The Grizzlies had been here before.
After falling behind two games to none in the first round of the playoffs against the Clippers, first by losing big in Game 1 and then by losing at the buzzer in Game 2, Memphis learned what it would take to crawl out of that hole and make the necessary adjustments by reclaiming its strength in the next two games of the series via home court advantage.
To open Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals facing a similar 2-0 deficit against the Spurs, the Grizzlies came out with the energy and aggression necessary to knock their opponent on their heels, on the way to jumping out to a first quarter lead of as many as 18 points.
But this veteran Spurs team knows that each game is a marathon as opposed to a sprint, and San Antonio was able to weather the early storm by coming back with a balanced and sustained methodical attack to force the game into overtime, where the Spurs eventually prevailed 104-93 to take a commanding three games to none lead in the series.
The Memphis attack was as formidable as it was blistering to start, where the Grizzlies forced seven turnovers inside of the game’s first seven minutes. The Grizzlies went up 16-5 to open the game, and in a rare moment of visible frustration, Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich subbed out all five members of his starting lineup with his team trailing by 11 just 7:07 into the game.
It didn’t help much initially, as Memphis extended its lead before the quarter was through. But after the initial burst wore off, the Spurs began to play their game, and erased almost all of the lead before halftime, thanks to Tony Parker and Tim Duncan playing an efficient brand of offense, while the Spurs defensively limited the Grizzlies to just 30.4 percent shooting in the second period.
The teams played largely even in the second half, but once we got to the overtime session, it was all Spurs.
San Antonio played with a precision and confidence offensively in the extra frame that Memphis was simply unable to match. The Spurs attacked and expected to score on every possession, while the Grizzlies seemed to hope they could defend well enough to extend the game, while scoring only when absolutely necessary. That was the reason the Spurs were able to put up 18 points in five minutes to seal the victory, while the Grizzlies, as they did for most of the game, struggled to score with any sense of ease.
Memphis hung its hat on the “grit and grind” label all season long, but we know now that more than anything else, that was simply a code for “smoke and mirrors.” It was a fun way of saying that while less talented, Memphis would somehow drag its opponents down to its level, and use its defense to slug out a grimy possession-by-possession based contest in hopes that the style and not the substance would wear down most opponents.
It worked for much of the season, and was especially effective in the playoffs until this point. But the Grizzlies have stalled against a Spurs team that values offensive execution above all else.
It’s true that Memphis has been here before, but they haven’t faced a team anywhere close to the quality of the Spurs in these playoffs; the Clippers were flawed, and the Thunder were at less than full strength. Now facing a deficit of 3-0 in the series, the Grizzlies are just a game away from seeing their magical run come to an end at the hands of a team that displays true grit on the court, instead of simply printing it on a t-shirt.