After embarrassing themselves to the tune of a 24-point loss in game one and collapsing down the stretch in game two, the Memphis Grizzlies finally gave the San Antonio Spurs -- and a sold-out Pyramid crowd -- a performance on a par with what gave the team an unlikely 50-win season.
On an entirely improbable night -- the most historically inept franchise in NBA history experiencing its first playoff series, a long-spurned city experiencing its first professional postseason game -- it was a rather typical Memphis game. All season long, the Grizzlies biggest weakness had been defensive rebounding, where the team ranked dead last among 29 NBA teams. And, sure enough, on Thursday night the teams lack of interior strength hurt them, as the Spurs bullied their way to 21 offensive rebounds. All season long, the Grizzlies have been able to offset this deficiency on the boards with opportunistic, ball-hawking defense and the ability to take care of the ball. And, sure enough, on Thursday night the Grizzlies forced 15 Spurs turnovers while giving up only seven themselves. The result was that, despite giving the Spurs so many second chances on the boards, the Grizzlies were still able to take more shots. This was Grizzlies basketball.
Typically, when these two elements cancel each other out, the Grizzlies ability to knock down outside shots has been the x-factor. In the series first two games, at San Antonio, the Grizzlies shot only 23.8 percent from long range (5-21). Last night, home cooking helped the Grizzlies improve that to a more respectable 35.7 percent (5-14), with Mike Miller and Shane Battier both finding a shooting stroke that eluded them in Texas.
But that modest improvement from the perimeter wasnt enough to beat the defending NBA-champion Spurs, only enough to keep it close. And so, with two minutes and 45 seconds left in the game, the Grizzlies found themselves tied 90-90, and thats when the Spurs superior talent and experience took over. While reigning MVP Tim Duncan was getting free for consecutive lay-ups, the Grizzlies were floundering in a half-court offense without such a clear first option, shooting only 1-5 in the game's final three minutes.
Pau Gasol vs. Tim Duncan
Photo by Larry Kuzniewski
Up to that point in the game, Pau Gasol had been pretty much unstoppable on the too-few occasions when hed gotten the ball in scoring position, shooting 7-8 and utterly embarrassing an over-matched Robert Horry on consecutive possessions in the second quarter. But with the game on the line, Gasols inexperience and the reluctance of the games officials to give him calls diluted his effectiveness. After watching Gasol get bumped by Duncan and lose the ball and then get hacked by Duncan on the next play to a no call, coach Hubie Brown apparently decided he couldnt afford to go inside and put the game in the hands of the referees. And so Grizzlies fans watched two fade-away jumpshots -- one from Jason Williams, one from Bonzi Wells -- ricochet off the rim as the Spurs took the lead. With the Spurs denying the three-point shot, a driving Gasol dunk cut the deficit to one (93-94) with under four seconds left. And thats when the chess match entered its final stages. With the Grizzlies sure to foul, the Spurs, the worst foul-shooting team in the NBA, left their worst shooters, starters Bruce Bowen and Rasho Nesterovic, on the bench and sent Duncan, also a poor free throw shooter, all the way to the opposite baseline to avoid the play. The Grizzlies sent Manu Ginobili to the line, who hit one of two. And so the Grizzlies were left with a two-point deficit, 3.6 seconds left on the clock, and no timeouts. Brown called the same play hed used when James Posey sent the late-season game in Atlanta to overtime on a celebrated shot, and the play worked just as well. Mike Miller got a clear look at the basket from the top of the key, about 30 feet way, and launched the potentially game-winning shot just before the buzzer. It rimmed out, and Miller, along with more that 19,000 fans, media people, and Pyramid workers, stood still and silent for a few seconds. Game over. Spurs 95, Grizzlies 93. This series is a learning experience for the Grizzlies, and you have to appreciate the way play has improved with each game. Its also a learning experience for Memphis fans, a point driven home when a local radio personality came out a half-hour before tip-off to warm up the crowd and train them on proper NBA playoff fan performance, including how to boo the opposing team and the intricacies of proper towel-waving technique. It was a very touching night, with Hubie Brown receiving the NBA Coach of the Year award from league commissioner David Stern at mid-court before the game and with team owner Michael Heisley delivering a very respectful, deliberate reading of the national anthem. Midway through Heisleys performance, the sold-out Pyramid crowd, perhaps sensing that he could use a little help, began singing along, softly, as if a backing choir to his soloist. In an era when seemingly everything at a sporting event except the game itself feels orchestrated, this was spontaneous and chilling. The great game that followed was mere gravy. The truth is that this playoff series has a lot more long-range meaning in terms of gaining experience (and not just for he team, but its fans and city as well) and evaluating talent in preparation for the potentially tumultuous offseason to come than it does in terms of wins and losses. But for this night it was just a game and it was gripping and it hurt to lose. And the good news is we get to do it again on Sunday.