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