Grizzlies Fans Just Blue Themselves - There's "No Touching" Tony Parker
Well, we're back in the show. After six long, heartbreaking, injury-plagued, referee-aided disappointments in the postseason, the boring, old, foreign, grouchy, ground-bound San Antonio Spurs are the last team standing in the Western Conference, a veritable "Best of the West," if you will, though that phrase sounds so cheesy that I'm sure nobody would be lame enough to turn it into a slogan to sell cheap T-shirts or anything, because surely we're better than that.
Of late the only "television" I've been watching outside of sports (and it's rare I watch any at all since I spend most of my time working, eating, sleeping, watching the Spurs, writing about the Spurs or drinking with Andrea, in some order) has been my Arrested Development DVDs, in the futile hope of taking in all three seasons again before diving into season four on Netflix, with all the characters, storylines and in-jokes fresh in my head. The Spurs playoff run has made this an impossible task.
It occurred to me, however, that my favorite show and my favorite team have a few things in common. Both were far more beloved by the critics and nerds than actual human beings who watch television; both were so sophisticated and stylistic in their approach, with so many layers and nuances that they made their peers look like unwatchable crap by comparison; both relied on more of an ensemble cast than just one or two big-name stars, and both are finally returning to the big stage (their longtime hardcore fans never gave up hope of this happening) for the first time since the mid-aughts.
It should also be noted that both sets of fans, privately, have reservations about whether getting what they wished for at long last will be worth it or bittersweet. In the case of AD, how can the fourth season possibly live up to the genius of the previous three? Will anything less than ten howling fits of laughter per episode be looked upon as a disappointment? Just so in the Spurs' case, where they'll likely be the underdogs to the Miami Heat, how would we emotionally cope if they happen to lose? Isn't it better to not get to the Finals at all than to get there and finish second-best?
The answers to both of these questions might reveal themselves in a couple weeks or never. Hopefully never. I just found it surreal that both of these events are happening at the same time (and another LA Kings playoff run to boot!).
I'm not sure we can classify Tony Parker's development as arrested, per se, but you have to admit it's one of the more interesting success stories in NBA history. Here was a 19-year-old kid who so thoroughly bombed his initial pre-draft workout with the Spurs that Gregg Popovich wanted nothing to do with him. R.C. Buford had to reportedly beg Pop to give Parker another chance, and he did, with the 28th pick because really, what the hell, it was either that or let Gilbert Arenas drive him into early retirement.
From day one, when it was clear that Parker had more upside than Antonio Daniels and a 38-year-old Terry Porter, he was pretty much the third-best player on a fringe contender. In subsequent years, here's how he fell in the team's pecking order:
2010: 3rd (4th?)
Not exactly the standard bell curve for an NBA star, is it? Parker's gone from a young player with promise who the franchise showed such gratitude for helping them win a title in 2003 that they wanted to dump him in favor of Jason Kidd, to third-banana back when Ginobili was cramming it on everybody, to lead-dog and full-fledged celebrity (thanks to two --well technically three-- Boobies: Gibson, Longoria, etc), back to third-banana when Manu turned into Peja Stojakovic in '08, then a tour-de-force-by-necessity when Ginobili's ankles took turns giving out and Duncan started to mummify, back to Manu's understudy (and possibly George Hill's) as he had his own injury issues (plantar wtFasciitis), to the "head of the snake" of an all-offense, no-defense mirage in '11, to where we are now, where's he's unquestionably a full-fledged superduperstar.
His play in the postseason has come as something of a shock to the pundits out there, perhaps because they weren't paying much attention in January and February, before he sprained his ankle badly, where Parker was largely leading the Spurs to decisive wins on his own, with Duncan and Manu both sidelined. Jalen Rose's "third-best player in the league" comment was delivered as if it was supposed to be some shocking, grandiose declaration of Parker's arrival, except for some of us this was old news.
Parker's game has continued to develop and evolve, slowly but surely, from a guy who could only make layups to one who can score reliably and efficiently from basically anywhere on the court (including the free throw line), who can find open teammates against any defense and deliver the right kind of pass to them, and who can even be counted upon in his own end, as much as one can be with his slight frame.
Basically, he's gotten to the point, where (like all the other greats of the game) when his jumper is falling he's basically unguardable. You have no choice but to double and force him to pass to a wide open man, even though trapping on the perimeter guarantees a 4-on-3 if the ball isn't turned over. Parker has turned himself into an All-NBA player the way practically every great scorer does, by making the most inefficient shot, the dreaded "long two", efficient for him.
Coming into the series against the Grizzlies the conventional wisdom held that Mike Conley, generally accepted as the top defender at his position, would hold Parker to nearly a statistical wash, enabling his team to capture the series due to their supposed advantages down low. Conley, you may recall, hounded Parker quite a bit back in 2011, back when perhaps he wasn't quite on Tony's radar yet (though we could also explain away Parker's high turnover and low assist totals to substandard passing options on the wings), and that series, as well as the way an exhausted Parker finished the Warriors series, may have colored some perceptions.
