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Tony Parker returns to UCLA’s starting lineup and the result is positive

UCLA forward Tony Parker waits for the ball before a free throw attempt during the second half.

UCLA forward Tony Parker waits for the ball before a free throw attempt during the second half.

(Gus Ruelas / Associated Press)

Tony Parker had been saving his impersonation of center Thomas Welsh for weeks. But until UCLA’s 77-53 victory over Colorado on Saturday night, he never had a chance to use it.

Usually a media hound, Parker hadn’t been available for interviews since January, when he was benched for the nimbler Jonah Bolden. Then, before Saturday’s game, Welsh and the coaching staff wanted to make another change.

Parker recounted the conversation with relish. He furrowed his brow, lowered his voice and over-enunciated each word, mimicking Welsh, he claimed.

“Tom was just like, ‘You know, Tony, I think it will be better for you to get out there and get it going for me,’” Parker recounted. “That’s how he talks.”

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A few minutes before the heart to heart, Parker explained, Welsh had asked the coaches if Parker could start in his place.

“I was just like, ‘Thanks bro,’ ” Parker said.

After a five-game interlude, UCLA’s only senior was back in the starting lineup. And Parker’s return coincided with the Bruins’ best game in weeks. UCLA never trailed against the Buffaloes.

UCLA Coach Steve Alford hopes that Parker will spark the inconsistent Bruins during their crucial final four games of the regular season. Alford explained that the coaching staff had been considering reinserting Parker even before Welsh approached the coaches.

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Welsh had been playing well, Alford said, but he needed to try something new after UCLA lost three of four games. Welsh’s suggestion, he said, cemented the decision.

“That’s who Tom Welsh is,” Alford said. “He is a team guy. You wish you had 15 of those guys.”

UCLA’s performance Saturday was so dominant that the move didn’t significantly affect the outcome. Parker and Welsh each played 20 minutes. Parker scored 16 points with six rebounds. Welsh scored 10 with six rebounds.

It remains to be seen if the lineup change will provide enough of a boost to lift UCLA into the NCAA tournament field.

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As a bench player, Parker’s production hadn’t dipped much. Parker claimed he didn’t mind where he played.

“As long as I touch the floor, I’m fine, I’m grateful,” Parker said.

As the sixth man, Parker’s playing time declined from about 26 minutes to 16 minutes. But his points and rebounds per minute remained steady.

Alford had opted to start Bolden at power forward because opponents were exploiting UCLA’s big, slow lineup when Parker and Welsh played in tandem. The move has made UCLA more versatile defensively.

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“It wasn’t punishment for Tony, it wasn’t punishment for Tom,” Alford said.

But the move didn’t directly translate to more wins. The Bruins are 3-3 since Bolden became the regular starter.

The choice between Parker and Welsh is a close one. Offensively, Welsh prefers the mid-range game. Parker likes to play in the post. They share a similar stat line.

“I don’t think it’s a huge difference,” guard Bryce Alford said.

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But Parker provides a more experienced presence. He sometimes shows more emotion, which UCLA has often lacked for halves or games at a time.

At the very least, he provides more post-game levity. As Parker launched into his Welsh impression on Saturday, Bryce Alford, sitting next to him, shook his head. He gestured to the media.

“I don’t know how you guys write anything down that he says, to be honest,” Alford said.

“It’s been a boring few weeks for you guys,” Parker said.

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zach.helfand@latimes.com


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