On the final evening of a 61-21 regular season in which many insist the San Antonio Spurs have been more lucky than good, it fits that a misfortune thunderstorm hammered Gregg Popovich’s squad.
Manu Ginobili pinned his arm between Grant Hill and teammate Tim Duncan, and in a freak first-quarter play, fell to the floor and bent his right elbow backwards. The initial diagnosis: a hyper-extension, according to the San Antonio Express-News. A Thursday MRI revealed a sprain that could cost Ginobili at least Sunday’s playoff opener.
The Spurs, perhaps rendering a Wednesday dress rehearsal meaningless and weighing Ginobili’s alarming fall all at once, lost the first quarter 27-43. Then a dormant defense awoke, and San Antonio transformed an ABA laugher into an NBA slog.
The inspired second-half rally—accomplished largely by a reserve unit comprised of Danny Green, George Hill, DeJuan Blair, Gary Neal and Matt Bonner—fell short, and the Suns avoided a full-circle sweep with a 106-103 victory.
Neal could not get off a clean look with three seconds remaining. The Spurs’ 21st defeat allowed the Chicago Bulls to seize home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. Chicago, in an early Wednesday affair, survived surprise nemesis New Jersey 97-92. The lone bit of windfall to accompany forfeiting the top seed: Popovich no longer has to answer any questions about a tawdry, mirthful tiebreaker.
Now his Spurs will need to pull more than a name out of a hat.
Kobe Bryant and Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins, though, ruined the Spurs’ mini-streak at the craps table. Bryant’s game-tying triple in Sacramento devastated the hyped Kings and set up the Lakers’ dominant overtime effort.
Hollins, perhaps following some orders, did everything but raise a white flag for his picky Grizzlies. No one can believe Memphis was just resting its starters in L.A., as Popovich did a year ago in Dallas.
The Grizzlies tank job against the Clippers—and it was obvious they were losing on purpose—sent a loud message: we want the Spurs, not the Lakers. Hollins yanked three starters from the lineup, and none of them has a frightful medical history. Matchup preference trumped precaution.
Coaches can get away with treating regular-season finales like early October throwaways when the veterans in question have played 10 years together and each has completed at least three championship runs. And for the record, the San Antonio B-team that lost in Dallas last year still tried to win, just as the cadre of subs almost pulled off a stunner at Staples Center on Tuesday night.
If anyone ever questioned Popovich’s “I’m paranoid” excuse, an accident less than three minutes after tip-off proved his sincerity. Minutes management never strays from the coach’s mind, and he has done everything a human being can this season to avert catastrophe.
It happened anyway.
Ginobili runs through screens a double-figures number of times a game. He was just as likely to sustain the injury Nov. 2, as he was April 13.
Hollins did a tremendous job keeping his troops aligned after the medical staff disclosed Rudy Gay’s shoulder injury would end his season.
Still, the Grizzlies, with much less to lose than the Spurs, could have attacked Wednesday’s contest with more panache and taken their chances with the two-time defending champions.
Didn’t the Oklahoma City Thunder win over much of the NBA-viewing populous by doing just that?
The Grizzlies, unlike the Spurs last year, were picking their opponent more than saving legs, and every careless, non-chalant pass said as much. That Memphis roared back in the fourth quarter, when it decided to give a damn and make the final score more cosmetic, was telling.
This eighth seed, when operating at relative full strength, can inflict more damage than its whimper of a regular-season cessation suggests.
Zach Randolph can stick shots from everywhere, including beyond the arc. He boasts the touch of a 70s soul singer and the power of a thrash-metal group blowing out a PA system. Few low-post defenders, including the Lakers’ vaunted seven-footers, have been able to contain him.
Memphis will employ Randolph as the meat of its offense, but this time the steak might do the cooking. Want to know if Antonio McDyess can still muck it up on the defensive end? Does Tim Duncan have a prayer against his retooled and revitalized counterpart? Will Randolph do anything but lick his chops when Matt Bonner checks him?
