehow to domesticate a "Desperate Housewives" wild child -- isn't terribly impressed by all this. He confesses a need to do this throughout the playoffs, too, to validate his rise to All-Star status.

For himself.

Parker hasn't forgotten his late-round struggles in the past three postseasons ... or the Spurs' flirtations with Jason Kidd before awarding him a six-year, $66 million contract ... or the fact that San Antonio failed in its first two attempts to repeat as NBA champion.

"There's still another level to this," Parker says.

He spoke openly about his plans to get there in a recent chat in Los Angeles. Nine highlights of that conversation with No. 9:

Parker on how closely the Spurs have followed the Mavericks in the chase for the West's No. 1 seed:

"Every day. Basically every day. Every day we talk about Dallas and see what they did the game before, how they're playing, what's the ranking, are we still ahead? It's just fun. It's a good race."

On which of the two Texas rivals needs home-court advantage more in their forthcoming second-round showdown:

"I think Dallas. We proved in the past that we can win big games on the road. ... [Spurs coach Gregg Popovich] always says, 'If we get it, fine.' But the main thing for us is that we stay healthy. If we can stay healthy, I think we can win big games on the road."

On being described by Popovich and Tim Duncan as San Antonio's most consistent player after four up-and-down seasons:

"I think I'm just getting more mature. I think that's the only reason. I know everybody now. I feel comfortable in the system. I feel comfortable with Pop. I just knew that, after we won the championship last year, the next level for me was the All-Star level. ... The Spurs, they didn't know if I can go to that next level. So I wanted to show them that they can have a lot of confidence in me, that I was not satisfied with my contract or [that] we've got two championships. I wanted to get their respect as a player."

On improving his jump shot with new shooting coach Chip Engelland:

"It's going to be a learning process. I did a lot of good stuff this year, [but] I still think I can do better to try to get to that Chauncey Billups level or that Steve Nash level. That's where I want to get and that's going to take, I think, three or four years. So when I'll be 26 or 27, I think that's when my shot's going to mature. But I feel more comfortable. Every shot I'm taking at least has a chance to make it."

On whether people forget that he's only 23:

"I think even Pop sometimes forgets. They want me to improve so fast, and sometimes you can't go [faster than] experience. [But] Pop did a great job with me, pushing me when I first came, [at] 19, being hard on me. So now we're seeing the results of it."

On how much he still has to prove to himself in the playoffs after poor showings in the late stages of San Antonio's last three postseason runs:

"There's always a lot of people [who are] going to criticize me for what I did [before]. ... I know a lot of people can't wait to see if I'm going to do the same thing I did in [past] playoffs. And I'll be ready. It's a good challenge for me."

On how much pressure the Spurs feel to win their first back-to-back championships after failing to do so twice before:

"I think Pop, he just told us right at the beginning [of the season], 'We need to repeat.' We're the only team that won a championship [that] didn't repeat, basically."

On how much grief he gets from teammates for the tabloid coverage of his relationship with Eva Longoria:

"My teammates never say nothing. They never tease me. They see her [all the] time, so they don't care that she travels with us. We're one of the only teams in the NBA [that] lets us travel with wives or girlfriends. They all talk to her, so they know she's not a crazy woman."

On his ability to shrug at the increased scrutiny that comes with his newfound celebrity ... on and off the floor:

"How do you want me to complain? I got a great life. Great basketball team, great teammates, winning championships and a great girlfriend. I can't complain."

• Talk back to... Marc Stein | The Daily Dime gang

Dimes Past: March 29 | 30 | 31 | April 1-2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7


Big Fundamental Problem
Tim Duncan
Chris Birck/NBAE/Getty Images
Tony Parker's individual success aside, he still believes the Spurs' title hopes revolve around a healthy Tim Duncan (see below).


Western Conference
One more question for No. 9: How far away from 100 percent is Tim Duncan?

"I think he's getting better and better," Tony Parker says. "The last couple games, he started dunking again. I think he's feeling better. I'd say he's, like, 85 percent. I don't see him going as fast as he used to with his pump fakes and when he's doing his moves. But I think he's improving. I think he's starting to get in playoff mode."

Actually...

We've got one more: Can San Antonio win it all if Duncan, plagued by a season-long bout with plantar fasciitis, is only 85 percent?

"That's a tough question," Parker said. "We need Timmy. We're going nowhere if Timmy's not 100 percent. If he's 85 percent, I don't know. It's going to be tough."

Duncan's 11 points and six rebounds in Wednesday's loss to Sacramento marked the sixth time this season that he was held below 15 points and 10 boards in a game in which he logged at least 30 minutes. It happened to Duncan only once in the five previous seasons.

