During the first quarter of Game 3 of the Western Conference Semifinals in Fedex Forum, I slapped myself squarely across the cheek. I was trying to snap out of this weird dream I was having. You see, I must have fallen asleep, and when I woke up, it was 2011 again. The Grizzlies were hassling Tony Parker, stripping Tim Duncan, and forcing turnovers left and right. The Grindhouse was going ballistic, and the Spurs couldn't get a shot to fall.
But something was different from 2011. The Spurs didn't look frantic or nervous, Pop appeared even "grandfatherly," and he reminded his team to keep calm and carry on. Because it's not 2011. I've come to, and it's 2013. The Spurs have battled their way into the Western Conference Finals. The rosters are different, the mentality has shifted, and the Spurs seem to believe in fate. The first quarter of Game 3 was one hell of a haymaker from the Grizz, but the Spurs got back up, dusted themselves off, and ultimately responded with a decisive overtime victory. They now stand on the precipice of their first Finals berth since 2007. They want nothing more than to get back there. After all, they've never lost against an Eastern Conference Team in the playoffs.
Part 1: The Haymaker
The Grizzlies came into their house swinging, and the punches landed early. Neither team scored a field goal during the first three minutes, but the Grizzlies got things rolling on two quick turnovers by Duncan and Parker to take a quick 5-0 lead, prompting a Popovich timeout. No need to panic yet. The Grizzlies were feeding on home court love and a slow start by the Spurs, but a five point deficit is, well, just that. A quick corner triple by Tony put the Spurs back on track, a nice counter to Memphis' opening jabs. The Grizz, however, emboldened by a boisterous home crowd, persisted in their beatdown. It happened almost too quickly to apprehend, but 8 first quarter turnovers by the Spurs coupled with 12 made field goals including four threes and 3 fast break layups, and the Grizzlies had pounded their way to a 16 point first quarter lead. They completely dominated the Spurs from start to finish to open the quarter, and the raucous crowd signaled that perhaps the Spurs were out of this fight. Memphis shot 50% from the field. San Antonio shot 21%. Tony Parker and Tim Duncan had combined for seven turnovers. Popovich sat every single starter with almost five minutes left in the quarter. It was terrible, violent, and ugly, and most likely over.
Part 2: The Counter
At this point, some, including myself, were ready to concede. 2-1 ain't bad, and the Grizz were supposed to win this one. Let's throw in the towel and recoup for the next round. But 36 minutes is a lot of time in a basketball game, and the Spurs weren't ready to lie down. They landed two quick jabs early in the second, turning Mike Conley over on consecutive possessions, resulting in a Kawhi Leonard slam sandwich and a Matt Bonner deep swish pizza. Another layup by Tony and the Spurs had whittled the lead back to single digits, trialing 29-20 with 10:30 remaining in the second. The Grizzlies gave a bit of resistance thanks to some good shooting by Quincy Pondexter and Marc Gasol, but San Antonio continued to work The System. Tony had 8 points in the quarter and Timmy had 7, with Boris Diaw, Gary Neal, and Kawhi each contributing scoring. In stark contrast to their slowfootedness of the first quarter, the Spurs ramped up the intensity and began playing with focus and intensity. Pounding the rock swing by swing, stop by stop, and bucket by bucket, the Silver and Black clawed back to trail by only four headed into the break.
Part 3: Trading Punches
The second half of regulation was tightly contested, with each team landing blows only to reel backwards from opposing assaults. The momentum appeared to be largely in San Antonio's favor, as they quickly sliced the lead to one with a layup by Tiago Splitter and a mid-range jumper by Duncan. The teams continued to trade buckets until Jerryd Bayless went on a miniature instant-offense run, earning the Grizzlies 6 straight points via an assist to Quincy Pondexter for a layup as well as a couple of his go-to step-back jumpers. Again, the Spurs scrapped their way back, and at the end of the third quarter they trailed by only one, 65-64.
