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.

  • Len

    Desperation. Popovich wouldn’t play Tiago until he finally felt it. I knew it, I’ve seen it in Pop before. The cast of players is different but the scenario is eerily familiar. Sadly, there were no dramatic Spurs moments that we’ve all grown accustomed to. Que sera sera

  • KG

    The current cast of characters do not have the mentality to fight their hardest and win.

    Who’s responsibility is that? Who knows. But having won 3 championships as a group they may not have as much to play for as a team that has championships. The Pacers are playing with more energy and will than us for gods sake.

  • KG

    as a team that doesn’t have championships*

  • Bob

    Wow the offense and defense were both bad. Spurs were allowing wide open jumpers. The perimeter defense has been really exposed as bad. Hill is overrated on defense. Anderson showed some good defense when he was playing earlier in the year. Outside of Tony Parker no one really showed up. Splitter also drew alot of fouls on the Grizzlies bigs just through his activity. And even Parker struggled with turnovers. Grizzlies are overplaying the passing lanes and the Spurs aren’t making them pay. They’re taking contested 3′s and long jumpers and the Grizzlies are executing and getting uncontested jumpers and 3′s. Not enough effort to fight through picks or chase shooters of the line. The Grizzlies were picking the Spurs apart with passes and cuts. Used to be the other way around and everyone wanted to execute as well as the Spurs.

    I liked what I saw from Splitter with his hustle and rebounding. Splitter was setting good picks but the ballhandler wasn’t making the right read. They kept trying to dribble through traffic or making a bad pass. I think him and Duncan need more time together to get familiar with each other. I liked the high-low action from Duncan to him they did one time. That eventually could be a score and/or foul.

  • NYC

    Goddamnit, people. I’m still in shock. I have no words. But why are you writers of this blog so quick with the eulogy? Did you have this obit prepared ahead of time and ready to go?
    Goddamnit.

  • Glib Grouse

    I miss the days when Pop would light into them more regularly. I’m sure he knows best how to motivate his players and how they tick, but our sloppiness is killing me. And in years past would have brought a tongue lashing that might light a fire.

  • Gomezd

    that 14-0 run to start the 3rd was brutal, wide open jumpers and a load of turnovers, Memphis didnt do anything particularly impresive in that period spurs just… I dont know.. stopped playing? thats when the game was lost even if they managed to get within 5 after, after that 14-0 run the game was over.

  • Grizz Bias

    As you were selecting your preferred man in each match-up, you paired Randolph with McDyess and Gasol with Duncan. Randolph is a four, alongside Duncan. Gacol and McDyess are the fives. And that makes a huge difference. Personally, I’d pick Randolph over Duncan…at least where this particular match-up is concerned. Likewise, I think Gasol is the better man.

    While I agree with you elsewhere, I think the advantages leave the Grizzlies with the frontcourt, and the Spurs control the backcourt. Why is this a problem for the Spurs? The Grizzlies are playing their game better than the Spurs are playing their own. Frontcourt play is dictating the winner of these games. If the Spurs can’t get threes in the net, they’ll be out soon enough.

  • Jimbo

    I don’t think you’re giving the Grizz enough credit. That’s a talented team that’s on the rise, I’ve been saying it all year. People drooling over OKC can make room for the Grizz too.

    I’ll take the Gasol-Randolph frontcourt over Duncan and whoever, and by quite a bit. I’d take Young over Jefferson. The Spurs backcourt is better, but not by much. When people were laughing at the Grizz for the Conley contract, they should have realized that the guy has a great deal of potential and is not just lighting-quick. When he reaches his prime in a few years, he’ll be a helluva player.

    Duncan and Manu are great pros, but it’s tough for them to bring it night in and night out at their age. Allen, Mayo, Arthur, and Young (and Gay, when healthy) are probably better athletes than anyone on the Spurs. And it shows. This Spurs team, as much as I love them, really lacks athleticism. Ask yourself: whose roster is better built for the playoffs? On the basis of talent, I’d take the Grizz for sure. I thought the experience factor would be the deciding edge for the Spurs in a tough series, but Memphis is showing that it’s their time.

