NBA Playoffs: Memphis Grizzlies' Outside Shot Becomes San Antonio Spurs' Torment
Gregg Popovich can first point to the sidelines, where his squad's MVP watched a 101-98 defeat in his Sunday best. Manu Ginobili stewed, fumed and suffered, as a hyperextended right elbow sidelined him in a Game 1 loss the Argentine will believe he could have prevented.
San Antonio's coach will then recall 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009 and 2010. His Spurs lost the playoff opener in each of those years, and though the results that followed were mixed, three of them produced championships.
He'll see missed opportunities, clanged shots and ways to use Tim Duncan more. He'll count on Tony Parker finishing more of his relentless drives to the bucket. He'll hope George Hill locates his perimeter touch and pray that free throws become less of a bugaboo.
Maybe he'll even throw Tiago Splitter a bone and give the 7-foot difference maker a chance to, well, make a difference.
The pleasantries and optimism will end there, and they should. The shorthanded Spurs again blew a late lead and surrendered a horrifying field-goal percentage unheard of in the Duncan era. The frisky Grizzlies connected on 55 percent of their shot attempts.
How Memphis did it is what should trouble Popovich most. Yes, the Grizzlies won the second-half interior battle 24-10, but the ornery opponent stole a postseason road contest another way.
Richard Jefferson and George Hill were wide open. O.J. Mayo wasn't—on either of his elephantine triples.
He pulled up just before the first-quarter horn and drilled a three-pointer with Matt Bonner's hands close enough to deliver a noogie and swished it. He managed similar heroics with the game knotted at 85. George Hill could have plucked a few of Mayo's nose hairs.
Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol also scorched from mid-range. No way do the Grizzlies shoot higher than 50-percent without those contested makes.
Parker and Hill can keep attacking and keeping games close with free-throw trips, but their combativeness will not matter if the Grizzlies roster intends to disregard outstretched arms and tough angles.
Those hits at critical junctures allowed Memphis to stay within striking distance when misfires might have changed Sunday afternoon's complexion. These Grizzlies are confident, and two regular-season wins in the previous month, albeit against the Spurs' sans one or more Big Three members, gives them a justifiable reason.
The way Randolph shrugs after burying a 20-footer should both aggravate and perturb Popovich. Gasol, too, can make defenses pay for leaving him unattended at the top of the key. He did plenty of that Sunday.
When that doesn't work, Randolph can charge at the rim and convert one of his ugly flings. The interior battle was manageable, and Ginobili will create more high-percentage treys and dunks for the trailing Spurs. There is no easy answer, though, for a challenged jump shot that drops through the net.
Lionel Hollins would laugh at that and say the same about Ginobili.
There are other simplistic ways to break down the heart-stopper that put the Spurs in a familiar hole. Parker's 16-footer that might have iced the game instead drew back iron. Moments later, he blew the defensive switch that freed Shane Battier for the go-ahead triple.
Mike Conley outplayed Parker in the first half. He registered the tough, crunch-time assist Parker could not. San Antonio dished just 13 dimes in 48 minutes, a season low.
Parker finished a miserable 4-of-16, and Hill was worse. He made just 2-of-7 attempts.
The rest becomes more difficult to understand. The Spurs won the overall rebounding and second-chance points battles. They netted 47 freebies.
How, then, did they lose?
Those numbers tend to describe a winning outfit. The Spurs, instead, watched the Grizzlies dance around the AT&T Center after surviving one last shot to secure the franchise's first ever playoff victory.
Memphis entered the series 0-12 in postseason play. If a triumph felt for Randolph like "getting a ton off our backs," a loss will pain San Antonio like a dwarf carrying a sack of bricks and steel beams.
Some other final scores from a remarkable, confusing weekend will prevent the Spurs from suffering a collective panic attack.
The L.A. Lakers lost Game 1, at home, to the New Orleans Hornets. The Boston Celtics needed a Ray Allen three-pointer to withstand the New York Knicks' unflinching onslaught. The Indiana Pacers led the top-seeded Chicago Bulls by 10 at the United Center but failed to close the deal. The Miami Heat endured a furious Philadelphia 76ers rally.
Yet, no one selected the Pacers, Hornets or Sixers to pull stunners. USA Today and Charles Barkley are among those who picked the Grizzlies to make history, and Memphis can replicate parts of its game plan New Orleans might not.
Aaron Gray—you read that right—stymied the Lakers' bigs in key moments. Carl Landry outplayed Pau Gasol, who scored just twice from the field.
Pau Gasol did not sport the look of an all-star worried things would not change. Marc Gasol and Randolph can summon the same impudence after a much different result.
Popovich can dissect film until his face turns blue, or some other color, from sleep deprivation. He'll see moments in which better defensive focus or an executed rotation might have altered the outcome on that possession.
A Memphis Commercial Appeal writer was right. Hollins did not owe Duncan an apology or explanation as to why he sat Randolph and others in the final two regular season matches.
Maybe Duncan should say "sorry" for ever suggesting that a tank job to play the Spurs was the wrong move. The Grizzlies got the matchup and the win they wanted.
The Spurs? They'll get Ginobili back Wednesday, and they better hope Mayo's 30-foot heave was an anomaly, not a series omen.
Duncan started with such habitual brilliance. He hammered home three dunks to energize the AT&T Center crowd. He flew past Gasol for a lay-in that suggested 2003 Timmy more than the 2011, aging edition.
The sight had to encourage Popovich and Duncan's teammates. They are accustomed to his postseason ascendancy, and his minutes management portends a slew of efficient outings in this series and beyond.
That second word, "beyond," assumes the Spurs can even the series. Portions of Sunday's nail-biter cast that as a doubtful proposition. Others seem to make a Game 2 victory a certainty.
When Matt Bonner rifled in a pair of wide-open triples late, a No. 1 seed appeared in position to steal the playoff prelude on its home floor. Instead, the Grizzlies kept coming and Battier played the hero/villian role, depending on your rooting interest.
If Memphis misses a few more contested shots, including Mayo's gutsy three-pointer with 5:28 remaining, maybe the game turns another way, and the trio of layups that preceded Battier's clinching field goal never materialize.
A few makes or misses in a playoff atmosphere can change the psychology and pigmentation of a contest up for grabs.
Popovich should review some of those moments and wonder if Ginobili's return will be enough. If it isn't, the coach can point to something else: his vacation plans.
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