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Grizzlies ride Conley's strong start and stave off Spurs comeback

"Winning streak". I somehow feel that I've never properly appreciated that phrase until this December, where the Spurs' only back-to-back wins came at Memphis and Minnesota. Having been so utterly spoiled by this team for the past 20 years, we're not used to losing streaks, let alone losing months. A combination of injuries, a stacked Western Conference, and an ungodly schedule have aligned to beat against our beloved team enough to cast doubt in the minds of even the most stalwart Spurs believers.

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Coming off of a somewhat unexpected win at Houston, the Spurs were looking to establish a December streak that didn't involve Popovich ripping into Danny Green for consecutive pump-fake fly-bys. Memphis however, had no desire to play a part in allowing San Antonio any sort of continuity to end the most miserable month of the Duncan Era.

From the start, the Grizzlies appeared to emphasize guarding the three point line, while the Spurs collapsed heavily on Gasol, forcing kickouts to the Memphis guards. Unfortunately, the story of the 1st quarter consisted primarily of Mike Conley shooting 7-7 from the field, failing to register a miss until an end-of-quarter heave.

The refs called this game loosely throughout, letting obvious calls and contact go on each side. Baynes got away with mugging Gasol down deep just a few plays before Corey Joseph was allowed to get knocked twice in the air on a drive without a whistle being sounded. As often happens in games calls so permissively, things got a bit chippy after the end of the first period, and the Spurs on the floor were not happy with Memphis pulling further and further away.  One could only hope that Boris Diaw getting blocked by Beno Udrih early in the second quarter would be the low point of the game, but with 6 minutes left in the second, the Spurs were down 16. Diaw would eventually record 4 turnovers before getting T'd up, believing he had been pushed on an out-of-bounds call with 5 minutes left in the first half. Popovich pulled him soon after and the portly twirling Frenchman didn't play in the second half.

As much as the Spur's woes in the first half stemmed from missed shots and poor offense, it was their failure to match Memphis's defense that cost them. Bellinelli managed 16 in the first half to nearly cancel out Conely's 18, but Marco tallied a team-worst +/- of -10, while the defensively-capable Conely notched +9, thoroughly out-playing the Spurs' point-guard-by-amalgamation-trio of Joseph/Mills/Manu.

The Spurs entered the second half trailing by 14 points, and Popovich elected to start Manu over Green. The two teams traded baskets and defensive stops, and the deficit bounced between 16 and 9 throughout the quarter. With Duncan in early in the quarter, the two teams slugged at each other defensively. With Mills, Ayers, and Green in, the two teams traded shots. The quarter ended in characteristic fashion, with a beautiful drive and scoop shot by Patty with a minute left, but the gain was immediately cancelled out when Tayshuan Prince received the ball deep inside against a shorter defender for an easy post up. The next posession, Green scored on a runner, but Marco subsequently gave up a midrange jumper to Courtney Lee. Mills air-balled an open top-of-the-key jumper for the Spurs last shot of the quarter, and they entered the final period trailing by 11.

Popovich choose Kyle Anderson to start the forth, and the rookie responded with two quick scores, hitting a long jumper after Danny Green's transition 3 came up short, followed by a languid driving weave to the basket which I can only presume will be deemed a trademark SloMo() "slash" and scoop shot. Unfortunately, he was matched by Kosta Koufos who scored on consecutive post-ups against Ayers deep inside the Spurs 2-3 zone. Popovich immediately turned to Duncan for some interior defense, and Tim high-stepped to the scorer's table with a weird eagerness I can't recall seeing from him for maybe a decade.

At this point, the Spurs only scoring punch came from Corey Joseph, who managed 10 points in the frame on 5-5 shooting.  The Spurs managed to cut the deficit to 3, prompting the Grizz to bring Gasol back, and he responded by hitting a free-throw line jumper.  A long jumper from Prince and some free throws from Conley gave Memphis 6 straight to push the lead to 9.  Mills managed to draw some free throws, but Conley took advantage of a switch with Duncan playing too far off of him, and immediately backed up to hit a 3, and the Spurs were once again down by double digits with under 3 minutes left.

Popovich responded by putting in 4 three point shooters (Ayers, Bonner, Anderson, and Daye) and Corey Joseph, half in hopes of some quick scoring, and half to wave the white flag. The two teams traded points for the last two minutes, and Conley ended with 30 points.

Needless to say, the state of the Western Conference makes it increasingly difficult to dismiss of these relatively early-mid season games as acceptable losses. The Spurs have not had all major cogs on the floor in weeks, and Duncan is looking worn from having been ridden so hard so early. Missing Tony is costly in games such as this where points come at a premium, but the two-way hole created by Kawhi's injury is particularly painful for the Spurs, and not just in terms of defensive intensity, but as a capable off-the-ball scorer who can manufacture effort points when Popovich is forced to match defensive lineups against a team like Memphis.

Danny Green started off the game on the wrong side of his Icy Hot mode, going 0-6 from the field, and 0-3 from deep in the first half. He shot sparingly in the second half, finishing the game having gone 3-11 for 7 points, a far cry from his 24 point showing against Houston. Defensively, he continued his solid play, but was wasted against Allen and Lee while Conley was abusing the Spurs's point guards. Still, he was the only Spur who logged over 15 minutes with a positive +/-.

Part of what has been so frustrating about this brutal month is how hints of what the Spurs offense can achieve peek through in moments. Before being pulled, Diaw participated in a beautiful pastiche of trademark criss-crossing movement and passing around the perimeter which flummoxed opponents in last year's playoffs, but which, instead of producing an open three or layup, ultimately resulted in a too-deep and guarded drive for Danny Green late in the shot clock.  The movement is there, the passing is there, but the precision and communication is not. Both Manu and Tim made passes to teammates who completely failed to make the cut to receive the pass, resulting in turnovers. Patty Mills' second game showed just how much rust has gathered on his outside shot, though his drives looked good and his layups fell through the net.

So, there wasn't much positive takeaway from this game; the playoff Spurs are just there beneath the surface, but they need to come up for air a bit more often to compete in the 2014/2015 Western Conference.  At any rate, here's our traditional Three Stars:

Honorable Mention: Beno - because he's an ex-Spur, was a pain in Pop's side, and if anyone still has a link to his old MySpace profile pic, that would be awesome, because I would totally like to remind everyone that *that* happened.

3. Timmy - 9 points and 10 rebounds all while limping noticeably under the weight of the entire franchise.

2. Marco - 16 points in the first half to keep the Spurs in the game, but disappeared in the second half.

1. CoJo - 18 points, and 10 in the fourth quarter to give the Spurs a fighting chance to make a late run.  He ain't Tony, but that floater is looking more and more like an actual offensive weapon with every game.