  • DorieStreet

    Dating back to the 1st round of the 2008 playoffs–game 4 @ Phoenix—- the Spurs have lost 15 of 18 road playoff games.
    Grizzlies bench scoring –49 points (Arthur – 14pts on 7-10 shooting) /21 out of 27 attempts made= 57%
    Duncan—35 years old today——6 points, 7 rebounds

    The author makes note of Splitter just now getting minutes in the 4th game of the playoffs. What should be the issue is why does this franchise continually draft frontcourt/bigs that are already playing professional basketball and not bring them over immediately to learn and master the Spurs’ system?
    Scola in 2002; Mahinmi in 2005; Splitter in 2007 (imagine if he came over for the 2007-08 season instead of this past summer); Richards this past draft–2010 (why wasn’t he on the roster in October?)

    The Spurs ignored the changing climate of the NBA during the mid 2000′s while they were on top–acquiring young, athletic, multi-skilled talent instead of aging, one-dimensional veterans past their prime. The Core 3–Duncan, Ginobili, Parker–needed a stronger roster around them to remain legitimate championship contenders because wear & tear diminished their skills and abilities.

    A bittersweet end to their stellar run—4 championships in 9 years; it should have been 6 or 7 in over a decade–12 years.

  • http://twitter.com/graydongordian Graydon Gordian

    Don’t get me wrong, Jimbo. I’m focusing on the Spurs because I’m a Spurs fan and this is a Spurs blog. But, to employ a bit of tautology: I think the Grizzlies are winning this series; the Spurs aren’t losing it.

  • http://twitter.com/graydongordian Graydon Gordian

    Don’t get me wrong, Jimbo. I’m focusing on the Spurs because I’m a Spurs fan and this is a Spurs blog. But, to employ a bit of tautology: I think the Grizzlies are winning this series; the Spurs aren’t losing it.

  • DorieStreet

    I missed the game; I feel for all Spurs fans who endured this debacle.

    Looking at the stats——Randolph 11 & 9, Gasol 9 & 9, Conley 15 & 7 assists, Battier 11 Allen 12, Mayo 11, Arthur 14—–there was no epic, highlight, franchise archive game from any Grizzlies player that propelled this victory—-just a mostly young team that outplayed a veteran playoff team that had an outstanding regular season but competed in the playoffs like they were the 8th best squad to qualify.

  • TD BestEVER

    If we would have drafted Gasol over Splitter it would have been 6 or 7……. He was drafted like 14 or so picks behind Splitter……. and he played Year 1…..

    Our FO basically sucks……… they are behind the times and have been for years now and it’s finally starting to catch up with them………Letting go of young athletes like Temple/Gee and others will cost us in the future…….How hard is it to realize that you can teach an athlete to shoot quicker than you can improve someone’s vertical leap or speed………..

    And to add insult to injury, these idiots have gone out and LOCKED up RJ, Bonner, TP for years to come………..even though we all know the returns we get on our $ has been diminishing for years………..

    And for all the Splitter fans out there, I will be bringing out my summer league resolutions for him, Blair, Hill and others. So we can start thinking what our FO needs to do while the window is still here…….1st trade away ALL PICKS……………and get young 2-25 year old players that WE KNOW CAN PLAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Jimbo

    Fair enough. I totally agree with your last sentence- that about sums it up.

  • Jimbo

    To be fair, our FO doesn’t get to pick in plum spots, and they’ve drafted some good players at crappy positions over the year. Blair, Hill, Anderson, and Splitter are all serviceable pros picked well out of the lottery, which isn’t easy to do. And there’s a reason Gee and Temple haven’t blown up with other teams. Athleticism is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for success.

  • Spurs biggest fan and critic

    The Spurs weren’t playing with heart or any emotions. In order to win, Tim Duncan needs to play how he played in Game 1. I still don’t see why Matt Bonner is getting big minutes. If he ain’t producing then he needs to be benched! Same goes with George Hill. These guys are playing soft against some tough players. It’s like they give the Grizz’s too much respect. The only ones that showed up to play in Game 5 was Neal, Manu, and Splitter. Popavich is getting out coached, and Memphis is exploiting the Spurs lack of size. Leave Splitter in the game and Bonner on the bench. I think the Popavich is the one to blame. He needs to let his players off the leash and allow them to get reckless or at least get a technical foul. All he does is scream and benches the players who don’t listen. Leaving them to be a bunch of robots with no emotions on the court. They Spurs on the bench didn’t even show emotions being down by 20. I would be angry! I’m a die-hard Spurs fan, but tonight I just wanted to burn every Spurs jersey, DVD, and photos I own. They didn’t play like the Spurs tonight. They played like the Silver Stars. A bunch of P******!

