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Bear Down

By Jeff Koch on April 28, 2017.

2017 Western Conference Playoffs, First Round
San Antonio 103, Memphis 96
Spurs win series 4-2

It only took 10 games for one of these teams to find an edge over the other on the road.

All credit to Memphis: they are a bear to play. What they lack in quality they make up for with determination and execution. They never let the other team get too much separation, and they continually find answers in clutch situations. In reality, this was a 5-game series in which the Spurs came out on the wrong end of a few too many 50-50 situations. But that’s what Memphis does: they consistently win the moments that have no reason to them.

The Spurs showed their own grit and grind in Game 6, though. There were a few key stretches to the game. After playing relatively even in the first half, Memphis opened up a 10-point lead in the 3rd quarter. The Grizzlies could have pulled away here, but the Spurs clawed their way back into it.

The key stats of the quarter: 8 offensive rebounds, 9 second chance points, 10 free throws. Effort and physicality.

Again in the 4th, Memphis opened up a bit of a lead, pulling out to an 88-81 score with just about six minutes left. To close the game, though, San Antonio showed their championship pedigree, closing on an extended 15-8 run, clamping down on defense and executing just enough against the bruising Memphis defense to gut out the road win.

Brandon Dill/Associated Press

As with most games, we should start with Kawhi. While he didn’t shoot as well as he had in previous games (only 8-for-19), and while he was met with resistance at every turn and every drive, he found a way to get it done. It wasn’t fluid, and it wasn’t always pretty, but Kawhi leveraged most every situation to the Spurs advantage. In the second and third quarters, it was drawing fouls and keeping the team afloat at the line. In the fourth, when the attention turned squarely to him, he continued to show his playmaking touch for two huge assists late (and another two passes that led to wide open shots or easy baskets without the assist credit). He was easily the best player in this series. (Coach Pop thinks Kawhi Leonard is the “best player in the league right now.”)

The Spurs second best player in the Grizzlies season? Tony Parker. It wasn’t there every game, but it was there enough in the wins, and it was all there in Game 6. This was vintage Parker, nailing that midrange jumper, driving to the basket, and just running the team with a steady hand in a pressure situation. He finished 11-for-14 from the floor for 27 points, 4 assists, and only 1 turnover. More importantly, he got the team going in the first quarter when the energy of the Memphis crowd could have easily overwhelmed the team, and he hit three huge baskets late when the series was on the line. Can he bring it every night? No. Can he bring it enough to win a series? For now, yes.

The rest of the game was an aggregation of tiny contributions adding up to just enough. David Lee worked his ass off under the rim to win those cheap points that add up in games like this. LaMarcus Aldridge struggled to put the ball in the basket from close range, but battled to a team-high 12 rebounds. Aldridge is easily criticized when he struggles on offense, but rarely gets enough credit for his defense. It’s just assumed that he stinks at defense, and people don’t want to change their minds.

Manu Ginobili hit a huge and-1 3 pointer; Patty Mills had 10 off the bench; Danny Green played his usual great defense and hit a couple of clutch 3s; Dewayne Dedmon had 3 of the highest energy minutes in a closeout game you could hope for. Together, they pieced together the necessary contributions behind Leonard and Parker.

I can’t decide if Memphis was an unusually tough match-up for a 7-seed with their experience and toughness, or if the Spurs played a bit below their regular season level. Houston (who we’ll meet next round) dispatched a seemingly better team in Oklahoma City in the first round in 5, while San Antonio went to 6 against a lower seed. But Memphis might be a better constructed playoff team, while OKC is more easily exposed in the playoffs for the one-man army they are.

All to say, many people are going to be predicting Houston to beat the Spurs in the next round based on the first round results. While the Rockets certainly have a chance, I don’t think it’s that cut and dry. It’s not apples to apples.

We’ll get into that in our series preview, but suffice it to say, San Antonio is relieved to be getting out of the mud with a physically brutal team and Houston will have to figure out how to guard more than one player.

The second round series kicks off Monday night in San Antonio.

Go Spurs Go.