The goal is the same for the Spurs during the 82-game grind of every regular season: To be playing their best basketball by the time the playoffs arrive.
Spurs fans who worried that their three-game losing streak at the end of the regular season was evidence of problems heading into their first-round playoff series against the Memphis Grizzlies can relax – but just a bit.
With a 96-82 Game 2 win on Monday night at AT&T Center they will take a 2-0 lead in the best-of-seven series when it moves to Memphis for Games 3 and 4.
But, when they get there, they know they are going to find a Grizzlies team that has regained its defensive equilibrium after stifling the Spurs in the third quarter, and into the first three minutes of the fourth, when they cut what had been a 26-point lead to four points. And, they are apt to be angry after their coach called out the Game 2 referees who awarded the Spurs with 32 free throws but sent the Grizzlies to the line for only 15.
In truth, the Spurs survived because of Kawhi Leonard’s offensive aggression and some timely 3-point shooting from Tony Parker, Danny Green, and Pau Gasol. Those four accounted for 13 of 15 points during a 15-4 run that re-established control.
“Our offense went in the toilet because of [the Grizzlies’] great defense,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “And we were in trouble. We had more turnovers than assists tonight because of that period where they played great [defense] and we were in mud. The ball stopped moving and it was one-on-one, dribble, dribble, dribble, that kind of thing. [The Grizzlies] took advantage of it and got back in the game, did a great job. But overall, they made a great run and we did a good job withstanding their run and coming back with good defense in the fourth.”
Leonard finished with a career playoff-high 37 points on just 14 shots – he made 19-of-19 free throws – and Tony Parker had a second solid game running the team and shooting from 3-point range, making 3-of-5 from distance and scoring 15 points.
Leonard’s 19 made free throws in one game ranks third in NBA playoff history. Mavericks future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki made 24-of-24 in a playoff game in 2011, and Boston’s Paul Pierce made all 21 in a playoff game in 2003.
That Leonard attempted more free throws than the entire Memphis team had Grizzlies coach David Fizdale fuming. Citing statistics about the number of shots both teams took in the painted area, he accused referees Danny Crawford, Rodney Mott, and Bill Spooner of failing to show his players the respect he believed they deserved in a 78-second tirade that is sure to earn him a hefty fine from the league office.
“It’s unfortunate that I have a guy like Mike Conley, who in his whole career has zero technical fouls and just could not seems to get the proper respect from the officials that he deserves,” Fizdale began. “It was a poorly officiated basketball game. Zach Randolph, the most rugged guy in the game, has zero free throws but somehow Kawhi Leonard had 19 free throws.
“We don’t get the respect that these guys deserve because Mike Conley doesn’t go crazy – he has class and just plays the game. But I’m not going to let them treat us that way. I know Pop’s got pedigree and I’m a young rookie, but they are not going to rook us. That’s unacceptable, that’s unprofessional. My guys dug in that game and earned the right to be in that game and they did not even give us a chance.
“Take that for data.”
With that, Fizdale slammed his fist on the postgame interview podium and left the room.
Fizdale likely believes any fine will be worth the effect his support will have on his players and Grizzlies fans who show up for Games 3 and 4.
Conley, the standout point guard who led the Grizzlies in scoring on Monday (24 points), already appreciates it.
“He’s going to show how much he cares about winning, whether it’s yelling at a ref or yelling at us on the bench,” Conley said. “He gives us confidence in that way.”
If that sounds like a certain Spurs coach who has been named Coach of the Year three times, well, it may have something to do with their basketball pedigrees. Both were greatly influenced by coach Hank Egan – Popovich at the Air Force Academy and Fizdale at University of San Diego.
As convincing as the Spurs’ two playoff wins have been – by 29 points in Game 1 and by 14 in Game 2 – they know they are in for a much more difficult test in Memphis. Backup point guard Patty Mills, harassed into missing 8-of-9 shots in Game 2, understands what is in store.
“They came out in the third quarter and bullied us and punked us and played great defense that got us on our heels a bit – cracking us, real physical with us; hitting us on cuts and screens and all of that,” Mills said. “That’s the way they like to play, and we always know that it’s going to come. We got hit on the chin tonight but it’s going to be even more aggressive and physical play in their building. So, we’ve got to find ways to counter that.”