The fourth quarter began with a brilliant set play by Pop which cashed in on a wide open Tarheel Triple from Danny Green, and the Spurs had their first lead of the night at 67-65. A fine three-point play by Mike Conley, in which he tempted Parker off his feet to draw a foul and make an off balance shot, regained the lead for the Grizz. With the game tied at 69 a piece, Manu Ginobili nailed a silky isolation three, and the Red Mamba employed his patented shy hook, despite taking a Marc Gasol righty to the face. And 1, and the Spurs led by 6. Not to be denied, Memphis struck back on Conley and Pondexter threes. As the minutes dwindled, the game became more and more deadlocked, and I became convinced it would end up in overtime. Thanks to some clutch plays late by Manu Ginobili and an off-target layup by Mike Conley over Splitter, my conviction was affirmed. Tied at 86-86, the Spurs and Grizzlies would head into their second straight overtime game.
Part 4: The Knockout Blow
I'm not sure how it happened, but the Spurs just owned overtime from start to finish, outscoring the Grizzlies 18-7. Timmy once again came up huge with a jumper, an and-1 lay-in, and a put back following a Parker miss. The other overtime hero was Tiago Splitter, who pulled down two big rebounds and made all three of his field goal attempts. The Grizzlies looked mentally and physically exhausted. They buffeted and bludgeoned to the best of their ability, but the Spurs had rolled with each of their punches and are now one win away from a date with the yet-to-be-decided Eastern Conference champion.
A Few Quick Observations
The Grizzlies absolutely feed off of crowd energy. They came into their house knowing that the crowd would be ravenous, and their play early only fueled the frenzy. Unlike the Grizzlies, however, the Spurs have proven that they can withstand the opposing fans' most boisterous efforts. Whether it be Roaracle or the Grindhouse, the Spurs are proven road winners during the playoffs, and the Grizzlies are not.
WHY DID GARY NEAL PLAY SO MUCH IN THE FIRST AND SECOND QUARTERS??!!?!?! I mean, I understand Pop's rationale for benching all five starters; it required Gary to enter the game and it obviously worked, but why did he start the second over Green? Pop must have had a beef with Danny's shot selection -- in particular an isolation three point attempt with plenty of time on the clock.
Matt Bonner and Tiago Splitter get absolutely no respect down low from the referees. Of course it's to be expected in the Fedex Forum that the Grizzlies would get most of the iffy calls to go their way, but these two guys banged bodies with Randolph and Gasol all night. The refs were pretty inconsistent with calls all night, and several of their whistles should have been no-calls, including a slew of post tangles between Bonner or Splitter and Randolph.
I'm convinced that the Grizzlies were just worn out during overtime. The Spurs may be the older team, and they are more likely to fatigue under equivalent workload, but they are also the better team. The Grizzlies had to work so hard all night on both offense and defense, tracking off ball movement, working through screens, feeding the ball into the post, fighting for offensive rebounds. The Spurs put them through the gauntlet, and they were not physically or mentally prepared for that overtime.
A lot of fatigue has to do with playing style and efficiency. The Spurs, though older, can stave off fatigue simply because their strategy relies on efficiency, while Memphis' revolves around brute force. Which of these sounds more efficient: "The System" or "Grit and Grind?" (Hint: it's the first one). The Spurs are able to do more with less, and has paid off big time in overtime games this postseason.
Timmy, Tony, and Manu stepped up like superstars in this one, each providing his own unique spark to the game. On a night when the role players, especially Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard, looked somewhat pedestrian, the Big Three delivered a vintage performance, combining for 69 points, 21 rebounds, 15 assists, and a +/- of +44. The rest of the team was a combined +11.
At the end of the game, all of the Spurs' bench players were treating Tim Duncan like a sultan, oohing and aahing and draped all over him. I'm pretty sure I saw DeJuan Blair towel him off. Believe it, these young guys just about worship Timmy, and they, just like us fans, are constantly amazed at what he is still capable of doing.
The Next Round
Game 4 is Monday night at 8. The Spurs should stand a pretty good chance of taking that game against a clearly dejected Memphis squad, but I would certainly not expect the Grizzlies or their fans to go quietly. It will be a clamorous and hard fought brawl, but the Spurs seem primed to step into the Finals for a shot at number five.