The Memphis Grizzlies were accused of tanking to set themselves up for the San Antonio Spurs, which, as many were thinking, a match up that favored the Grizzlies well given the Spurs' relative weakness inside and the ease at which Zach Randolph put up double-doubles during the teams' 2-2 season series split. Opponent preference or not, Memphis showed that it won't fall prey to the "happy to be here" sickness that usually ails young playoff teams, displaying a surprising combination of grit and composure in pulling the homecourt advantage rug out of the Spurs' heels with a pulsating 101-98 win.
With Manu Ginobili being held out after suffering a mild elbow injury in the regular season ender, the Spurs struggled against the physical pounding of the Grizzlies' defense, shooting a measly 40% while giving the visitors practically free rein to attack the paint and shoot 55%. Despite the field goal percentage disparity, the Spurs still gave themselves as good a shot to win as any, with aggressive forays into the paint giving them a 47-33 advantage in free throw attempts. However, center Marc Gasol and Randolph's combined 49 points on an incredibly efficient 19-25 shooting (a whopping 76%) were simply too much, as the Grizzlies recorded its first playoff win in franchise history after its previous 12 unsuccessful tries.
I'd like to preface this recap by saying that excuses shouldn't be made after this loss. It's not because it was due to a lack of trying, a lack of Manu, a lack of Bruce Bowen, or heck, even a lack of Tiago Splitter (although he could've helped, but seriously guys... Pop's been scoffing at our suggestions all season long). The bottom line is, the Memphis Grizzlies played one hell of ball game, and full credit goes to them.
Mike Conley, especially, just outplayed Tony Parker the entire night and if I was the Memphis coach, I'd give him the game ball. The announcers were kind of calling him out in the second half when he got stuck on neutral in scoring, but Conley was secretly immersed all night, knowing the perfect moments to feed his big men, looked to his shooters when he felt that the team needed a three to jolt its confidence, and made the smart pass to Shane Battier for the open and eventually game-winning triple after a defensive lapse that saw both Parker and Richard Jefferson covering Conley from way behind the three-point arc. To top off a brilliant night, he hounded TP all game long, chasing after Parker even after getting beat on the dribble-drive and funneling him into the middle of a collapsing and fast-rotating Memphis defense.
Again, no excuses. The refs called things very tight, might have missed a few calls here and there, but these went both ways and we all just have to live and die with it.
There were a couple of things that bothered me though, which I hope the team could clean up after getting grounded in a big way to start these playoffs.
The Frontcourt Partner
Not withstanding his two late-game threes, every time there was a collision or ruckus inside the paint, it ended up with either Matt Bonner on the floor or richoceting off the Grizzlies' big bodies and into the sidelines. He's not just built for this physicality, and for all his height and hustle, he's almost always a step or, if I'm being generous, a half-second slower to react to plays. For all the "spacing" his three-point threat provides, it's pretty sad seeing Parker continuously having trouble getting to the paint. Also, Bonner coming from the outside drastically lowers our percentages of creating second chances. I know, this is an endless debate and will continue to be as such until we get that fifth ring. Besides, hating on the red head seems to be the natural Spurs fan's reaction to losses.
DeJuan Blair might be our best bet to foil Zach's devious plan for rebounding domination, but on defense, it looks like the basketball equivalent of the fat kid's lunch constantly getting stolen by the bully. Offensively, Blair's one of the worst finishers at the rim and I don't even need to link to stats to prove my claim on that one.
Will that support trio be enough to overcome the Grizzlies' frontcourt? Maybe, maybe not. Is Splitter the solution? I'm not sure he could've done well either. So now, the onus is on those three big guys to make the correct adjustments, play well and have Timmy concentrate more on defending Gasol and securing defensive rebounds. As Duncan said post game, his mind was in two places (covering Gasol and how to help on Zach), and the team paid dearly for it.
You Are Tony Parker, Point Guard Extraordinaire
I don't think TP played such a bad game. The 4-16 shooting was definitely a sight for sore eyes, but the 12-16 free throw parade was Dwyane Wade 2006 Finals-esque. The guards, considered the team's biggest advantage in this series, were so-so but I'm not surprised at this. After all, the Grizzlies have TWO elite perimeter defenders in Tony Allen and Shane Battier. Hill took care of Allen by getting him in foul trouble, but Battier was solid as always, and of course he hit that big shot in the clutch.