Then Parker went out and simply destroyed Conley --and by extension, the Grizzlies-- showing everyone, definitively, that he is in a completely different stratosphere than Greg Oden's former second-banana at Ohio State. Parker toyed with the Grizzlies so easily in the Game 1 rout that they changed things up for Game 2, packing in the lane, only to have the Frenchman slice them to ribbons with 18 assists. Their defenders stayed closer to home from them on, Conley went under every screen, and Parker scored 63 points in the final two games, either on wide open jumpers or even easier drives to the paint when the comically overplaying Tony Allen tried his hand at guarding him.
This is why Parker is better than Chris Paul, better than Russell Westbrook, Rajon Rondo, Derrick Rose, anybody. For one, his teammates and/or coach don't hate him, so that helps. For another, he can score at any time and any situation, not just fourth quarters after chilling and flipping alley-oops for the first three. For three, he's efficient both with his shooting and his ball-handling, so there are just a lot fewer empty possessions with him. Finally, he doesn't play with another superstar scorer, meaning that he has to create nearly all the offense himself. (Though, to be fair, the inverse is true -- Parker plays with a bunch of great passers unlike most of the others, so he gets a lot of easy points from them, too).
I don't think I'm being a homer to suggest that the Spurs have two of the top five players in the league, or at least two of the top eight. Given that, it's really not a stretch that they've gone 12-2 in the postseason, is it?
In that vein, I present to you a play I call "five basketball fans break down the Spurs-Grizzlies series." I'll pick five names out of a hat and name them Aaron, Bill, Earvin, Jalen and Zach.
Zach: Boy, this is a stumper. These teams look so evenly matched.
Aaron: Oh really? I don't really see that at all. I don't think it's close, actually.
Bill: Oh, so you like the Grizzlies too then. Glad that's settled. They're just better. They just are. Everyone knows this. I love this match-up for them.
Aaron: Um... what?
Earvin: You may not know this, Aaron, but these teams met in the playoffs two seasons ago and the Grizzlies won, and since the two rosters are completely the same...
Aaron: But they're not the same. Not even close, really.
Jalen: Yeah, the Spurs are even older now. ::starts singing:: Turn out the lights, the party's over.
Aaron: I meant that they have Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green on the wings now, and Tiago Split-
Bill: Oh stop it. Just stop.
Aaron: No, really, if you look at the numbers, the Spurs defense has been just as dominant as Memphis', even more so, actually, in lineups where just their top seven players play, and especially the starters.
Zach: They're good, they're not as good.
Aaron: That's just because you don't trust the sample size. You think it's too low.
Earvin: What's a sample size? Who's Tiago Split? Where am I? Why aren't we talking about the Lakers? KOBE BRYANT DUH-WHITE HOWARD PHIL JACKSON.
Aaron: Why are you here again?
Bill: He's a pleasant man who was very good at basketball.
Aaron: Right, yes.
Jalen: Look, Z-Bo is a beast. He's going to dominate down low, plain and simple, soup to nuts.
Aaron: You think a 6-9 guy will score with ease over two seven-footers, one of whom made First-Team All-NBA, and was either first-team or second-team All-Defense for 14 years and has arms longer than this sentence?
Bill: Fabricio Oberto and Matt Bonner aren't seven foot tall. We know this.
Earvin: Neither is Antonio McDyess or Robert Horry.
Zach: Okay, they have some new guys. I still don't think it'll make a difference. Look at how they lost four straight last year.
Earvin: Yeah, to the Lakers! To KOBE BRYANT.
All (to Earvin): Stop talking. Here, watch this Dodgers game.
Bill: Anyway, the zombie Sonics smoked them. Ibaka and Perkins went like 18-of-20 in Game 5.
Aaron: Game four, actually.
Zach: Ginobili did nothing that series.
Jalen: He never does anything. He's so inconsistent. And he has less hair than me. I may not have any rings, but I win in the game of life.
Aaron: He had games of 26, 20 and 34 points.
Bill: Yeah, but still.
Aaron: Look, we're getting off track, the Spurs are playing Memphis, not OKC.
Jalen: Yeah, but the Grizzlies beat OKC. They beat 'em bad.
Aaron: They beat a one-man team. The Spurs have many good players.
Bill: None of them are as good as Durant.
Aaron: Yes, but four of them are better than Ibaka, and then three are better than Kevin Martin.
Zach: What's your point?
Aaron: Look, forget using labels such as "Spurs" and "Grizzlies." Lets just call them Team A, and Team B, for the point of this exercise, okay?