The 20-10 machine will impugn the Spurs’ interior defense from the first minute through the series clincher.
Mike Conley, in spurts, has flashed a well-rounded game that promises to keep Parker and George Hill busy. The 23-year-old point guard might finally live up to the franchise’s skyward expectations and that colossal contract.
Tony Allen has become one of the NBA’s peskiest, finest perimeter stoppers. He harangued Kobe Bryant in the previous NBA Finals excursion. His muscular defense forces opponents to help spots and causes much chagrin and rage.
Ginobili will feel Allen every step of the series.
If the Oklahoma State product fails to establish his presence, Hollins can call on a Duke alumnus for an on-demand stop. Shane Battier will exhaust himself chasing Ginobili, Hill and maybe Gary Neal around screens. He’ll sleep later.
Marc Gasol, Pau’s less skilled brother, plays a rugged game that flatters Randolph’s brawn and limitless range.
Sam Young, DeJuan Blair’s teammate at Pittsburgh, has become a vital member of Memphis’ scrappy fraternity. The explosive, disruptive forward has built his curriculum vitae on effort more than endowment.
O.J. Mayo recuperated from the trade that wasn’t and knows how to put the round ball in the basket.
Darrell Arthur, Leon Powe and Greivis Vasquez fit into the Grizzlies’ rough-hewn rotation.
Hollins’ squad began its ascent when it focused its offense less on Gay’s athleticism and more on the Randolph-Gasol post tandem. Memphis survived his absence by doing what it should have the moment sheer size became an on-paper strength.
The Spurs will prepare for a physical skirmish with both apprehension and aplomb.
Tony Parker broke a hand at FedEx Forum in March 2010. He sprained an ankle against the Grizzlies at the AT&T Center in late February.
Ginobili suffered a contusion in this season’s second date at Memphis, when Duncan was already sidelined.
Ask Andrew Bynum if he enjoys playing the Grizzlies in late January.
If Popovich can forget for a moment that his upcoming opponent has sent many foes to the injured list, even if haphazard, he may see another side of this clash that intrigues him.
A coach who loves challenges just caught one in his lap.
The Lakers will crush the shorthanded Hornets in the first-round’s probable sweep. Will it shock anyone if L.A.’s average victory margin is 20? New Orleans sans David West is dead meat ready for a well-done grill job.
Many Spurs followers will curse Kobe and Phil for drawing the Western Conference playoffs’ most suspect entrant. Popovich will instead see an opportunity to sharpen teeth that became dull in March for various reasons.
Duncan’s bothersome ankle sprain was a humongous one.
San Antonio’s two defeats versus Memphis came with either Duncan or Parker out of commission.
A rested-and-refreshed crew will meet the Grizzlies’ stare down with a challenge of their own: You wanted us? You got us.
Assuming Ginobili returns mid-series, the Spurs possess the weapons, moxie and enough experience to sidestep the flame out many pundits have eagerly predicted.
This will not become a replay of the 2007 Mavericks vs. Golden State Warriors series, in which an eighth seed dethroned the top-seeded, reigning conference champs. Don Nelson built the team and the MVP his Warriors embarrassed. Golden State’s 3-0 season sweep was a hint that does not apply here.
Some Dallas players and officials believed no one could derail that 67-win title express. No one in this San Antonio organization will anticipate a rollover. The Spurs veterans know an early exit is possible, and they’ll play like it.
Sunday, then, marks the apex of the Grizzlies' best against the Spurs' best. Anyone who supposes Parker, Ginobili, Duncan and McDyess will handle a playoff series defeat easier than Bryant or Jackson is certifiably nuts.
The defensive rotations will look crisper and sharper. The cuts will come harder and faster. The exigency will bleed through TV screens in homes and sports bars around the country.
Three days after the Grizzlies bellowed an unmistakable epistle in L.A., the Spurs will deliver their own message: You got us.
More lucky than good?
Memphis might not feel as serendipitous when San Antonio yowls its response.