Free throws or no free throws, Parker needs to dictate the pace, make his shots, and make better decisions. That ill-advised jumper in the dying seconds took the air right out of the fans' spirit. A lot of times he got caught too deep in the paint, making his passes off-target -- and when I say off-target, I mean not a turnover but way off his teammates' preferred catching zones and a bit slower to get there, enabling the defense to recover. TP also kind of forgot to feed the man who was keeping them in the game -- Tim Duncan. TD just flat out disappeared in the offense down the stretch, and I could count about three times in the fourth quarter when the guards missed him on the roll. We rested the big guy for this long, fellas, but let's not forget about him. He'll be there for us, as he's always been in the past.
They Were What They Aren't
I don't have that good a grasp of the English language, so I'm not sure if I wrote that title down correctly.
A big part of the fourth quarter "collapse" was that the Spurs again got out of their system late in the game. Basically, the aversion to patient ball movement resulting in a paltry assist total, and contested and rushed shots. Mark it down as playoff jitters, maybe. This is what surprised me the most, after all the hoopla about the Spurs having a tremendous experience advantage. They sure didn't act like one, up 4 points with about a minute to go -- it felt like that last Rockets game where we saw an almost won game slip out of the Spurs' hands. Meanwhile, Tony Allen and Battier were as composed a duo of leaders as you could ever find during that final stretch.
You Wanted More
The Spurs didn't kick back on their recliner like what the Lakers did against the Hornets. On the contrary, I thought everyone actually played hard and that's something they should continue to hang their hats on. It's true what a forlorn Coach Pop and Timmy said in the post game presser -- shots just didn't fall. It's the breaks of the game. At the end of the day, even though losing hurts more in these close games, you'd always want to see the team have a chance at the W in the end.
Why did we lose? The short of it is that Memphis just wanted it more. I didn't understand it before the start of the series, but after the loss and trying in vain to catch a one-hour shut eye before going to work, it all came together as I lay in my bed fighting back tears (okay, that was a joke... maybe). This is a young Grizzlies team that, in the past two seasons have been knocking on the door of the playoff club, only to see their gate passes fizzle in smoke after an injury or a loss of focus. Now? They've become a smart team that sticks to their strengths and uses them to great effect. Not a lot of people might be familiar with them, but they went through the growing pains, and the painstakingly long process of finding an identity. Now that they have one, they're here, and in their minds, ready to shock the world.
Reality bites. Really.
Our fearless leader dropped a sunny and hopeful post about an hour after the game, and while his new odd-numbered theory and belief in history repeating itself (Spurs lose Game 1, go on and win the series) is something I'd really like to happen, I'm not buying it. It's 2011 and as much as it pains me to say it, this is a very, very different Spurs team in a dogfight with a worthy opponent. Back then, defense was the team's pièce de résistance, something they prided themselves in doing night in and night out. Times have changed. Relying on your defense is just not the same as relying on your offense, as this edition of the Spurs do more often. We'll just have to see if this is equally effective in pulling us out of the quicksand the team likes to create with these habitual Game 1 losses.
Dare I say it? We're vulnerable to be upset in the first round (here's a bone, Sir Charles). It's not a "the sky is falling" assessment, but rather an honest opinion after soaking in all the slights and underrating we've received from all corners of the media, internet, and every nook and cranny you can think of that watches and houses opinions about playoff basketball. Like it or not, there's a grain of truth to be found in their usual evaluation of this team's weaknesses and vulnerabilities. These are the realities not only we fans have to deal with, but the players, too. Don't even think for a second that they're not aware of it.
I watched Pop's post game before I left for work, and he had this to say: "We are going to have the same general game plan as it wasn’t like we got beat by 25. We played hard, we missed some free throws down the stretch, had some good looks that just didn’t go in. Shane hit a big three, Mayo hit a big three from the corner, so shots have to go in for us down the stretch. It doesn’t mean that you change your philosophy of what you’re doing."
Somehow it makes absolute sense, including Pop's insistence to keep Ginobili out on this one. It would've been more devastating out there to lose with Manu, perhaps even more psychologically destructive if he aggravates his injury. The best case scenario was to rest him, then win and plant the seeds of doubt in Memphis' mind that if they couldn't beat us without Gino, how can they possibly beat us with him? Alas, that didn't come true, although the Grizzlies were just actually fulfilling their end of the bargain in toppling a less than 100% squad. As for the Spurs, they made a decent account of themselves, BUT this is the playoffs -- losing is losing, and for a franchise measured not in wins but rings, the playoffs is not the time to be getting moral victories.
Still, at the end of the day, a lot of positives can be built around this. Ultimately though, did this loss and impending threat of a good Grizzlies team just instill the proverbial Popovichean "appropriate fear" in the Spurs? I sure hope so, and I bet Pop hopes so, too.
Your Three Stars
3 - Tony Parker
2 - Richard Jefferson
1 - Tim Duncan