AT&T CENTER — Whether looking at a series as a whole, or individual games, the objective in the playoffs remains the same. Make a run, build a lead, and then protect that lead with everything you have.
Through three quarters the San Antonio Spurs appeared to pick up where they left off in Game 1, combining a dominant defensive performance with a precision offense directed by the brilliant play of point guard Tony Parker. For a brief moment in the third quarter, Parker was at the height of his powers, getting into the middle of the Grizzlies defense and reading their schemes and rotations at an elite level.
When Parker wasn’t finding Tiago Splitter at the rim for a layup or dunk, he was kicking out passes to Danny Green or Kawhi Leonard for open three-pointers. Parker scored four points and eight of his career-high 18 assists in a third quarter that saw the Spurs build an 18-point lead.
“He was unbelievable. He started very well,” Manu Ginobili said. “It was a game where he wasn’t particularly good with his shot. He always found somebody, he was very explosive. He kind of ran out of juice a little bit at the end, but he was the Tony Parker that we need and know.”
It almost wasn’t enough.
“Sometimes your worst nightmare is a big lead, and it’s tough to keep leads often times,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “We were fortunate in Game 1 to be able to do it., and tonight we weren’t. They’re a heck of a basketball team and they’re not going to give in.”
The Memphis Grizzlies had every reason to give in after the first half. Both teams came out dragging the other’s offense through the mud in a first quarter that ended in a 15-13 Spurs lead. Both teams are elite defensively, but only the Spurs have enough shooting to generate offense consistently.
Midway through the second quarter Manu Ginobili, drifting towards the baseline, dropped a pinpoint behind the back pass to Tim Duncan, who found Danny Green open in the corner for a three-pointer. After a defensive stop on the other end, Ginobili found Kawhi Leonard in the same corner for a transition three and the Spurs opened up a 41-30 lead.
The Grizzlies would be held scoreless over the next 4:44 until Jerryd Bayless connected on a single free throw with 0.5 seconds remaining in the half. The Spurs defensive intensity was punctuated by a last minute stand in which the Grizzlies missed five point-blank shots at the rim, with the Spurs blocking three of those attempts (two from Duncan, one from Leonard).
“The whole series is kind of about that, what’s going to happen in the paint,” Duncan said. “Their physicality on the boards, their ability to get to that offensive glass and score points in that situation.”
For most of his 31 minutes on the floor Duncan was able to neutralize the Grizzlies interior game. But two quick fouls in the third quarter (his third and fourth) and another one early in the fourth quarter (fifth foul) limited Duncan to just under nine minutes in the third and fourth quarters while the Grizzlies shot 10-14 from the free throw line.
Without Duncan’s defense, and with the Grizzlies scoring at the line, the Spurs transition and early offense opportunities dried up and the Grizzlies defense sunk in. An exhausted Tony Parker shot 2-8 from the field with no assists in the fourth quarter, and the Spurs compounded offensive woes with poor decisions and fouls.
Theatrical as Tony Allen was in drawing a flagrant foul on Manu Ginobili, it was a decision that Ginobili never should have put the referees in a decision to make. The Spurs made poor passes, and ill-timed fouls. It wasn’t enough for Memphis to lock in on defense, the Spurs would have to help them out, and they did.
Down four, the flagrant foul gave the Grizzlies two free throws. Then Mike Conley tied the game. As the game went into overtime it appeared the Spurs were on the brink of a collapse.
Enter Tim Duncan. Duncan was brilliant in overtime, scoring six points and coming up with a crucial block and steal. It wasn’t an ideal win, but ultimately the Spurs are sticking to the plan–make a run, build a lead, and hold onto it for dear life.