Of course, as the Spurs are relieved to know, there are no back-to-backs in the playoffs, and Duncan's troubles are generally seen in the second half of back-to-backs.



Even if the Mavericks were ready to sign Shawn Kemp -- which they're not -- they can't. Not yet.

Dallas can't add a player unless it releases someone to create a roster spot, because the league has denied the Mavericks' request (more than once) for an injury exception that would allow them to sign a 16th player.

The Mavs were indeed without four players for a long stretch (Josh Howard, Devin Harris, Adrian Griffin and Keith Van Horn) and that is often sufficient to secure an exception from the league office. But I'm told that the league won't budge because Dallas has a player (Pavel Podkolzin) in the D-League.

So...

If the Mavs want to replace Van Horn now that Dirk Nowitzki's backup has been lost for the season with a broken hand, these are the options: They can recall Podkolzin (who isn't NBA-ready) and put him on the active roster or they can waive the 7-5 center or rookie Rawle Marshall (neither of whom Dallas is prepared to release) to create a roster spot for Kemp or another vet.

It appears that the Mavs, high on Marshall and having expended the 21st overall pick in the 2004 draft on Podkolzin, will give high-energy rookie Josh Powell first crack at Van Horn's minutes after Powell's 12-point, five-rebound showing in Tuesday's rout of Sacramento.


The good news in Phoenix: Amare Stoudemire's arthroscopic surgery Wednesday probably would have been necessary even if he didn't come back for three games. The fluid buildup and stiffness in his right knee -- not the microfracture knee that was operated on in October -- developed during the normal course of rehab.

And as teammate Steve Nash explained in this cyberspace last week, Amare's left knee was always going to be rehabbed actively whether or not he tried to play this season.

"I'm not a doctor, obviously, but after listening to our doctors I feel pretty good personally that he couldn't have damaged his [microfracture] knee," Nash said. "People have a misconception that if Amare totally stopped playing and sat out until training camp [next October], he'd be ready to go. That's not how it works. The knee's got to be strengthened and rehabbed and he has to learn how to use it again. You do that by working out and playing and retraining the knee."

But now for the bad news.

No matter how minor Wednesday's procedure was, there's no getting around the reality that the Suns' 23-year-old future of the franchise has had surgeries on both knees in just over six months.

Which is unusual and undeniably scary for a player at Amare's age.



Inside Tracking
Can't put Tony Parker all over the Weekend Dime without a Points In The Paint update.

Except that our latest PIP count, like so many things these days, reads more like a LeBron James update.

Points in the Paint (Through April 6)
1. LeBron James, Cleveland 948
2. Shawn Marion, Phoenix 918
3. Dwyane Wade, Miami 908
4. Pau Gasol, Memphis 892
5. Elton Brand, L.A. Clippers 890
6. Carmelo Anthony, Denver 866
7. Shaquille O'Neal, Miami 862
8. Tony Parker, San Antonio 842
LeBron entered the weekend as the league's PIP leader with 948: 12.6 points per game inside.

Parker, who ranked No. 1 on this chart earlier in the season, is still a healthy eighth with 842 points in the paint. That's 11.4 per game and helps explain why Parker is shooting 54.6 percent from the floor, astronomical numbers for a point guard.

The other surprise? There are as many point guards as centers in the top eight. Miami's Shaquille O'Neal, at No. 7, is the only recognized C on this list.




Spur Of The Moment
Tony Parker, Eva Longoria
Jeffrey Mayer/WireImage.com
Asked about Tony Parker's season, Tim Duncan credited Eva Longoria, whose presence initially concerned the Spurs. "When you're happy," Duncan told the SA Express-News, "you play good basketball."


Eastern Conference
No subterfuge here. Everyone I've spoken to in Toronto insists that shelving Chris Bosh for the rest of the season is indeed precautionary.

Nothing has changed, either. The Raps' dream scenario remains signing Bosh to a maximum contract extension this summer.

They simply worried that a hard smack on Bosh's sprained left thumb could lead to something more serious (surgery, even) and there's obviously no need for such risks at this point of the season.


Wade

I'm only half-kidding when I say that I expected more of an uproar out of Detroit after seeing this:

Dwyane Wade on the cover of Men's Health?

Surely the Pistons, whose five starters still haven't missed a game through injury all season -- and whose five starters are always on the lookout for slights, real or imagined -- believe that was their cover.

