For two nights in San Antonio, the Grizzlies' starting lineup, which had been brilliant defensively in the regular season and again in the first two rounds of the playoffs, suddenly couldn't get a stop. But at the outset of Game 3, that unit's defensive impact returned, more ferocious than ever. The Grizzlies scored their first two baskets off of steals, building an 18-point first quarter lead off seven steals (five from Mike Conley alone) that fed into eight Spurs turnovers and defense that hounded the Spurs into 4-19 shooting when they were able to control the ball.
But it couldn't last.
“We came out with great energy. We got steals, we were running. We just couldn't sustain,” Lionel Hollins said after the game. “We subbed and tried to get some rest and we didn't get production out of some of the people on the bench and then we couldn't rev it back up when we got back to our starters.”
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich pulled all five of his starters in disgust seven minutes into the quarter.
“Those guys looked like they'd been asleep since Tuesday,” Popovich said.
Coming out for the second quarter, Popovich made a key adjustment, moving rugged 6'7” small forward Kawhi Leonard onto Conley. Leonard's size threw Conley off, leading to turnover on the Grizzlies first two possessions and prompting a 7-0 Spurs run to open the quarter. From there, the methodical, veteran team that had frustrated the Grizzlies for so much of Games 1 and 2 was back.
Tony Parker went into attack mode and the Spurs started exploiting mismatches and crevices in the Grizzlies defense. Even with the Grizzlies finally keeping the Spurs' three-point shooters in check (6-18), the Spurs instead worked their pick-and-roll offense for a series of barely contested shots in the paint. After shooting 21% in the first quarter, the Spurs shot 59% the rest of the game, with nearly half of their attempts (31 of 63) coming in the restricted area, where the Spurs shot 77%.
When the Spurs came from 18 down in the late first to build a six-point lead early in the fourth, it felt like they were taking control of the game. But the Grizzlies had an answer. Conley rescued a failing possession with a three as the shot clock expired and Quincy Pondexter answered from the corner a minute later, eight seconds after re-entering the game. From there, in the final 8:08 of regulation, there were seven ties and nine lead changes, with neither team leading by more than two points.
In the final minutes of regulation, Tony Allen made a series of big plays, but also missed free throws (2-4 down the stretch; the Grizzlies were 10-18 on the game). And Popovich spotted something amiss with the Grizzlies defense, calling consecutive plays for Manu Ginobili — who was being fronted by Pondexter — at the rim. The Spurs got four points from the two possessions, fouling out Pondexter along the way. And when the Grizzlies couldn't score on their final attempt — a baseline drive from Conley, after Marc Gasol declined to attack Spurs' center Tiago Splitter with seven seconds to go — they went into overtime without their best floor spacer.
From there the Spurs rolled. Perhaps Tony Allen should have spent more time on Parker in the game (and Jerryd Bayless none at all). And perhaps Allen sitting to start overtime — and for all but 49 seconds of the final period — helped the Spurs get into their offense too easily.
But the Spurs are proving pretty conclusively to be the better team in this series.
The Grizzlies are two shots away from being up 2-1, but that's all a mirage. The Spurs have won 8 of 12 quarters in this series and have dominated both overtimes. Their offense, aside from a few sputtering stretches, has systematically undone the Grizzlies' vaunted defense. On the other end, the Spurs have rendered Zach Randolph (14 points on 5-14 shooting) a relative non-factor as a scorer and punished the Grizzlies' lack of shooting.
Given these problems, the Grizzlies needed mammoth performances from Conley and Gasol and got merely decent ones, a combined 36 points and 9 assists on 39 field-goal attempts. And now they find themselves one game away from an offseason of big questions surrounding some of the franchise's key personalities.
For the Spurs, there's Duncan (24-10-5), in a resurgent All-NBA season at age 37, one game away from a return to the Finals, what would be his first since 2007 and fifth overall. There's Parker (26-4-5), never quite considered the game's best lead guard, making the case with a dominant series. And there's Ginobili (19-7-5), clearly on the downside of a great career, but rallying for a near-vintage performance.
The first quarter Saturday night might have been as electric as any in Grizzlies franchise history. The fourth as tense. But, in overtime, that tension didn't recede; it deflated. The moon on Monday — with a season on the line but the prospects decidedly dim — will be a mystery.