So, before the game I asked Gregg Popovich if he found the Memphis Grizzlies refreshing.
More specifically, my question was something like, "In a league where so many teams --including the Spurs-- have taken some elements of Mike D'Antoni's free-wheeling, pace-and-space, pick-and-roll heavy motion offense, do you find the Grizzlies style of old-school post-centric style of play refreshing?"
He shot it down. Maybe he was in a bad mood for whatever reason, but we did not get engaging Pop today. Alas.
It's too bad because the Spurs practically played homage to the Grizzlies Sunday night at the AT&T Center, out grit-n-grinding them on the way to a harder-than-it-looked victory. They were bricklayers from deep, making just 4-of-17 threes, but they outscored Memphis 54-44 in the paint and didn't give the offensively-challenged Grizzles any easy points, turning it over but 10 times all game.
Zach Randolph did work early against Tiago Splitter, sinking 5-of-7 shots for 10 first quarter points, but San Antonio's Brazilian big-man outscored him 13-10 over the final three quarters, continuing to show amazing touch on his hook shot from in close, even with former Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol guarding him at times.
"They are a very physical team, really well-coached, really fundamentally sound and they stick with it" Popovich said of Memphis afterward. "I thought our guys did a great job of absorbing that and and playing smart against the physicality and gave it back in kind. I thought Tiago in that respect was great."
This is the best stretch the Spurs bigs have played collectively since the Finals last June. Boris Diaw once again gave his best Kevin McHale impression with 10 first half points and added seven rebounds in 22:01 while holding up against Memphis' bigs defensively. Tim Duncan had a quiet 10 points, but also four assists and three blocks in 24:20. Even Aron Baynes chipped in with four points, seven rebounds and two blocks in his return from a sprained ankle, though he lost one of his nine lives after Jeff Green unloaded on him in the second quarter.
Ow. Not cool, Jeff Green.
Anyway, despite playing relatively mistake-free ball and stretching their streak of games in which they've attained a double-digit lead to 16 just four minutes into the proceedings when a fast break slam by Duncan made it 14-4 to the good, the Spurs were up just 51-42 at half because they couldn't bury any of those gap-widening threes. Well, that and Tony Parker took the hot tub time machine back to February.
The Spurs then hit their usual third quarter snooze alarm, scoring just 19 points in the period and went into the fourth quarter up just four points, even though it felt like they leading by 15 the whole time. You kept waiting for them to blow it open or to fold completely, but something interesting was bound to happen. There was just too much tension on the court for the two teams to be engaged in an antiseptic stalemate for much longer.
And then Kawhi Leonard just decided to be the best player on the court, in all his 90's era mid-range shooting glory. Leonard scored the Spurs first 15 points of the quarter on a pair of free throws, a Kobe-style turnaround baseline jumper from each corner, a hat-trick of pull-up J's from the nail and a corner three for good measure. For a guy who couldn't shoot worth a lick coming out of college four years ago, he's now one of the best mid-range snipers in the league.
"It has gotten easier because I have been in the league," Leonard coolly explained afterward. "It's my fourth year and Coach Pop has a little more confidence in me. I get to do what I want a little more on the floor rather than him limit me."
Leonard has subtly thrown some shade Pop's way in the past, but you can't fault him for being honest. He knows he's the number one option on the team now, the reigning Finals MVP and in line for a max contract for sure after the Spurs and his agent failed to agree to terms last summer. There was a report in the Boston Globe that the Celtics will supposedly make a pitch to him the second they're allowed to. Leonard is a restricted free agent so the Spurs will be able to match any offer, but there's no telling what kind of creative "poison-pill" shenanigans opposing GM's will try to come up with to annoy us all.
Parker took the baton from Leonard midway through the fourth and scored nine of his own --he had 15 in the second half in all-- and the Spurs eventually stretched their lead to 16 before coasting home. They shot 72.2 percent in the final quarter, with Leonard and Parker combining for 10-of-13. Memphis got 20 from Randolph, 19 from Green and 16 from Gasol after a tough start for him, but practically nothing from anyone else, as Mike Conley continued his slump.
All in all, it was an old-school win. The best player took care of business when it mattered, the big guys controlled the meat of the game and the three-point line was mostly a myth, a shot taken more as a dare or a change-of-pace than as a primary means of attack. However it came, the Spurs finished off a homestand against three Western Conference playoff teams with a perfect 3-0 record and a combined margin of victory of 71 points.
Considering the up-and-down way the season's gone, even Pop must've found that to be a breath of fresh air.
Your Three Stars:
3. Tony Parker (77 pts)
2. Tiago Splitter (37 pts)
1. Kawhi Leonard (133 pts)
[Players receive 5 points for first star, 3 points for second star and 1 point for third star. Numbers in parentheses are their accumulated totals for the season.]