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Kawhi Leonard, Spurs push Grizzlies to the brink

The playoffs don't start til somebody loses at home, so welcome to the postseason, everybody.

Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

West Quarterfinals Game 3 At Grizzlies: Spurs 96, Grizzlies 87   Series: 3-0 SA

Coming into the series against the shattered Grizzlies there was a concern among a pocket of Spurs fans that Memphis was an unfortunate opponent to face in that the series would be too easy and noncompetitive, that it wouldn't steel the team properly for stiffer challenges that lay ahead. The pragmatism only grew after the first two games in San Antonio went as expected, with the Spurs winning by a cumulative score of 200-142 and holding the Grizzlies to a meager 35.7 percent shooting.

Through two games the Spurs defense has been dominant not by just the conventional stats but perhaps even more so by the "hustle stats" is now tracking. They've been fantastic not only in steals and blocks but also in the stuff that doesn't show up in the box score like deflections, loose balls recovered and shots contested. Somehow, as unbelievable as it sounds, the Grizzlies had been held to eight uncontested shots, total, in two games.

I know, I was surprised they got that many too, but stats lie sometimes I guess.

Anyway, the good news for those among you who were worried that the Spurs wouldn't get anything useful out of this series except some time off, Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger was more than happy to oblige. After a blah first couple of games in which few questions about the future were asked and fewer still answered, Game 3 turned into a much appreciated practice session for Golden State.

Okay, not really. Memphis can't shoot like the Dubs. They can't pass like them. They don't come close to matching their speed. But they did go small for large chunks of the game, with Joerger replacing Chris Andersen in the starting lineup with Tony Allen and using Zach Randolph as his center. Gregg Popovich countered by playing it straight with the nominal starting lineup for the first seven minutes, but pulled the plug on it very quickly in the third quarter, yanking Tim Duncan in favor of Manu Ginobili just 2:30 into the period, throwing the whole rotation out of whack. Duncan sat the rest of the game, finishing with a minus-8 in just 13:32 logged.

So, how did the experiment work? Well, there wasn't much of a sample size. Pop still threw Boris Diaw and/or David West out there a bunch so the team used true small-ball a little over 10 minutes, all in the second half, breaking even. But if you want to define "small-ball" as any lineup in which Duncan and LaMarcus Aldridge aren't playing together, then I guess it was a smashing success, plus-17 in 34:28, right?

More important than the results was the process, the style of play. I thought the ball movement was a lot better overall in this game, with plenty of "good-to-great" and even some over-passing at times, which was a welcome sight after how much we've seen the ball stagnate of late. And all that extra passing didn't lead to extra turnovers either. Just 11 for the game, a perfectly acceptable amount. Moreover the Spurs took 26 threes, which I think is closer to how they're going to need to play offensively to hang with Golden State.

Understand that 26 attempts from downtown is a crazy amount for this club. They took over 25 just three times all regular season, and it never looked that pretty, as the most they scored in any of those three games was 94 points. And they only scored 96 this time, even though they made 12 of those 26. But don't be fooled. Their finishing inside was uncharacteristically poor tonight or the game would've been a runaway. The Spurs got good looks from beginning to end, rarely getting stuck, rarely getting congested, and if they can find a way to stretch those openings from their preferred mid-range stuff out to the three-point line, they'll be better off in the long run. Really, if you think about it, the only guys you'd prefer to take an 18-footer to a three are Aldridge and West. For everyone else either get to the cup or let it fly from deep, man.

The real lesson I hope this game drives home is that it doesn't have to be an either/or choice between "the beautiful game" 2014 Spurs (when everyone contributed and the ball moved and the offense was democratic) and the offense we've seen for most of this season (where they post-up or isolate Leonard and Aldridge more and everyone else gets scraps). If the team executes, it's possible to have plenty of possessions where the ball pings around but still winds up in the hands of Leonard or Aldridge at the end. The general idea should be for them to work the ball around until they find an open shooter. If people converge on Leonard or Aldridge early, they should have enough belief in the system to give it up and trust that they'll get it back in a better position to score. If it doesn't work out that way, then it means somebody else had an excellent look. We're getting down to money time here, and every possession is too important to waste on guys forcing up unnecessary shots just because they're the best players. There was far less of that in Game 3, and that's the ultimate positive to take away from it.

Well, that and Leonard having the kind of night that's never been accomplished in NBA history, of course. 32 points, seven rebounds, six threes, five blocks, four steals, millions upon millions of dumbstruck fans wondering how he's gone from the 15th pick of the 2011 draft to well... this.

Leonard's game has developed to the point where he can do things on the floor that literally no one else in the league can do. He's not the passer that LeBron James is and doesn't have his knack for getting to the free-throw line as often just yet, but already Leonard does everything else as good or better than James ever has. LeBron was a terrific defender in his prime, but never as singularly stifling as Leonard. And he never developed his outside shot to the degree where every time he launched from three it seemed like it was going in. He's the closest thing on the planet to a perfect "five-tool" player, where if you listed every skill or attribute a guy could have, more of his points would extend outward toward the maximum like a pentagon. He's Optimus Prime, basically, if Optimus only spoke as often as Sideswipe or Huffer.

So, we got a little bit of everything in Game 3. A close game for 46 minutes, stretches of great offense and great defense, just about everyone chipping in here and there, some old school three-point shooting, and then our best player taking over at the end like a true star. That's the final test we were waiting for Leonard to pass, right? He ended last season on a down note in Games 4-7 against the Clippers but has bounced back quite nicely so far against the Grizz, going up often against the same fellow in Matt Barnes who was effective in checking him a year ago.

The Spurs got better on Friday, even if the margin of victory was a lot closer than the previous two games. They did what they needed to do with their lineups and adjusted on the fly to playing on both ends of the floor against smaller units. They gave up too many offensive rebounds and too many open shots, but at least it gave them an opportunity to learn, so much more useful than the Grizzlies slamming their heads against the wall in the paint over and over again in their antiquated bully-ball style and getting wiped out by 30 again.

There will be a short turnaround for Game 4, and we'll see how well the Spurs can learn and adjust to Joerger's tweak... and if the Memphis skipper has another ace up his sleeve that will prove effective.

Your Three Stars:

1) Kawhi Leonard

2) LaMarcus Aldridge

3) Manu Ginobili