By James Holas
After the San Antonio Spurs’ 29-point trouncing of the Memphis Grizzlies in game one of their Western conference series, the public call to put the Grizzlies out of their misery reached its bleating crescendo.
The loss was Memphis’ 16th in the 25 games they’ve played since the All-Star break, and their trademark stifling defense tumbled to 20th from Feb. 24 on. After over seven years and countless memories, it appeared that the eulogy for the Grit & Grind era was all but written.
For the Spurs, this first round series had all the makings of a glorified warm up for the REAL playoffs. San Antonio had won their last nine playoff games against Memphis, and after the way they overcame an early 13-point deficit in game one to crush the seventh-seeded Grizzlies, there was no reason to expect anything but more of the same. The series had the makings of a prelim, a warm up to break a light sweat before San Antonio turned its attention to the Rockets and the Warriors of the world.
And for two and a half quarters, a warm up it was. The Spurs opened up a 26-point first half lead on the strength of the suddenly superhuman Kawhi Leonard (37 points on 14 shots, 11 rebounds) and the torrid shooting of Tony parker, Danny Green and Pau Gasol (final tally between the three: 9-14 from deep, 37 points). The Spurs were up 19 at the half, and the funeral dirge for Memphis was in full swing.
But there’s a reason the Grizzlies have reached cult status around the NBA. The Grizzlies weren’t built, they coalesced, cobbled together painstakingly from the flotsam and castaways around the league. The team has absorbed the hardscrabble, dirt-under-the-nails mentality of the city. Memphis takes your best punch, swallows the blood and wades back in, consequences be damned. Zach Randolph, at 35 years old, grabbed the game in a chokehold in the second half, bulling his way through Spurs defenders like he has for the past 16 years.
Mike Conley shrugged off a subpar first game to take it to the Spurs’ backcourt, knifing into the lane and splashing from distance on his way to a 24-point, eight-assist gem.
Suddenly that 26-point lead was down to four in the fourth, and all talk of the demise of Grit and Grind was silenced. The NBA isn’t all about the O’Brien trophy, or 50 wins, or headlining MVPs. A 43-win team that never quits, as cheesy as it may sound, sometimes, is all a city needs.
The storybook ending would never come. San Antonio won 61 games for a reason, and that reason is, by and large, Kawhi Leonard. Lebron James may be the dominant player of his era, Durant the most potent scorer, Curry the most flammable, but no one in the league poses quite the conundrum that Kawhi does.
There are literally no holes in Leonard’s game. He fashioned himself in the most complete superstar in the league today. With Tony Allen shelved, the likes of Wayne Selden, Vince Carter and James Ennis had no chance to slow Kawhi’s seemingly cybernetic assault.
The lazy assessment of system player ignores the fact that for the current Spurs, Kawhi IS the system. The ever present threat of Leonard on all levels at the rim, in the post, from midrange and from behind the arc is the bedrock of the Spurs; offense; and his blink quick hands and almost supernatural defensive precision is the backbone of the league’s best defense.
Leonard overwhelmed Memphis, repeatedly finding his way to the free-throw line (his 19 free throws were more than Memphis took as a whole) against hapless defenders. There’s no wasted movement, no flair to Kawhi on either side of the ball—the economy of motion undersells exactly how devastating he’s become.
You can point to the resurgence of Tony Parker (15 points, after dropping 18 in game one), Danny Green regaining his stroke (4-for-5 from deep, including a key straightaway bomb late to stave off the Grizzlies’ rally), but as always, the Spurs are more than a sum of their parts. There are 29 NBA teams, and then there’s the Spurs, the ultimate outlier of a franchise.
For the Grizzlies, heading back to FedEx Forum undermanned, down 0-2 and with a summer of big decisions and roster upheaval somewhere in front of them. None of that matters now. Expect Memphis to do exactly what they’ve done the entire Mike Conley, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph tenure: focus on the next game, the next quarter and the next possession like it’s their last, until finally, there’s nothing left to grind.