There’s a widely-accepted maxim in NBA playoff basketball that the most difficult win to attain is the close-out game. And, if you fall behind the Memphis Grizzlies in the fourth quarter in the Grind House that is FedEx Forum, difficult becomes nearly impossible.
It took championship mettle from the Spurs to overcome a 7-point deficit in the final 7 minutes in Game 6 of their first-round playoff series against the Grizzlies to score a 103-96 victory that sends them to the second round of the 2017 playoffs.
Game 1 of their Western Conference Semifinals series against the Houston Rockets is scheduled for Monday night at AT&T Center, tipoff at 8:30 p.m.
The Grizzlies proved a physically imposing first-round foe, and the Spurs were grateful to get past them.
“I’m seriously thrilled we were able to get through that first round,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “That’s the good news. The bad news is, now you have to go play Houston.”
Clutch plays in the final minutes by Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker produced the Thursday night victory that gave the Spurs a 4-2 win in the series and their berth in the second playoff round. Leonard finished with a game-high 29 points, with nine rebounds and four assists, two of those in the final two minutes. Parker had his best game of the series, scoring 27 points, including two huge baskets in the final two minutes, when the Spurs broke from a 92-92 tie.
“Tony wasn’t just effective today,” Popovich said. “He’s done a masterful job of getting in shape down the stretch of the season and playing his best basketball of the season during this playoff – finding people, scoring himself, working hard defensively. He had a magnificent playoff.”
Indeed, Parker was the Spurs’ No. 2 scorer in the series, totaling 98 points in the six games, an average of 16.3 points per game. Leonard totaled 187, averaging 31.2 points per game.
Parker scored 11 of his 27 points in the first quarter Thursday, opening the floor for Leonard, who scored 23 of his 29 in the final three quarters.
“I was just being aggressive,” Parker said during a courtside interview televised live after the TNT telecast. “My teammates were setting great picks for me and my shot was going in, so I just kept going.”
That the Spurs had to recover from an 88-81 deficit with 7:10 remaining in the game made the victory especially gratifying. Leonard ignited a 19-6 Spurs run that followed a time out, turning the momentum and silencing the Memphis crowd. He scored eight points during the most important stretch of crunch time, and Parker scored six.
“We talked about it during a time out,” Parker said of the hole in which the Spurs found themselves. “We said we were down seven, but in Game 4 it was same thing. We were down eight, pretty similar situation, and we came back and we were up two and had a chance to win the game. So, we just talked about it and said, ‘Let’s do the same thing, keep our composure and play smart and make some stops.’
“That’s what we did: Made some stops, and offensively we went where we wanted and made some big shots. Kawhi made some big shots and made some big plays and we got a win.”
Popovich cited his team’s fortitude and Leonard’s singularity.
“We have a knack for hanging in and, obviously, Kawhi Leonard is the best player in the league right now, in my opinion,” Popovich said. “Obviously, he’s the best two-way player in the game.”
Parker, whose final two baskets came after assists from Leonard, said the Spurs have learned to lean on Leonard, and will continue to do so.
“Kawhi is unbelievable and he’s playing at a high level, and that’s MVP level,” Parker said. “I hope he can keep it up because we’re going to need it in the next round.”
The Spurs were grateful to end the series against a very physical Grizzlies team when they did, knowing the close-out gives them three days to rest and prepare for their second-round matchup against the Rockets. It will be the first post-season meeting with their Interstate-10 rivals since the 1995 Western Conference Finals.
Popovich believes the difficult nature of the Memphis matchup sets them up well for the second-round matchup against Houston.
“I congratulate (the Grizzlies) on really a hell of an effort,” Popovich said in a postgame interview televised live by NBA-TV. “They execute so well. Fiz (Grizzlies coach David Fizdale) has done an unbelievable job with those guys. They’re together, know what they’re doing, they’re hard to guard and make you guard forever. Plus, they’ve been making shots. What a great group and I’m thrilled we were able to win. If we played 10 times we’d each probably win five, I think. It’s the way it is.”
While the Rockets feature a high-powered offense that is led by MVP candidate James Harden, the NBA’s No. 2 scorer, at 19.1 points per game, they do not figure to present the same sort of physical grind the Grizzlies provided.
“That was a great test,” Parker said. “I’m happy we don’t have to play Memphis any more. They’re very physical and you have to give them a lot of credit. They played great. They made it hard on us and got us ready for Houston. Houston is going to be another battle and they’re a great offensive team, so our defense is going to be the key in that series.”