NBA Playoffs 2011: San Antonio Spurs Save a Season and a Reputation
SAN ANTONIO--Zach Randolph delivered a celebratory smooch of death, as if commanding an anxious, packed AT&T Center crowd to shut up for good.
His fallaway jumper with 14 seconds remaining all but sent a No. 1 seed packing on its home court. Then, Manu Ginobili and Gary Neal drilled a pair of gutsy, contested long-distance shots that provoked bedlam. A sensational season on the brink would last five minutes longer.
A mandated, funereal silence became a spontaneous, benediction rumble. From heartbreak to exultation, a game turned and maybe a series did too.
If this was indeed the final home date of the Tim Duncan era, it will forever live in Spurs lore. San Antonio's veterans know Friday's circumstances will favor Memphis. If Mike Conley and his teammates can laugh off the scouting report in a road closeout game, the Grizzlies can win once more at FedEx Forum.
Eight teams have rallied from a 3-1 deficit. The rest of those wannabe comeback kids faltered for a reason. A squad leads by that margin, on most occasions, because it is the better one.
Gregg Popovich's postseason philosophy: the better team always wins a seven-game series. The Grizzlies, at times, looked superior Wednesday. Desperation works both ways.
If the Spurs stole an overtime victory with healthy doses of defiance, persistence and windfall, won't the Grizzlies do the same with another rare sellout crowd behind them?
Don't they know, as the Golden State Warriors did in 2007, that Game 6 is a last, best shot to extinguish a contender's new flicker of hope. Randolph, Marc Gasol and the other unlikely vanquishers do not want a Game 7 in the house of a four-time champion.
Why not now? A 61-win team that triumphed 26 times in the opponent's building just needs 48 more minutes of the same recipe that cooked in Wednesday's thriller.
The NBA will not need to suspend a Memphis player for throwing a punch. Jason Terry was not there to threaten anyone's family jewels. Grizzlies Coach Lionel Hollins might compare the ending though, to getting lolloped in that area with a tire iron.
Is a former prize fighter on life support ready to take another whack at preserving its faint title contender status?
If the Spurs withstood a gripping knockout effort from an eighth seed, maybe a Friday conquest is not impossible. The first three finishes amounted to coin flips. A Shane Battier triple here. A Randolph three there.
This isn't 2007 part deux. San Antonio did not draw a fragile, fraudulent Denver squad in the opening round. The Spurs figured they could clamp down on Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony. The two iso scorers' parsimonious agendas and aloofness made those Nuggets an easy takedown.
Hollins refuses to let his Grizzlies embrace braggadocio.
The toughest foe on that championship path was easier to deflate than a blow-up swimming pool. Memphis looks nothing like Phoenix. When Hollins promised after an overtime loss his players would not drown in their sorrows, there was reason to believe him.
Steve Nash and Amar'e Stoudemire wallowed in their own pity party. The latter resorted to calling the Spurs a "dirty" outfit.
The Grizzlies respond to devastating screens and powerful picks by jumping back into the mud pit. Filthy? Hollins' squad knows no other way.
The comparisons to the 67-win Mavericks, though, should cease for now. Avery Johnson approached that series with a suspicious gameplan, and his franchise star was still trying to outrun the Finals collapse that blanketed him.
He began that postseason by yanking Erick Dampier from his starting unit. He opted to go small against a helter-skelter opponent that could not compete any other way.
The Warriors outclassed the Mavs from the start. The outcomes of Game 1, 3 and 6 were never in doubt in breezy fourth quarters.
Berserk Golden State secured its playoff berth by taking its regular-season finale. Don Nelson, the architect of those Mavericks, knew where the top seed's self-destruct button was located. He pushed it freely, whenever he wanted.
Popovich prepared a checklist this altercation that 28 other coaches would have endorsed. He didn't panic and dismantle his starting lineup. He implored his team to keep the rebounding war close. He wanted Memphis to use lots of clock and force jump shots. He trusted Antonio McDyess to make Randolph work for every basket.
He had to hope that was enough. Until Wednesday, it wasn't.
The Spurs did not plan on Conley sinking 16-footer after 16-footer. Nor did they anticipate Tony Allen's stroke would match his flapping gums.
The attention paid to Randolph and Gasol left Battier unattended. If the Grizzlies emerge victorious, his timely makes will have made a difference.
An undrafted, 26-year-old rookie plucked from Spanish League club Unicaja Malaga, though, ensured this defensive-minded circus would again set up a tent on the banks of the Mississippi.
Randolph swished a pair of freebies with 1.7 seconds left in regulation. A stepback thrust from Ginobili had been downgraded to a two moments earlier. With a season on the line, Popovich called Neal's number, and the sharpshooting rook delivered.
Cue the mayhem.
What happened after that might save the Spurs on a few more late April evenings. Tony Parker found his jump shot, San Antonio rediscovered a defensive swagger present throughout much of the first half and precision execution resuscitated a reputation.
Maybe Parker's ostentation returned enough that he can outgun Conley for a second consecutive affair.
Maybe George Hill figured out a way to attack Grievis Vasquez.
Maybe Tiago Splitter plays more than Hamed Haddadi on Friday, and maybe his size alters a few shot attempts and contributes a few pick-and-roll finishes.
Can Randolph improve his accuracy (10-of-17 from the field) or his totals (24 points, 11 rebounds)?
A Friday win for San Antonio changes everything.
Isn't that all the Spurs needed to tell themselves heading to a Game 6 at Dallas in 2006? That squad, of course, was a defending champion. This one is trying to get back to that level.
Duncan cannot perform as he did then. Father Time has zapped him worse than plantar fasciitis ever did.
Still, it is not outrageous to ask such an accomplished playoff paladin to do better than 13 points and 12 rebounds.
Is it unreasonable to request another undaunted Ginobili binge?
The Spurs are 0-4 at FedEx Forum this season, but they came close twice. Aren't they due for a breakthrough?
Ginobili, at the podium after his 33-point masterpiece, was in no mood to channel Rudy Tomjanovich. The Rockets' coach famously offered a tsk-tsk after Houston snatched its second straight NBA crown. Don't ever underestimate the heart of a champion.
"I just got lucky," Ginobili said. "That's the truth."
He offered the same assessment of his team.
"We were very close to being on vacation right now."
Battier called the Spurs "vampires." Are they ready to suck the blood and life from Beale Street?
A blowout loss might not have fazed Memphis. The Grizzlies could have regrouped, as the Spurs did after a Game 5 whipping in Dallas last year and flipped the script.
A tight victory, instead, should remind San Antonio it can perform in late-game situations against an eighth seed that is anything but.
Mavericks part deux? When Baron Davis puckered up at Oracle Arena, a jump-shot happy Dallas squad lacking the proper June pedigree fell. The Mavericks needed to rally from 20 down just to send the series back to the Bay Area.
Randolph's goodbye kiss was not enough for Memphis. It will take more than that to kill the Spurs.
Maybe a stake and 1,000 cloves of garlic will do the trick.
The Alamo City's succubus revived its hopes with a pair of shots that sent Randolph a stern message.
No, you shut up.
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