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The Spurs absorb Memphis' haymaker

For the first time in his career, Kawhi Leonard has emerged as the best player in a playoff series, and the Spurs are one win away from advancing.

Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Even in a first round full of lopsided series, the Spurs' first two games against the Grizzlies stood out. SA won all eight quarters, and their total margin of victory was almost sixty points. The first half of Game 1 aside, the Spurs were able to run up the score quickly enough that no player played more than 28 minutes. If ever there were a 2-0 sweep in a seven game series, this was it.

But Dan Cook's famous quip about melodic viking women isn't famous on accident, and when one NBA team is clearly outmatched in a playoff series, game 3 is always the best chance to steal a meaningful game. Being at home in a familiar city and a familiar bed helps get the taste of defeat out of the mouth and the crowd is revved up and not already thinking about the offseason or summer vacation or football. Plus, there's always a chance you can catch the heavy favorite basking in the glow of that 2-0 lead and not really adequately prepared for a countermeasure.

For almost a week, all the San Antonio Spurs heard from the media was how inevitable their victory was, how Memphis had led for only 25 seconds in the AT&T Center and how most of their roster wasn't even made up of NBA players.

As fans and the bloggers, we get to be somewhat hypocritical; we push the narrative of the unbeatable team, then expect that team to act like it doesn't believe in our hype. Friday night, everyone not wearing silver and black was confident that the Spurs wouldn't be overconfident, that they would take care of the Grizzlies because they wouldn't allow themselves to underestimate an opponent looking to grab some of that Game 3 bounce.

But for a good chunk of the game, particularly in the second half, you could almost envision Memphis -- a 12 point underdog in their own building -- accomplishing the impossible. Coach Dave Joerger actually started five guys most NBA fans have heard of and rode them hard. Zach Randolph broke out of his Spur-imposed prison to score 20 points. Matt Barnes was an offensive contributor and a pest without going over the top. Randolph and Barnes alone gathered 22 rebounds and were instrumental in giving Memphis an 11-1 lead in second chance points. That many extra possessions will keep in you in a game regardless of how much Summer League talent you have on your roster.

Speaking of which, JaMychal Green scored 10 points on 5 of 5 shooting and helped re-inflate the crowd in the third quarter as Memphis managed to sustain a lead for the first time in three games. The Spurs seemed befuddled at times by Memphis' defensive pressure, which allowed none of the crisp passes and good spacing that make up the superstructure of SA's offense. "I thought we were a little disjointed at times, mostly because of their pressure and physical toughness," Pop admitted after the game. It was the Grizzlies' best team performance imaginable.

But it wasn't enough, because the Spurs have Kawhi Leonard and Memphis does not. At certain points tonight, the eye test might have said that Leonard didn't have his best game, even though the box score says he's the first player in postseason history to score 32 points, grab 7 rebounds, 5 blocks and 4 steals on the road. He shot 11-22 overall and 6-9 on threes. Yet I picture him wandering Beale Street tonight, head down with hands stuffed in overburdened pockets, cursing himself for the hesitation he showed at times and for his paltry 5 trips to the free throw line (one of which came on a Memphis defensive 3 second violation.)

This hypercriticism fits what we know of Kawhi, who has ascended from mid-first round pick to role player to defensive specialist to MVP candidate quicker than it takes him to blink those sleepy eyes. Every year he's shown rapid improvement precisely by identifying and addressing holes in his game. As a result, every year has been a career year for him. Eventually he will plateau, but the ascent is still very much in progress. So it's only natural to expect that a few items would remain on the punch list.

After last season's first round loss to the Clippers, the biggest hole seemed to be his mettle as a number one option. Despite his brilliance, Kawhi seemed tentative at times in that series. The playoffs are a bear, and it's best not to approach bears too eagerly. But Leonard deferred too much. You could see shades of that Friday night, when the bear fought back. Kawhi's numbers were good, of course, but they were boosted by unsustainably good free throw shooting (playing devil's advocate here) in the first half and some generous whistles and non-whistles from the referees. He allowed himself to get stopped multiple times on the break and at the rim, just flat out losing the ball and, in the process, his aura as the Undisputed Dominant Force in this series. If the Spurs lost, the main story would have centered not on all the things Memphis did right, but on how an MVP candidate could allow his team to lose a game to one of the most overmatched playoff teams in NBA history.

If Kawhi was feeling that pressure, he didn't show it. He scored over a third of his 32 points in the final quarter and helped his team cause five Memphis turnovers, almost time warping the Spurs from a 3 point deficit to a 9 point advantage. "You want to work on your execution" in those situations, he said after the game. Another item on the punch list taken care of. And frankly, numbers are irrelevant when you're making shots like this over Tony Allen:

Game 3 is always the swing game, and the Grizzlies took their best shot. To the extent that we or anybody remember the first round, after tonight it will likely go down as the first series in which Kawhi Leonard was the clear-cut best, most talented and most dominant player on the court for either team. Against a Memphis squad missing it's top two players, that's something of a low threshold. The Grizzlies took their best shot, but they seem done. For the Spurs, this is hopefully the first of many swing games in these playoffs. For his team to move forward toward loftier goals, Kawhi must continue to leave no doubt about who's doing the swinging.

Quote of the Night

So many great things in that one, but my favorite part is where Manu essentially says "(Kawhi) does all the little things role players usually do, but he also manages to be the star of the team."

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