You'd hardly know the San Antonio Spurs were a high-flying finesse team after the way they closed out Game 2 of the 2013 Western Conference Finals against the Memphis Grizzlies Tuesday night.
The Spurs were up by as many as 18 points in the third quarter and 14 in the fourth. Tony Parker appeared poised to challenge the NBA playoff record for assists in a game, with 16 dimes through the first three frames. All five of San Antonio's starters had already scored in double figures while helping to hold the Grizzlies well under 40 percent from the field.
Then, the wheels came off the wagon, and the Spurs found themselves on the brink of blowing a crucial contest at home. Over the last 8:10 of regulation, San Antonio missed all but one of its 12 attempts from the floor (including an ugly fadeaway by Tim Duncan at the end of the game), turned the ball over four times, and racked up six fouls—four of which came on the same possession.
Not that the Grizzlies played any prettier. Zach Randolph had himself another forgettable game. He had just two points at the half and (once again) struggled to get his shot off from among San Antonio's trees. Tony Allen airballed his fair share of shots, as did Jerryd Bayless, who clanked a three off the backboard in the closing seconds of overtime.
In fact, only two Memphis players (Quincy Pondexter and Keyon Dooling) managed to hit at least half of their shots.
And those two combined for all of nine shots.
But ugly is the way Memphis has long preferred to play. The Grizzlies sport the lowest effective field-goal percentage of any team that's participated in these playoffs. During the regular season, they played at the second-slowest pace, tallied the third-worst effective field-goal percentage and ranked among the bottom 10 in assists per game. When things went sour in San Antonio, Memphis reverted to its signature, muck-making ways and managed to force overtime as a result.
The thing is, San Antonio has a long, storied history of not only playing unattractive basketball but also riding such a style all the way to the top. With Tim Duncan as the anchor, the Spurs fashioned their four-title dynasty around a stifling, fundamentally sound defense and a deliberate offense that grounded out buckets.
The other thing is, these Spurs are still entirely capable of succeeding under such circumstances if need be. When fastbreak-fueling turnovers are hard to come by and the shots aren't falling and the pick-and-roll isn't generating the looks that it normally does, San Antonio can still count on its ability to stop the opposition.
They can also count on Timmy to come through in the clutch, as he did on Tuesday night. Duncan scored six of San Antonio's eight points in overtime, including a crucial bucket off an offensive board that opened up after Marc Gasol switched onto Tony Parker in the pick-and-roll.
Basketball fans have been treated to such vintage Duncan all season, and Game 2 was no different. He finished the evening with about as stuffed a stat line as you'll ever see from a 37-year-old: 17 points, nine rebounds, three assists, four blocks and two steals in 31 minutes.
For all of the work that the Spurs have done to reorganize themselves around Parker's particular talents, the Big Fundamental remains the rock upon which San Antonio leans in times like these. He anchors their defense and protects the rim, even though he can no longer move and leap as well as he once did. He bails them out with big buckets, like a rusty but reliable safety valve.
Duncan can play a beautiful brand of basketball (as the game was meant to be played) but he is just as comfortable down in the proverbial dirt. He's won nearly a handful of championships that way without apology, even as so much of the basketball-watching public once turned on San Antonio for being slow, boring and ugly.
The Spurs are no longer that squad. They play fast, pass the ball and score at an elite rate. Tony Parker is their best player and leader, with young guns like Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Tiago Splitter taking their rightful place on Gregg Popovich's decorated mantle of raw prospects-turned-pivotal pieces.
But lurking deep within San Antonio's soul are the vestiges of a team that can (and sometimes does) win sans aesthetics. That will always be the case, so long as Timmy and Tony and Manu Ginobili are still lacing 'em up as a trio.
It's that very versatility that has propelled the Spurs to this point, allowing them to squash the Los Angeles Lakers, outlast the upstart Golden State Warriors, and now beat the Memphis Grizzlies at their own game.
To be sure, the Spurs aren't without their weaknesses. They don't have a ton of size and have been known to play fast and loose with the ball at times. They'll be hard-pressed to pummel the Grizzlies in Memphis the way they did in San Antonio if such sloppy play becomes the order of the day.
Then again, the Spurs don't seem to mind playing ugly basketball. If that's what it takes to win this series and advance to the NBA Finals for the first time since 2007, then you can be sure they'll do it.
After all, they've done it before.
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