Nobody expected the Spurs to have an easy time of it in their first-round NBA playoff series against the muck-it-up and grind-it-out defense of the Memphis Grizzlies, not even when Tony Allen, Memphis’ version of Bruce Bowen, was declared out for the series with a calf injury.
So, when Grizzlies scoring stars Marc Gasol and Mike Conley combined for 23 points in the first 10 minutes of Saturday’s Game 1 of the series at AT&T Center to stake the Grizzlies to a 13-point lead, the fears of fans concerned that the No. 2 seed Spurs might open with a loss seemed real enough.
What transpired thereafter calmed anyone who doubted the Spurs’ potential for a long playoff run this spring: A combination of stifling defense and offensive efficiency that produced a convincing 111-82 victory that represented a 96-54 turnaround from Memphis’ big lead of 28-15.
Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs leading scorer and Most Valuable Player candidate, scored 32 points in just 32 minutes of court time. He made 11-of-14 shots and all 9 of his free throws. But, he knew his play had been facilitated by his teammate, point guard Tony Parker.
Parker, the 34-year-old point guard, turned back the clock to a time when he was the team’s No. 1 scoring option, a 20-points-per-game scorer in the 2012-13 season that saw the Spurs make their sixth trip to the NBA Finals. Making 8-of-13 shots – 2-of-2 from 3-point range – Parker’s aggressive drives to the basket in Game 1 forced Memphis to adjust its defensive focus. As a result, Leonard’s lanes to the rim widened, and he took full advantage.
“(Tony) being aggressive and knocking down shots and just penetrating and getting the defense to get an extra guy to go to him is big for us,” Leonard said. “Not just me, but everybody. He gets us open shots.”
As Leonard’s rapid development made him the Spurs’ featured scorer over the past three seasons, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich has asked Parker to become more of a traditional point guard, setting up the offense and finding shots for his teammates.
A professional since age 15 and a committed member of France’s national team in international play, Parker also has a lot of basketball miles on his legs. Once one of the fastest players in the league, baseline to baseline, he has slowed in recent seasons, to the point many observers rank him in the middle of the pack among the league’s starting point guards.
Parker swears he pays no attention to such talk, and after games like Saturday’s it is easy to imagine his blissful ignorance of chatter on social media that he no longer is an elite player.
“I don’t know about that,” Parker said. “I don’t really read to be honest. I’ve got two kids, a lot of work. I don’t have time. The only reason I know is because of you (media) guys, because you bring it up. If not, I would have no idea because I’m home. I’m up at six, get the kids, bring them to school, bring them back. I don’t have time for that.”
Popovich believes Parker is just now fully recovered from knee, thigh and back ailments that caused him to miss 19 games midway through the season.
“He’s gotten back in shape,” the Spurs coach said. “He’s done a great job in the weight room and on the court just trying to get his wind back. I thought he felt pretty confident tonight and we love when he starts out defensively and taking pride in that. I thought he did a good job.”
If any of the Grizzlies were surprised by Parker’s efficient play, their rookie coach, David Fizdale, was not among them.
“We’re talking a proven Hall of Famer and a champion,” Fizdale said. “He’s not going to go through the series and not have his fingerprints on it.”
San Antonio’s defensive focus in the final three quarters was every bit as impactful as what Leonard and Parker did at the offensive end. The Spurs blocked 11 shots, just three shy of a team playoff record, and held the Grizzlies to 39.2% shooting. For the final three quarters Memphis made only 17-of-58 shots, 29%.
“We did a good job defensively,” Popovich said. “[The Grizzlies] started out really hot, made a couple of tough shots and we made a couple of mistakes and they took advantage. The best part was our team keeping its composure and not going off in different directions and just trying to do what we planned to do, execution-wise at both ends. We got better as the game went along.”
Game 2 of the series is to be played Monday night at AT&T Center, tipoff set for 8 p.m.