The Spurs simply refuse to give up on their dream of keeping the playoff streak alive. In their second game of the Orlando Bubble, they beat the Grizzlies 108-106 in a nail-biter behind another great collective performance to claim the ninth spot in the standings.
In a ballsy decision, Gregg Popovich stuck to his guns and maintained a small starting lineup despite facing an opponent with two legitimate big men. The gambit paid off early on, as the Spurs seemed to be more comfortable than the Grizzlies with the trade-offs and mismatches involved. San Antonio played fast, moved the ball and let it fly from outside when open, while Memphis struggled to deal with a defense that made up for its lack of length with energy and quickness. Whenever Jaren Jackson Jr. tried to post up, help came to force him into tough passes. The guards, especially Dejounte Murray, helped deny second opportunities by contributing to the rebounding efforts.
There were moments in which the Grizzlies seemed to remember that Jonas Valanciunas could punish the Spurs inside, especially once Jakob Poeltl got into early foul trouble, but for most of the first half San Antonio looked in control. Part of it was simply due to the lack of discipline on both ends from a young Memphis team, but the steadying play of Derrick White, some hot shooting and a fantastic effort by Poeltl on defense contributed greatly to San Antonio leading for most of the first 24 minutes. At no point did it feel like the Spurs were going to pull away, but there was also never the dread of a big, inevitable Grizzlies run. For a team cobbled together at the last minute and with a myriad absences, the Silver and Black looked surprisingly steady.
Things got more chaotic as the minutes went on in the second half. The Spurs continued to look good on offense, but an early fourth foul in the third quarter by Poeltl put them in a precarious position on the other end. They initially made enough shots to keep Memphis at bay and even expanded their lead, but the Grizzlies kept chipping away with drive after drive. If enough outside shots would have fallen, they could have taken control before Poeltl returned. Fortunately they didn’t, and once Poeltl was back the defense improved while the offense continued to click, giving San Antonio a nine-point lead going into the final quarter.
The ups and downs only got more pronounced in the fourth period. Just as it looked like the Spurs were going to run away with the win after a Dejounte Murray-fueled run, Poeltl committed his fifth foul. Once again San Antonio initially survived thanks to its offense and Memphis inability to just play to its strengths, but after a while the push inevitably came. An 8-0 run got the Grizzlies back within one possession, but the Spurs reacted with one of their own. Ja Morant almost singlehandedly prevented the score from going out of hand while DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay tried to take over late, like they did in the game against the Kings. The table was set for a dramatic ending, and fans were not disappointed.
DeRozan missed two clutch free throws with 13 seconds to go and the Spurs up three, only to see Jackson Jr. hit an insane three-pointer over Gay to tie the game. In the next offensive trip DeRozan was once again fouled, but this time he hit both and Jackson couldn’t repeat his heroics on a desperation three with one second left. allowing the Spurs to escape with a key victory.
- Once again the bulk of DeRozan’s points came in the second half, and once again Gay hit a big three-pointer in the fourth quarter. The veterans are letting the kids get the spotlight but are there to close the games out, which is comforting.
- One of the most curious aspects of an already enigmatic player like DeRozan is his struggle to hit clutch free throws. He made the last two but missed the ones that would have iced the game, which is not an uncommon occurrence.
DeRozan's struggles with clutch free throws are just bizarre. This season he shot 47 percent in the last minute of games in which the Spurs were ahead or behind by five points or fewer.— Jeje Gomez (@JejeGomezNBA) August 2, 2020
- Murray, White, and Lonnie Walker IV combined for 17 three-point attempts. As important as their defense and their stretches of dominant on-ball offensive play have been, the most encouraging sign about the future of those three is that they finally seem unafraid to let it fly from outside.
- Poeltl’s foul trouble almost doomed the Spurs. It’s something to keep in mind going forward. The Spurs rely on him too much. They have been allowing a predictably huge amount of points in the paint in general, but opponents seem to smell blood when Drew Eubanks (who’s been doing better than expected but is clearly overmatched) is the last line of defense.
- Rookie Keldon Johnson once again gave the Spurs some good minutes. His physicality is something the team has lacked all season. At one point he out muscled Valanciunas for an offensive board and layup. I can’t wait to see how he looks next season, especially if he can develop a three-pointer.
- Patty Mills lives! After essentially being an assistant coach for the scrimmages and the first game, Mills saw minutes due to the absences of Bryn Forbes and Marco Belinelli. His 13 minutes and 10 points were needed and Patty delivered.
- The Grizzlies should have won this game, probably. They had a huge height advantage and actually got some contributions off the bench, namely from Grayson Allen and Brandon Clarke. They are just extremely young, undisciplined, and surprisingly bad on the boards, so they simply couldn’t take advantage of a matchup that seemed favorable for them. Hopefully they will continue to drop winnable games, for the sake of the Spurs’ playoff chances.
Next up: vs. the 76ers on Monday
Another extremely big team awaits the Spurs. It’s hard to be optimistic about that matchup, but this team keeps surprising, so no one should count them out.