A couple of hours before tipoff at FedExForum Monday night, San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich held his usually curt pre-game press conference in the arena's media room. It was longer than Game 3's two-plus minutes, but not by much. He had somewhere to be. A few minutes later, Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins held court in the hallway outside the Grizzlies' locker room, talking for what felt like 20 minutes or more in front of a gradually shrinking gathering of reporters, veering — on request — from questions about this series to back history on his Grizzlies' tenure and his general leadership philosophy, a not-unusual dissertation that, given the circumstances, bordered on the valedictory. Nowhere to go.
Happenstance proved prophetic by the end of the night, as Popovich's Spurs move on to their fifth NBA Finals and the Grizzlies stay home to contemplate an uncertain off-season that only begins with questions about Hollins' future.
If this Grizzlies' postseason was a revenge tour, then perhaps it came to a fitting end. In the opening round, the Grizzlies beat the Los Angeles Clippers, avenging a bitter first-round loss from the previous spring. The next round, the Grizzlies overcame the Oklahoma City Thunder, avenging a second-round loss from two springs prior. And it ended where this team iteration's three-year playoff run began, this time with the Spurs avenging their own 2011 upset first-round loss to the Grizzlies.
Losing to the Spurs in four games after having won eight of their previous nine playoff games was a shock to the team and a bitter reminder for longtime fans of the Grizzlies' playoff past: Before Lionel Hollins was the head coach. Before Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol patrolled the paint. Before Tony Allen transformed NBA culture in Memphis. When sweeps were the norm and they didn't come in the conference finals.
But this was no collapse. The Spurs earned this.
“Nobody expected us to get to this point,” Allen said. “At least we set a mark going into next year.”
A quick answer to why this Grizzlies-Spurs series played out so differently than the Grizzlies' 4-2 win in 2011: Tim Duncan, at age 37, got better; Zach Randolph, at age 31, got worse. Two years ago, Randolph averaged 22 points on 50% shooting against the Spurs. This time: 11 points a game on 30% shooting. The Grizzlies were never going to compete with that kind of production from their All-Star forward.
But it was deeper than that.
In this series, the Spurs' defense did to the Grizzlies' offense what the Grizzlies' defense had done to the Thunder, minus Russell Westbrook, in the prior round: Find the one thing that works and completely take it away. With Marc Gasol (40% shooting) struggling nearly as much as Randolph, the Spurs smothered the Grizzlies inside and dared the team's phalanx of poor-shooting perimeter players to beat them. Only Quincy Pondexter, who had a breakout series with 15 points per game on 50/48 shooting, seemed fully up to the challenge.
But if Pondexter, a role player who averaged 6.4 points per game in the regular season, was the Grizzlies' MVP in this series, that also speaks to the depth of the team's problems against this ruthlessly efficient and composed opponent.
Pondexter led the team with 22 points on 7-11 shooting in this final game, but, by the end, a desperate, nearly spent Grizzlies' offense was relying too much on him. Pondexter was handling the ball and initiating offense when Mike Conley was on the bench. He was trying to create off the dribble. The team was looking for him, and not just on wide-open spot-ups. Down by six with just over three minutes to play, Gasol rumbled down the lane and passed up an inside look to kick it to Pondexter for a covered three. Suddenly, the Grizzlies were treating Pondexter like the player they'd always wanted Rudy Gay to be.
The Grizzlies gave it all they had in this one, on the court and on the sideline, where Hollins made sharp, necessary second-half adjustments — bringing Pondexter in early, limiting Tayshaun Prince, and tightening the rotation to keep back-up point guard Keyon Dooling on the bench. Perhaps making similar adjustments earlier might have extended the series, but it's hard to believe anything would have changed the ultimate outcome.
Not the way these Spurs executed on both ends. The way Popovich and/or his team sniffed out and snuffed out any hint of Grizzlies' momentum. And the way Tony Parker just kept coming.
And it was Parker who consistently thwarted Grizzlies' comeback attempts Monday night. When the Grizzlies cut the Spurs' lead to three with 9:38 to go, Parker answered with a three-pointer, his only in the game. When the Grizzlies cut it from eight to six a couple of minutes later, Parker hit a step-back jumper. When the Grizzlies brought it from 10 to six again, past the five minute mark, Parker responded with another mid-range jumper. Finally, in the last gasp, when the Grizzlies got to within three points on a short Gasol jumper and with less than a minute to play, Parker got into the paint and drew contact on consecutive possessions, hitting all four from the line to effectively end the game.
“He was in a zone,” Conley said of Parker afterward. “They play so well together that any adjustment we'd make, they'd make another one. We'd play them well for about 18 seconds on the shot clock and then he'd make a play. You know, that's why he's one of the best and they're headed to the Finals.”
Chris Paul is widely considered the NBA's best point guard. Derrick Rose has an MVP. But good luck convincing the Grizzlies that the Spurs don't employ the NBA's best at the position, not after Parker punished them with 25 points and 10 assists a night on 53% shooting in this series.
“Even though it's tough to lose 4-0, we gave it all,” Gasol said, after declining to look beyond the game he'd just played. “We fought, we just — they taught us a lesson in how to play at this stage, this far into the season, this far into the playoffs. They taught us a lesson in how to execute... . They taught us a lesson all-around. I think we're going to be better because we played against, to me, one of the greatest teams of the past 15 years.”