(In the interest of balance, it is fair to point out that the Pistons -- while undeniably more fortunate than any team in the league when it comes to injuries -- probably don't get enough credit for playing hurt when they are banged-up. Rasheed Wallace and Rip Hamilton endured plantar fasciitis and a broken nose, respectively, during Detroit's 2004 championship run. And Ben Wallace routinely ignores discomfort that would sideline lesser men.)


If the Hawks had drafted Chris Paul, as you surely know by now, I'd be writing about them every week.

But that might happen next season anyway if Josh Smith, rising fast on our list of Beloved Lefties, can do this more often: 17 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists, two steals and three blocks.

That was Smith's line in a Wednesday victory over Minnesota that officially eliminated Kevin Garnett's Wolves from playoff contention. I can't keep myself from obsessing about what might have been with a Paul-Joe Johnson backcourt, as you surely know by now, but what if this isn't just a late-season mirage from Smith?

He's really starting to look like a player.



Film Session
One-on-one with Tony Parker
In an interview for ESPN2's Cold Pizza, Marc Stein sits down with Spurs guard Tony Parker and finds out that the Frenchman himself feels that only a strong playoffs can make this his breakthrough season.


Question Marc
From the Stein Line e-mailbag:

James

B. Towne (Cleveland): LeBron is on a great run, but he's really been doing this all year long. You guys just don't get it. Now that they've qualified for the playoffs, you so-called experts make it seem like he's only been dominating lately. He's been doing it all freaking year! If he's not the MVP, it's garbage. I keep hearing that he'll only win it if the Cavs win 50 games. Is that a rule? What more can this man do?

Stein: It's not a rule, no.

But history tells us that's what MVP voters want to see. Facts is facts: There hasn't been an MVP from a team with less than 50 wins (or the lockout-season equivalent) since 1982.

In other words...

Awesome production, no matter how gaudy the numbers, simply isn't considered that valuable unless a lot of wins come with it.

There's no question that winning 50 games would be a lot easier for Cleveland if Larry Hughes had been healthy all season, but losing your No. 1 sidekick -- and flourishing anyway -- is precisely why Steve Nash has been getting so much back-to-back MVP support. Amare Stoudemire has missed all but three games and Nash's Phoenix Suns are going to win 50-plus and start the playoffs as the No. 2 seed in the mighty West.

Cleveland, meanwhile, had Hughes for 28 games before he went down with the broken finger and came out of the All-Star break with a here-we-go-again skid of 1-5. Until this 13-4 run resuscitated the Cavs' 50-win hopes, they were only 14-16 without Hughes.

Maybe it's unfair to pin that all on LeBron, but you're not going to win MVP honors hovering around .500.

Kudos to LBJ, though, for making us all re-evaluate our ballots. As recently as late March, Nash was named as the overwhelming MVP favorite by an ESPN.com panel of experts. I can't speak for other voters, but I have to believe that the level LeBron has found -- combined with the winning -- has thrown the thing open again.

Entering the weekend, James was one of just three players since 1970 with as many as eight straight games of 35 points or more, behind only Kobe Bryant's 13 in 2003 and Michael Jordan in 1986. And because of all the team success coming with the big numbers, he's gaining on Nash and Dallas' Dirk Nowitzki at the top of my ballot.

What if the Cavs win 50? What if the Mavs haul themselves off the mat and steal the West's No. 1 seed back from San Antonio? I plan to delay my final decision as long as I can because of these possibilities ... with Dwyane Wade, Chauncey Billups and Kobe Bryant battling for the other two spots on my five-man official ballot.



Marc's Quote
Popovich

"I spend no time engaging in psychological bull----. What this game means and how motivated they are and we've got to bring the juice and all that crap ... I'd get tired if I did that before every game."

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, not exactly eager to help us hype up Friday's final Dallas-at-San Antonio showdown of the regular season.



A Fine Line
APRIL 4: PAUL PIERCE VS. RAPTORS
MIN FGM-A FTM-A REB PTS
31 2-10 18-24 8 22

Pierce

Since that stunning February/March run, in which he scored 30 points or more 15 times in a span of 18 games, Boston's Paul Pierce had managed only one 30-point game in his past 10 outings entering the weekend.

That meant Pierce had to get creative to find a way into this cyberspace.

How creative?

Try scoring 22 points when you make only two baskets. That's what Pierce did in Tuesday's 124-120 triumph at Toronto, overcoming 2-of-10 shooting from the floor with 18-of-24 shooting at the free-throw line.

Since we know you're wondering: Charles Barkley holds the NBA record for most points in a game with only two field goals ... with 26 points.

(Unrelated but interesting sidebar: Toronto made all 28 of its free throws in the defeat.)

 

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