In the end, when you look back on it rationally, the Spurs really didn't deserve to win this game, this instant classic, this three-hour marathon against an equally determined and proud Memphis team playing on the second night of a back-to-back. This gritty, grimy, at times ugly bunch of Grizzles had dispatched the Warriors at home on Tuesday, snapping their franchise record 16-game winning streak, and 24 hours later they refused to get deflated against a champion Spurs side that counter-punched them again and again. You can't claim, objectively, that the Spurs should've won, not when they missed 14-of-27 free throws, when they threw it all over the gym in critical moments and generally played so poorly that they were down 23 points, on merit, halfway through the second quarter.
But man, they didn't deserve to lose it either.
"They showed a lot of fortitude," an exhausted Gregg Popovich said afterward. "I was really proud of them. I thought they did a great job. We made some errors that are pretty odd, unique-type errors with a couple of passes, rebounds and missed free throws. That is the game. We made too many of those mistakes."
Not to go all Sports Guy on you, but the game had a "Rocky" type feel to it in that both teams were so mentally and physically drained that they kept missing easy shots and making inexplicably boneheaded mistakes. Yet neither team would allow themselves to be counted out and both kept showing resilience, again and again.
Memphis blew their big second quarter lead, 44-21 at one point, in segments here and there. The Spurs closed the second quarter with a 24-8 run, with eight points apiece, fitting enough on "International Night" at the AT&T Center, from Manu Ginobili and Marco Belinelli. A seven-point halftime deficit crawled to 17 midway through the third quarter, however, as the Spurs went ice cold to start the second half, not scoring until Tim Duncan got a layup to trickle in with 6:35 to go.
From then on, all hell broke loose, with Duncan being relegated to the bench in favor of Tiago Splitter and the Spurs playing a manic 1-3-1 match-up zone, with bodies rotating and scrambling everywhere. Ginobili confirmed afterward that he couldn't ever recall the Spurs playing so much zone, and successfully, during his career, saying "We usually do it briefly for a couple of possessions, but today it worked." The Grizzlies starting misfiring from outside, the Spurs made five threes to close out the period (two each from Ginobili and Danny Green and one from Boris Diaw) and the Spurs trailed by just five going into the fourth.
It was back-and-forth in the final period, with constant lineup shuffling from Pop. The Spurs tied it for the first time since the opening tip on a wing three from Belinelli, whose 43:22 of playing time was his most as a Spur, and took their first lead on a three from Green (led the Spurs with a career-high 51:57 of floor time) shortly after. Neither side could separate from one another after that, but twice the Spurs thought they had it won, both courtesy of yet more wide open corner threes from Green.
The first, with a minute left, regained the lead and they extended the margin to three, 89-86 when Duncan made one of two free throws following a missed layup from Marc Gasol, Memphis' best player and one of the league's leading MVP candidates so far. The Spurs forced a rare miss from Vince Carter, but he stole Boris Diaw's clear out pass and the ball eventually arrived in the hands of Mike Conley, wide open at the top of the key. He buried it to tie it up 89-89, one of just five shots he'd make in 19 attempts.
After Ginobili found Green for what certainly appeared to be another game-winner with just 2.7 seconds to go, Gasol silenced the sellout crowed, banking in a miracle three at the gun. Yes, the Spurs had dominated this rivalry, winning 15 of their past 17 meetings since the Grizzlies upset them in the first round of the 2011 playoffs, but five of those 17 games went to overtime. And now Gasol ensured a sixth.
The Grizzlies led by three a couple of different times in the first extra period but a three by Diaw caught them and another by Green gave the Spurs their first overtime lead with 1:21 to go. A Duncan free throw extended it to two and the Spurs had the ball with less than a shot clock to go following Diaw's rebound of another Carter miss. All Ginobili would have to do is make some free throws and the game would be theirs. However, since he'd shot just 3-of-7 from the line (and Duncan a woeful 5-of-15), perhaps Ginobili wanted an easier way to resolve the game. He risked a long breakout pass to Green, who was probably fouled on the play and nearly decapitated, but the turnover led to a tying layup from Gasol and a second overtime.
More back-and-forth here and the Spurs were up one with a chance to add on, but an exhausted Duncan (47:44) missed two bunnies at the rim, with Zach Randolph clearly shoving him in the back with a forearm on the second one, without penalty. The Grizzlies quickly took it the other way and a corner three from Courtney Lee deflated the crowd with two seconds to go, giving Memphis a 111-109 lead. This time it was San Antonio's big man who refused to let the game end mercifully, banking in a 17-footer and getting a kind roll, eerily similar to the one Duncan hit over Shaquille O'Neal's outstretched arms in the "Derek Fisher Game," in Game 5 of the Western Conference Semi-Finals in 2004.
Unfortunately, this game had the same outcome as that one, a one-point Spurs loss, though it took 4:59.6 longer to make sure of it. Randolph scored all six of Memphis' points in the third overtime and finished with 21 points and 21 boards, his first good performance against the Spurs in ages. San Antonio were down four but Ginobili found Green for his seventh and final three-ball of the night to cut it one. Diaw collected a Lee miss with 15 seconds to go, but the Spurs collectively seemed confused that Popovich didn't call a time out. Ginobili threw up a wild no-chance three with three seconds to go and the game ended in anti-climatic fashion after so many dramatic twists and turns.
"I was looking to attack, but I had no legs to get to the rim," Ginobili admitted. "I thought I had a clean look, but not enough legs, it was all arms. It was a very bad shot. I am really disappointed with that decision I made."
It was a bad decision, but not even Ginobili's worst of the night and truthfully it's hard to blame him for anything once the odometer shoots over the 35-minute mark. The 37-year-old sixth man was mostly responsible for bringing the Spurs back in the second and third quarters and still finished with 21 points, 8 rebounds and 8 assists, even though he wound up shooting poorly.
Meanwhile, Green was fantastic, with season-highs in points (25) and three-pointers (7) and a career-high five blocks. In fact, he became the first player in NBA history to record as many as seven threes and five blocks in the same game. Diaw finished with 17 points, 13 rebounds and 5 assists and those 13 boards weren't just his most ever as a Spur but the most he's procured since 2009. Duncan registered double-double No. 810 with 23 points, 16 rebounds, 5 assists and 3 blocks, while Belinelli added 15 and Tiago Splitter gutted through 24:23 on his road back to full health. It was a game where guys like Diaw, Green, Splitter and Cory Joseph started miserably and wound up contributing down the stretch, and others, like Ginobili and Duncan kept the Spurs afloat but got worse as the game wore on.
"It was (a) great (game) all around," Duncan summed it up. "There were some good shots made and some big shots missed. We put ourselves in a tough position to start the game, because we were down so much. I missed a bunch of free throws. It was just the little things. We really fought back into it though and gave it all we had. But we came back short."
It was the fourth valiant comeback all for not the Spurs have had already, with three of those losses coming in overtime to make it extra painful. The length of this game and the energy expanded might cause Popovich to flip the usual back-to-back strategy and it won't be surprising at all if he elects to punt the Friday home game against Portland and plays everyone that's healthy Saturday at Dallas.
The only thing we know for sure is that it's not going to get any easier for the Spurs anytime soon. Ordinarily a loss like this would make it tough for guys to sleep, but somehow I doubt that's going to be a problem tonight.
Your Three Stars:
3) Tim Duncan (43 pts)
2) Manu Ginobili (26 pts)
1) Danny Green (25 pts)