Bill: Can I call this the "Simplifying your point for idiots theory" in my monthly column?
Aaron: Yes, sure. Anyway, lets say Team A and Team B, both play defense equally well, with two bigs who clog the paint, two outstanding wing defenders, two determined point guards and even a couple of guys off the bench who won't embarrass you.
Zach: I'm with you so far.
Aaron: Also, both teams' bigs are talented enough to be legitimate scorers, guys who can score inside and out, work well together, pass to each other, work the high-low game, etc.
Jalen: Like Webber and Juwan back in the day!
Aaron: Okay. Now lets say Team A has a great, universally respected coach, one who is presumably smart enough to have heard of the concept of "double-teaming."
Bill: But if you double team big guys they can pass to open guys on the wings. I know about things like that because I'm very smart about basketball and I know what "the secret" is and I wrote a book about it.
Aaron: Yes, but here's the neat part. One team has a bunch of wings who can hit open threes and the other has guys you wouldn't trust to hit the ocean falling out of a boat.
Zach: I guess I could see how Team A would have an advantage on the wings.
Bill: Well what about the point guards? The modern game is all about point guards. We know this.
Aaron: Glad you asked. Team A has a much, much better point guard, who can score and shoot more consistently than Team B. He's a better finisher, gets to the line more and has better passing teammates. Oh, and a ton more experience. And when he goes to the bench another guy comes in who can score (sometimes) and create all sorts of easy shots for everybody.
Jalen: What about intangibles?
Aaron: Well, team A has a deeper bench, they're going to be super motivated because they lost to Team B two years ago, and they have home court advantage. And I'm not sure if this counts as an "intangible" or whatever, but they have six of the top eight players in the series, including the top two.
Bill: Well, the team with the best guy usually does win the series...
Aaron: Bottom line, both teams can play D but only one can score, they have the better coach and home court and OH MY GOD WHY ARE WE STILL ARGUING ABOUT THIS?
Zach: I still like the Grizzlies in six.
Jalen: Grizzlies in five.
Bill: Grizzlies in six. I don't hate the Spurs. I think Tim Duncan is the greatest player of his generation, which encompasses 1999 to 2005, before LeBron got good and oh the '99 season NEVER HAPPENED. I just love this match-up for the Grizzlies. Z-Bo! Barbecue! Narratives!
Earvin: Well, Aaron has convinced me. Team A is clearly better, so I'll take them.
Aaron: Finally, some common sense. Thank you, Earvin.
Earvin: Team A is the Lakers, isn't it?
Game 3 did not get off to the best start, but one of the main reasons I loved this series for the Spurs is that the Grizzlies just don't have the offensive firepower to run away and hide, and that proved to be their fatal flaw. Still, I'm kinda glad that game went the way it did, because it allowed the Spurs to show their comeback chops, and it never hurts to gain experience winning different kinds of games.
My favorite part though, besides the Grizzlies fan wearing the "Go Flop Yourself, Ginobili" T-shirt (an ironic statement given the ending of Game 2), was when the cameras showed Pop laying into the guys early in the second quarter.
Now, I'm not an expert lip-reader, but Pop was emphatic enough and the camera zoomed in close enough that I made out the following...
"No f---ing s---, it doesn't matter."
"Get off your a-- and f---ing execute."
"You guys are playing like f---ing ------- out there."
What I thought was so great about all of that is Pop was saying exactly the things I felt like saying at the time. The sequence made me realize that Popovich blew a great career opportunity by never hiring me or any other idiot to be the figurehead coach of the Spurs.
Think about it. Any of us could exchange in daily charming non-answers with the media and deliver rousing cliche-filled speeches in the locker room before games and at halftime and cuss guys out during time outs. All that stuff is easy.
WE'VE GOT TO REBOUND. BE AGGRESSIVE! CATCH IT AND PASS IT QUICKLY! TRUST EACH OTHER!
blah blah blah.
Meanwhile, in the background, there would be Pop, designing the plays, running the practices in the shadows, being the actual head of the snake without ever having to deal with the press. It'd have been perfect for him.
(The 49ers kind of have something like this going with offensive coordinator Greg Roman, by the way.)
I think what I'm saying is I really hope Budenholzer isn't actually the true brains of this outfit.
Yeah, probably most people were rooting for the Grizzlies to upset the Spurs, but you can't convince me that America isn't glad to get Lionel Hollins' mangled fingers off their televisions. Those things were just a tad disturbing.
So far the Spurs have beaten a seventh-seed missing their best player (and most of their other good ones), a sixth-seed missing their second-best scorer (albeit a defensive Chernobyl), and a fifth-seed missing... what I can only assume was their depth perception in some team-wide freaky medical anomaly you see on House or something. Them boys couldn't shoot a lick.
I think what I'm trying to say is I'm getting kind of antsy over here waiting for the playoffs to start.