Memphis Grizzlies 104, San Antonio Spurs 86: Witnessing the unexpected

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The San Antonio Spurs are a deeply misunderstood team. Over the last few years, people have referred to them as a “tough out,” a euphemistic term for a team past its championship potential but still capable of taking down a mightier foe. In reality, once they met the better team, the Spurs were sent packing in a prompt and tidy manner. They lost in five to Los Angeles, five to Dallas, and four to Phoenix.

People have often said they are a tough out, but the resignation with which they’ve packed their bags suggests otherwise.

Tonight’s 104-86 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies was different. The Spurs weren’t resigned, at least not for most of the game. People will point to Gregg Popovich’s willingness to sit the starters halfway through the fourth and, with wide, incredulous eyes, ask why the Hell the Spurs wouldn’t keep fighting. But the truth is, they did keep fighting. But they were caught in the undertow. The harder they fought to reach shore, the more tired they grew, as did the distance between them and the shore.

The Spurs lost, but they didn’t quit. They mentally collapsed. And that collapse may have started at the very top.

The Spurs have lost — and quit — plenty of times. They’ve genuinely collapsed few times, if at all. And I’m not sure I’ve ever even thought the fourth of those statements.

But the truth is, I believe the reason the Spurs are losing this series is because Gregg Popovich has been outcoached.

Let’s take a step back, and view things from a wider angle: If I had to choose, I’d take Tony Parker over Mike Conley. I’d take Manu Ginobili over Tony Allen. I’d take Richard Jefferson over Sam Young. I’d Take Tim Duncan over Marc Gasol (although, after the last few games, some might not). And I’d take Zach Randolph over Antonio McDyess. Although slightly debatable, it’s not an overstatement to say the Spurs have the match-up advantage at four of the five starting positions in this series, and they are down 3-1. When that’s the case, I start to look past the guys in the jerseys, and focus my gaze on the men in the suits.

What’s even stranger is that Gregg Popovich might agree with me. He may admit it. He may not. He flexes back and forth between humility and stubbornness in a way that is difficult to predict. But I think he agrees with me, and I was horrified to realize that when Tiago Splitter checked into the game.

I am glad Splitter finally saw the court. Given both his play during the last third of the season, and the specific dynamics of this series, I thought he should have seen minutes in the first three games as well. But after choosing to hold him out, Popovich’s decision to play Splitter in Game 4 didn’t come as a welcome relief, although I may have falsely claimed so at the time. It was a harbinger of doom.

When Popovich starts buckling to the pressure to make major rotation changes part way through a series, it isn’t an example of the flexibility Spurs fans have long sought-after. (A flexibility which actually exists in spades and the absence of which has far more to do with our own blind spots than any stubbornness we perceive in Popovich.) It’s a sign that he no longer believes the players who have carried the team to this point have the ability to win on their own. It’s an act of desperation. It’s a decision made with the hope that an unexpected player will have a meteoric moment, and instead of falling prey to a Darrell Arthur or a Goran Dragic, the Spurs will miraculously possess one of their own.

However, if San Antonio does go on to lose, Gregg Popovich didn’t cost the Spurs this series when he pulled the starters in the fourth quarter. There were a number of decisive plays on the part of the Grizzlies, and Popovich let Duncan, Parker and Ginobili play on. The final straw came when Shane Battier, wide open in the corner, caught a pass from Mike Conley. He relaxed, set his feet, focused his eyes and calmly sank a 3-pointer. He was completely unhurried. Not a single Spur moved in his direction, much less attempted to chase him off the line.

That’s the moment the Spurs went down by 20. That’s the first moment all game they looked like they had quit. And that’s the moment Popovich pulled the starters.

If they weren’t even gonna try, why waste their energy. You might as well rest them, and pray that, over the next three games, we will bear witness to an even more unexpected outcome than we did this evening.

  • http://twitter.com/drizzy_dreday Andre Manning

    Just remember folks that Rudy should be where Young is at. So we are doing this we grit, grind, and Defense. And great low post play. Just give the Grizz there props and stop making excuses for the Spurs.

  • TD BestEVER

    I think the Bonner thing was a mistake because of the amount of money……….. could have had him for 2 million I’m sure…… and as far as wasting TD……yes they did……They never wanted to spend $$….and only started to spend money when TD was clearly on the decline…… What a joke……IF TD had been drafted by Boston he would have 6 or so rings by now……. because Boston would have paid whatever it takes to stay on top with him………….unlike San Antonio………..

