First Round Game 6 @Memphis: Spurs 103, Grizzlies 96 SA wins series 4-2
You know, it got lost somewhere in the blur of a 61-21 regular season, but as weird as the notion sounds, I still think we need to be reminded sometimes that this is a transitional season for the Spurs. I think back to last summer when Tim Duncan made his retirement official and none of us quite knew what to expect. Obviously Kawhi Leonard was expected to keep growing and improving as the team’s unquestioned first option and LaMarcus Aldridge would be counted on to be a reliable second banana, but beyond that there weren’t too many known commodities between all the young guys, past-their-prime newcomers Pau Gasol and David Lee and the incumbent vets Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, who weren’t sure bets to produce consistently.
How fitting then, that in Game 6 of their playoff series the Spurs showed flashes of their illustrious past and glimpses of what’s to come, all in the same game. It was an anxious, thrilling —at times quite frustrating— mix of the old and the new, featuring 48 minutes of the guys in black and silver pounding on that rock in a hostile environment, even though for large stretches their toil was looking blunt and futile.
The heroes were Leonard and Parker of course, the two of them combining 56 points between them, split almost down the middle. And we’ll get to both of them in a minute, but there was more to the win than the who. There was also the how?
It was bizarro Spurs-Grizzlies. Even with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph running rampant inside against David Lee and Big Spain’s older brother Pau, the Spurs dominated the boards 46-28. More specifically, they crushed the offensive glass, coming up with 16 offensive rebounds, or 43.2 percent of available misses on their shot attempts. Longtime Spurs fans know that Gregg Popovich basically invented the notion of de-emphasizing chasing after offensive boards because he was so hyper-vigilant about getting back in transition, but they wouldn’t have won Thursday night without those second and third chances. Aldridge didn’t have his best game from the floor, missing several bunnies, but it might’ve been his most physical effort in a Spurs uniform. Not only was he a monster on the boards for a stretch in the third quarter when the team couldn’t muster much of anything on offense, but he was their only solid, immovable defender inside as well. His scoring was almost a bonus.
The oddness didn’t end there. The Grizzlies were the snipers from outside in Game 6, nailing 12-of-27. They didn’t generate those looks because the Spurs were ferociously double-teaming the bigs, as was the case in Game 5. Rather they got them the way everyone else does, through ball movement, in transition, with good screening and often through terrific point guard play. There weren’t just one or two guys to key on. Eight different Grizzles attempted at least one three and six of them made at least one. The Spurs, by contrast, made just 7-of-20. They couldn’t get more looks because they didn’t work for them. Tellingly, they only had five assists at half, to eight turnovers. “The Beautiful Game” Spurs of years past seemed like ancient history, replaced by Leonard running what ESPN personality Bomani Jones would term “The Bel-Air Prep Offense.”
Still, the Spurs stayed in the game, because Leonard is that good, even when the aesthetics don’t always look worthy of a YouTube montage or something a high school coach would want to show his pupils. Twice they rallied in the second half, from 10 down in the third quarter to four up by virtue of a 20-6 run and then again in the fourth quarter from seven down to game, set and match, with a 19-6 closing burst. And that too is a trait that the 2016-17 Spurs specifically have shown, the spirit and mental toughness to rally and come back in games even when they’ve played like an AAU team on day 23 of a road trip for entire quarters at a time. I’ve written it before and I’ll write it again: For whatever reason this Spurs team is more resilient when the chips are down than many more talented and frankly better editions of the squad were. You can’t take that away from them.
Leonard was sensational once again setting a franchise scoring record for most points by a Spur in a six-game series and at his best late, swishing an obscene baseline and-1 floater and then a three from the wing on the next possession to bring the visitors within one. He had tunnel vision for most of the game and was forcing up a lot of “hero-ball” shots, but thankfully he trusted his teammates down the stretch, with all three of his helpers coming in the final 2:25. There are times, I ruefully admit, where I take Leonard’s wondrous talents for granted. I question his shot-selection and his stubbornness. I see too much Kobe in him at times (not a compliment) but even when he’s chucking away, it’s not in Leonard to be inefficient. He still has a nose for the free-throw line. He still doesn’t turn it over very much, relative to usage. He still plays hard on defense. At times I catch myself being like Carlton Banks up there and resenting Leonard for being so damn good. And then I slam my head against the wall for being such an idiot.
Speaking of me being a dummy, two of Leonard’s late dimes went to Parker, who was brilliant in his own right. I mean, who could’ve seen this coming? The Wee Frenchman had the best shooting night of his playoff career in closing out against Memphis and was practically flawless in his decision-making. In truth he was more of a two-guard for most of the night, playing off Leonard, but he made sure to exploit every opportunity he got, whether that meant raining jumpers on the Grizzlies after they went under screens or dancing around Randolph on switches in the pick-and-roll. Parker finished an identical 53.3 percent from the field both from the three-point line and overall and averaged 16.7 points for the series, despite being bageled in Game 3. That’s a heckuva trick. I’m still not buying the narrative that Parker was deliberately in second gear or lower all year just to save himself for the playoffs, but I will say he showed throughout the regular season that he’s a different player when he’s healthy and he’s sure looking healthy these days. If he can keep this up, the Spurs have a chance to make some noise here.
Anyway, we’ll break down the semi-final match-up over the weekend, but congratulations to the Spurs for passing the first test of their playoff journey. They got past the Grizzlies even with Gasol and especially Conley playing out of their freakin’ minds. Memphis made it tough on them with two home wins to knot the series 2-2 and then the Spurs responded like good teams do, by not panicking, maintaining their home-court advantage and then finishing off the worthy challengers on the road. They could’ve taken it easy tonight, secure in the knowledge that David Fizdale was saving nothing for the swim back to Game 7. He played Gasol the entire second half and Conley sat for just a minute in the third quarter (in which the Grizz were promptly out scored 7-0). I’m pretty sure the Grizzlies were mainly playing for pride, not wanting to let their season end in front of the home fans even though they wouldn’t have much left in the tank for Sunday, but the Spurs out-willed them anyway. And they did it with some old and some new.
Which means that Leonard, Parker and Ginobili have bragging rights on Duncan next time they see him in the gym. They’ll get to do something he never did — play meaningful games against the Houston Rockets.