With the San Antonio Spurs holding a 2-0 lead over the Memphis Grizzlies heading into Game 3 the Western Conference Finals, it seems like an odd time to start questioning them. But after the way they nearly let the last game slip, we can't help but wonder if closing games is a weakness for the mostly veteran squad.
San Antonio had an 18-point lead in the second half of Game 2. Tony Parker was having a career night as far as assists are concerned, and all five starters seemed to be in a nice flow.
As we all know now, the Spurs scored just nine points in the fourth quarter and the Grizzlies were able to force overtime thanks to a short jumper from Mike Conley in the waning seconds.
Memphis was unable to keep that up in the overtime period, though, and San Antonio squeezed its way out of the AT&T Center with its second win of the series.
But before we start trying to blame anyone for San Antonio's near-collapse, let's give credit where it's due. The Grizzlies weren't just handed the game; they found an offensive rhythm with Jerryd Bayless and Conley on the court and limited the Spurs to just four field goals in the final period.
That being said, giving up 33 points in one quarter and scoring just nine in the next is an obvious failure by any team. It doesn't matter if we're talking about the Miami Heat or the Charlotte Bobcats; that's an embarrassing two quarters of basketball.
In a way, that near-implosion gave me flashbacks to last season, when San Antonio gave up its 2-0 lead in the Western Conference Finals to the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Spurs couldn't bounce back after straight losses in Oklahoma City in Games 3 and 4, and the end result could really only be called a six-game sweep for the Thunder.
One of the most necessary qualities in a championship-caliber team is their ability to close out games, and obviously series for that matter. So for the Spurs—a team that won three titles from 2003-07 with a similar core of players—to struggle in that area last year, it raised a red flag.
Just look at the 2011 Miami Heat for an example of a team that hadn't yet learned how to close out games.
The Heat found themselves with a 15-point lead over the Dallas Mavericks with just six minutes remaining in Game 2 of the NBA Finals. A win would've given them a 2-0 lead and a stranglehold on the series, but Dallas rallied, evened the series and eventually won the title in six games.
The next season, the Heat figured themselves out and ended up finishing off the Thunder for the championship in just five games. They closed those NBA Finals with four straight wins.
So was Game 2 against Memphis evidence that another series collapse is a possibility, or have the Spurs learned from last season?
San Antonio's core (Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili) has been together for a decade now and have gone the distance before. Such a tight foundation of players is a huge advantage over the Grizzlies and whomever the Spurs could face in the NBA Finals. No need to worry about those guys.
It's the more recent additions to the team who are likely still learning the increased difficulty of playoff basketball. Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter, Danny Green and even Boris Diaw just don't know what it takes to win like their veteran teammates do.
However, there are some signs indicating that the Spurs are getting better in close-out situations.
Sure, they gave up an eight-point lead to the Golden State Warriors in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals, but they can boast a 16-point comeback in just over four minutes in Game 1 of that series as well.
We can talk about a killer instinct like it's an actual quality that players and teams can have, and sometimes that's definitely the case. Michael Jordan had a killer instinct; that's not really debatable.
But sometimes when things like San Antonio's near-collapse against the Grizzlies happen, they're just incidents where one team gets the better of the other. Like we saw in the Spurs-Warriors series, these can really go either way.
And really, what matters most about Game 2 is that the Grizzlies didn't come all the way back; San Antonio finished them off in overtime.
So given the Spurs' veteran leadership and a seemingly increased ability to overcome surges of momentum, a possible Western Conference finals collapse and a repeat of last season is definitely in the cards; it's just less likely to get dealt.
Along with the additional year of experience under the young players' belts, the Grizzlies are also a much less threatening team than last year's Thunder. Aside from the fact that there's not a Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook in their ranks, San Antonio's advantage on offense just seems to outweigh Memphis' advantage on defense.
The Spurs have given themselves a great chance of making it to the NBA Finals, at which point it seems they can depend on the reputation of the old guard to keep the less experienced players going.
Just so long as Gregg Popovich has his reliable veterans playing up to that reputation and not faltering down the stretch.