  • http://twitter.com/drizzy_dreday Andre Manning

    LOL……You must didnt see Gay and Allen causing havoc when he was healthy. Guys do your research when you talk about another team. Dont just go off of sportscenter. Conley, Allen, and Gay where all in the top 10 in steals before Gay got hurt. We are going to be a scary force next year when Gay comes back.

  • http://twitter.com/drizzy_dreday Andre Manning

    How is all of you guys saying that you didnt play with heart. Yall where killing us in the first quarter. Tony was doing his thing, yall got splitter in there….ha against our 3rd string big man. Stop blaming the coach, fo, or the players. We are simply getting some breaks and out playing you guys.

  • Rob

    Bingo. And if the kid didn’t have the since to play for an organization that probably would have utilized his talents better…better off for the Spurs his low IQ isn’t on this team. They already have enough of those players

  • ribanez1

    When you have coached a team to 4 championships, as Popovich has, there is a tendency by the media and fans alike to glorify and magnify the individual’ s coaching strengths and minimize or trivialize his or her flaws or weaknesses. Despite being an excellent game coach in the last few years Pop ‘s stubborn streak has hurt the Spurs, a few examples follow:

    1. Exhibit 1- The unwillingness to play Splitter meaningful minutes after he was healthy.
    2. Exhibit 2 -Signing Matt Bonner to a long contract and continuing to stick with him for prolonged periods of
    time despite the lack of production in the past and in the current series.
    3. Exhibit 3-Starting Hill against the Suns last year when a healthy Parker would have been a better choice.
    Parker with his penetration would have zapped some of the energy from Nash and maybe change the
    outcome of the series.
    4. Exhibit 4- Ian Mahinmi’s, a la Splitter, lack of playing time, no opportunity to play and no chance to
    develop.
    5. Exhibit 5- Signing players to take spots on the roster but not using them! I was impressed by Grizzlies coach
    Hollins willingness to insert even a rookie in a crucial game like yesterday’s. Pop has some athletes on the
    bench that may have been useful!

    To summarize, maybe the game has passed him by ?

  • DorieStreet

    So betsyduncan & TheRealDirtyP1, why do this procedure –again– Scola & Mahinmi were the 1st & 2nd time–if you cannot get the player immediately?

  • DorieStreet

    Regardless on how we fans analyze this series or the perspective we view this Spurs team, credit & kudos must be given to the Memphis Grizzlies for their approach, attitude, execution, and effort in these 4 games.

    The most the Grizz have trailed in these contests have been 8 points. It happen twice in game 2:
    48-56 halfway throught the 3rd qtr and 81-89 with a minute and a half left in the 4th qtr.
    And in both instances the Grizz cut those leads very quickly–75 seconds to cut it to 55-56, and 100 seconds to trim it to 87-89.

    Memphis has scored over 90 pts. 3 times (100 twice) and just missed it the 4th time (87 pts.)
    Meanwhile, they’ve kept the Spurs under 100 pts. the entire series–and reduced their points total each successive game–from a high of 98 to 91, 88, and down to 86.

    And in the game 4 blowout, it was a very balanced scoring attack by the Grizzlies- 4 players scorng between 11 – 15 pts. (their individual player high) while 4 other players scored 8-9 pts. each.

    Games 1 and 3 I was able to view-at no point in those games did I observe Memphis being rattled. I can assume the same for games 2 & 4.

  • Sam

    Wow the perfect inspiration for the Spurs right now are the Magic. Who saw the game? Magic demolished the Hawks and their slogan was “Energy is Contagious” Dwight Howard only scored 8 points. DWIGHT HOWARD SCORED 8 POINTS AND THE MAGIC WON ?!?!?!?!??! The Magic bench was pathetic the first 4 games *cough Spurs cough* and they really stepped up tonight. Great game for the Magic and i’m sure this momentum will carry to game 6 and they will be able to force a game 7. Good luck to the Magic and I hope that the Spurs use this as inspiration.

  • Colin Rigney

    Still clueless.

  • Colin Rigney

    agreed

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  • Betsy Duncan

    Beats me, Dorie. I’ve never understood it, myself.

  • Colin Rigney

    “Ian Mahinmi’s, a la Splitter, lack of playing time, no opportunity to play and no chance to
    develop.”

    Quit with the Mahinmi bullshit. He hasn’t gotten minutes on ANY NBA team. Hell, he can’t even get minutes for the French national team.

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