The Spurs opened the 2016 playoffs with a 106-74 win over the Memphis Grizzlies at AT&T Center on Sunday night that reinforced what any sane NBA observer knew before tipoff: The Grizzlies don’t have enough healthy stars to seriously challenge a team that won 67 games in the regular season.
The way the Spurs defended in Game 1 it’s doubtful a full-strength Grizzlies roster would have fared much better.
Reigning Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard was at his disruptive best from the very start of Game 1 of the best-of-seven series. He stripped the ball from the grip of Grizzlies forward Matt Barnes on Memphis’ first possession of the game and took it directly to the basket for a dunk and a tone was set for the rest of the game.
The steal was the first of four for Leonard in the first three quarters. By the time the fourth quarter arrived the Spurs were so far ahead, 81-51, coach Gregg Popovich was able to rest Leonard and the other Spurs starters.
Leonard’s truncated performance produced 20 points, four steals and three blocked shots.
“Kawhi’s a very good defender and he takes great pride in it,” said Popovich, who calls defense ‘the focus of our program.’ “he did what he usually does for us. It’s important. He sets the tone for us defensively and tonight was a good example of that.”
The Spurs forced 17 Grizzlies turnovers, 13 of them on steals, and limited Memphis to 39.2 percent shooting. It was one of the more dominant defensive performances in recent playoff history and Leonard was the instigator.
“I just tried to bring that much energy tonight coming into Game 1 to make a stand for my team and just be aggressive and have us keep moving from there,” Leonard said.
His teammates followed his lead.
“He’s been doing that all year for us,” Spurs captain Tim Duncan said. “Tonight he was exceptional. He had three or four layups early in the open court to get some easy points. He was blocking some shots. A great job by him just disrupting everything they were doing.”
Popovich is a perfectionist, so when Leonard failed to close out on Grizzlies veteran Vince Carter early in the third quarter he called a time out and gave his defensive star a less-than-subtle reminder about one of the team’s core defensive principles, a dressing down Leonard accepted with equanimity and gratitude.
“Pop is a great coach,” Leonard said. “He wants me to play perfect, and that’s how we strive as a team, and me individually as well. I want to get coached, and he’s the type of coach that’s going to keep pushing you even if you’re having a great game, so I thank him for that.”
Let the record show that after Popovich’s reminder the Spurs went on a 28-11 run to the end of the period that stretched their lead to 30 points, with Leonard scoring eight of his 20 points in the five minutes that followed the time out.
Carter, whose 16 points led the Grizzlies, has seen plenty of great defenders in his 17-plus NBA seasons. Few have impressed him as much as Leonard.
“He is aggressive,” Carters said. “He is in passing lanes; he has great on-ball instincts, great hands and blocks shots very well for his position. Even if he gets beat he can recover. He has very long arms. He is relentless and really gets their defense started.”
Duncan handled much of the defense on Zach Randolph, a former All-Star remembered by most Spurs fans as the villain who led Memphis to a first-round playoff upset of the Spurs in 2011. He limited him to 3-for-13 shooting.
With Randolph and Barnes throttled, a blowout Spurs win was guaranteed.
In fact, the lopsided nature of the Game 1 win was not unexpected. The Grizzlies now have lost 15 of their last 18 games and are playing with a lineup that is missing All-NBA center Marc Gasol, standout point guard Mike Conley and two other regular members of coach Dave Joerger’s playing rotation.
If Leonard remains at his disruptive best, a sweep seems more likely than a Grizzlies win.
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