AT&T CENTER–For a team as seasoned as the San Antonio Spurs, a season opener is everything and nothing all at once. A shortened summer is not, perhaps, enough time to heal all wounds; but it's enough to mend beaten bodies and approach yet another year with a renewed and fresh perspective.
The heartache and bruises of an 82-game season and extended playoff run have faded, but the knowledge accumulated over the course of the Spurs' Finals run remain intact, creating something to continue building off of.
"We've benefited from corporate knowledge for a while, and a lot of that has to do with continuity," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "Trying to keep player in place and not having to do too many trades, not having to do too many signings. Just important ones that fit in. Timmy, Manu, and Tony have been special in that regard. We've been able to put people around them. Continuity allows us so be pretty consistent."
The Spurs opened their season with a Kawhi Leonard corner three, picking up right where they dropped the Memphis Grizzlies off in the Western Conference Finals last year. Manipulating the Grizzlies' defense to isolate Zach Randolph on a side pick and roll with Tiago Splitter, Parker turned the corner, forcing a switch. As he circled around past the baseline and back out to the wing with Randolph trailing, the attention drawn provided just enough space for Leonard on a quick catch and shoot.
Everything else, of course, started with their defense. Once again the Spurs packed the paint, fronting Randolph and Gasol in the post while swarming and crashing rebounds with weakside defenders showing no regard whatsoever for the Grizzlies perimeter shooting.
Continuing a trend from a year ago, the Spurs made Randolph (two points, seven rebounds) a complete non-factor, keeping the Grizzlies in check while their own offense sputtered through a rough start (Duncan and Parker began a combined 1-9). It took a full 12 minutes for their muscles to catch up to their muscle memory. And then?
"And then Patty Mills happened," Grizzlies coach David Joerger said.
It started with a trickle, Manu Ginobili turning the corner on a high pick and roll and finding a weird passing angle for a Mills corner three. On their next possession, Mills calmly dribbled behind a high screen for another. And two minutes later Mills broke free at the top of the key again off a dribble hand-off from Jeff Ayres for a third three-pointer, foul, and primal yell from the Spurs' backup point guard.
"Tony gave me a few words before the game that really gave me a boost of confidence," Mills said. "At the end of the day it's about remembering who I am and how I play.
"My job is to go out and play to the best of my ability and give Tony a good break on the sidelines."
The Spurs second-unit, perhaps the only aspect of the Spurs still getting accustomed to each other with Mills, Marco Belinelli, and Jeff Ayres providing new looks to the rotation, provided some quality minutes in the second quarter as the Spurs outscored Memphis 30-7.
No longer weighed down by a season of contusions, Ginobili reminded how good he can be on a pair of fresh legs. In 24 minutes of play, Ginobili provided 12 points, five assists, four rebounds, and two steals. But the numbers matter less than the means in which he produced them. Ginobili split defenders and turned the corner on hedges, finishing at the rim or collapsing the defense to find cutters and open shooters.
"The whole second team did a good job in generating offense and really keeping up the pace and getting us going," Popovich said. "The second team did a real good job offensively in the first half. Not such a good job defensively in the second half."
The Spurs extended their lead by as much as 21 points, before nearly giving it all away. It started with a Duncan injury, taking an elbow to the chest from Tony Allen early in the third quarter that would take him out of the game with a chest contusion.
From there, the Grizzlies, working with largely the same roster but a different coaching staff trying to incorporate new things, began to chip into the lead. They did so by moving bodies and ball, sending their guards through a maze of screens, getting them the ball on the move in open space, which in turn created attacking lanes that led to open threes and easy drop offs for big men at the rim.
"That's how we need to play. Bang, bang, bang–be in attack mode and being aggressive," Joerger said. "I want us to get to the rim. I don't want us to stop at 17 feet for jump shots. When the ball moves, the energy on our team goes up. We move, we cut harder, we screen harder, we rim run harder."
It's a promising mentality for a team that grew stagnant offensively for crippling stretches during the Western Conference Finals, and the gap that remains between the two teams in terms of execution down the stretch was apparent in every answer the Spurs provided for each Grizzlies run.
There was Kawhi Leonard (14 points, seven rebounds, two blocked shots) blocking a shot at the rim and pushing the ball in transition for an easy Splitter dunk. Or Danny Green, setting his feet for a huge three-pointer when the Grizzlies cut the lead to five (the closest they would get again).
Between the Parker three-pointers, Boris Diaw aggressively seeking catch-and-shoot opportunities, Kawhi Leonard's aggressiveness, and Duncan's injury, there is a wealth of information to extrapolate from just this one opening night. So much so, that trying to find enough room for all of it that would fit inside a reasonable attention span seems overwhelming.
Fortunately, the Spurs have the one man who can sum it all up and put it in proper perspective. To remind us that tonight was everything and nothing.
"We won," Popovich said. "We have 81 more games."
God, it's great to be back.