The deed is done. Even the slightest doubts of the Grizzlies’ prowess in their first round series have been put to rest, as have the revered San Antonio Spurs. Memphis completed their seemingly improbable upset by dominating in the most probable ways; the Grizz scrambled, posted up, defended, rebounded, and scrapped their way to a 99-91 Game 6 victory, the final fantastic performance of their 4-2 upset of top-seeded San Antonio.
The momentum of Game 6 seemed to shift in favor of whichever team controlled the glass. Initially, the Grizzlies worked the offensive boards while limiting the Spurs to a single opportunity. Those two aspects of their first quarter play were crucial to forming an early cushion, and would later come into play when the Grizzlies started to create separation — however slight — from their opponents in pursuit. The Spurs had their moments, though; whether due to fatigue or just a lack of effort on Memphis’ part, San Antonio made a push in the second and hung around in the third due to their competition on the glass. It couldn’t last. Not with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol bullying their way into prime rebound position. Not with Shane Battier darting around the court collecting more boards than all but two of the Spurs. Memphis outscored San Antonio in each of the quarters in which they held the rebounding advantage, and while that may be implicit (fewer points usually indicate more misses, and more misses beget more opportunities to rebound), the Grizzlies’ effort to control the boards was clearly explicit.
Rebounding was only a portion of Randolph’s contribution, though. His play in this game and this series is the reason why the Grizzlies are the toast of the league at present; when he hasn’t been dominating the glass, Randolph has been scoring like a legitimate superstar, and the consistency of his point production provided a steady pillar for Memphis’ surge. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili cut into the Grizzlies’ lead repeatedly over the game’s final minutes, but Randolph never relented. He backed down Antonio McDyess. He hit turnaround jumpers over outstretched arms. He converted the kinds of shots usually reserved for the league’s true elite, a distinction which Randolph creeps closer toward with every performance like this one. His production is unquestionable, and now his résumé includes the toppling of a conference power despite being in a position of the greatest seeding disadvantage.
Gasol wasn’t quite as overtly punishing as Randolph, but his ability to exploit Tim Duncan on both ends of the court throughout the series has been eye-opening. Duncan’s decline over the last few seasons has been evident, but Gasol dominated their individual matchup to a degree that would surprise even Gasol’s greatest advocates. The box score only puts Gasol at an advantage of three rebounds and one turnover while merely matching Duncan’s point total, but his defensive presence removed an invaluable failsafe from San Antonio’s offensive plans. Duncan’s post and face-up game were both taken away, as Gasol’s size, length, and defensive acumen put him in an optimal position to contest at all times. Neutralizing Duncan doesn’t shut down the Spurs offense in itself, but it gives the Grizzlies’ team defense the opportunity it needs to swarm ball handlers and attack passing lanes. Duncan may have been Plan C, but removing him as an option puts all the more pressure on Plans A, B, and D. Manu Ginobili (A), Tony Parker (B), and the Spurs’ supporting cast (D) were never able to fully compensate.
The Spurs competed. They fought hard until the very end, and if not for Randolph’s unspeakable might, they likely could have ushered in the hope and potential salvation of a Game 7. Yet they didn’t, and as much as our natural basketball instincts wish to heap praise on the Grizzlies, it’s worth remembering that the Spurs lost this series. They came in with the second-best record in basketball and home court advantage against any Western Conference opponent and were dropped in the first round. I’m honestly not quite sure what the word “choke,” means anymore (the term has been recast and bastardized to the point that it no longer holds meaning), but by most conventional definitions of the word as I understand them, the Spurs did no such thing. They did, however, lose a series in which they were considered a sure favorite, and failed to capitalize on their strong regular season performance. San Antonio remains a tremendous organization and a quality team, but they disappointed in this series with their inefficacy.
In this championship-or-bust playoff framework, it’s not enough to just show up and play hard, even when boasting a supposedly superior roster. San Antonio worked, but they didn’t execute consistently enough; they failed to convert shots at the rim and beyond the arc, and had no answer for the Randolph-Gasol tandem, nor the capacity to match the wild card offensive contributions of Mike Conley, O.J. Mayo, Tony Allen, and Sam Young. Gregg Popovich and the Spurs are obviously still worthy of our respect, but Pop was out-coached and his team was out-played. The Spurs aren’t going home after the first round because of some fluke, but because the Grizzlies bested them — they of the No. 1 seed, the second-best offense in the league, and the fourth-best regular season margin of victory — in a legitimate measure of basketball worth.