  • Jimbo

    You’re right, the Grizz’s balance tonight was remarkable- it really jumps out from the boxscore.

  • Jimbo

    On, and point granted on the Bonner and RJ signings. Not the best moves.

  • Lvmainman

    I hate the fact that Popovich refused to stand up for his players vs. the referees in the 3rd qtr. 6 fouls on the Spurs in the 1st 2:30 of the 3rd qtr!!! In that situation Popovich HAS to get a technical. From that point on:
    1) the Spurs were prohibited from playing ANY defense, by the referees. – because a touch meant FT’s
    8 of the 1st 10 points in the 3rd qtr came via the FT line
    10-0 run by making ONLY 1 BASKET!
    2) Grizzlies were able to be more aggressive
    3) Grizzlies got confidence to make jumpers by making FT’s
    4) The crowd got involved in the game

    At least McDyess got a technical.

    Hill/Neal can’t guard Allen, Young, Mayo, or Battier! Too bad James Anderson never got playing time during the season.

    Will they please stopping throwing the ball to Duncan in the post against Gasol?!? He can’t score. Put him at the FT line, ala Dirk, and let him go one-on-one from there.

    Splitter proved he’s 10X better than Blair with these matchups tonight.

    This series is over in 6.

    Spurs game 5 will be on NBATV again!!

  • Grizz Bias

    Uh…that’s not actually tautological. Those are two very different statements which don’t typically imply the other.

  • TD BestEVER

    but to play GREAT D……its better to have athletes who are BONEHEADS…………Guys like Tony Allen/Sam Young……….rather than High BBIQ guys who are non athletic……Bonner………Simply because if you have to scramble and recover quickly……..it’s easier to do it with athletes……..Our guys are just TOO SLOW when it’s time to get back out to shooters and have been all year long…………

  • Junierizzle

    It’s not over yet. So I’ll talk like they haven’t been eliminated. I think one can point to Game 1 when the series really fell apart. POP should have just played MANU.. It’s the playoffs. Kobe is about to play on one foot for gods sake. That Game 1 gave the Grizz all the confidence they would ever need.

    As for the SPURS what the hell happened to their offense??? All year they were shooting it out with teams. They went back to the SPURS of last season. It’s like they said “we have to slow it down because it’s the playoffs.” Yeah the Grizz played energetic defense and they ran the SPURS every chance they got. But that is my point. SPURS were matching teams like this all year. Personally I blame our shooters. Too much pump fakes and drives. Just shoot the ball. I see all the other teams shooting threes with hands in there face and people running at them. IF a Grizz was three feet away our shooters would pump fake. That isn’t the offense. I’ve seen teams run to shooters better than the GRIZZ. But our shooters only wanted to shoot when they were wide open and no one was running at them. And they still couldn’t hit shots even when they were open.

    I agree with the article, as glad as I was to see SPLITTER gets some minutes, I knew it was because POP ran out of answers. Could this series have been different if SPLITTER played since Game 1? NOt the way our shooters played.

    The D was horrible as ever. GHILL was probably the worst. Only god knows what GHILL was trying to defend. His man was always open shooting in rhythm. How many times were they going to let Arthur shoot that shot?
    When the SPURS were winning championships there was always a hand in a shooters face. I’m no basketball expert, but I know it isn’t hard to get a hand in someones face.

    Like I said it ain’t over. I’ll be watching on Wednesday.

  • http://twitter.com/graydongordian Graydon Gordian

    Tautology is “an unnecessary or unessential repetition of meaning, using different and dissimilar words that effectively say the same thing.”

    Yes, “Spurs aren’t losing it” might mean they are winning, but in this instance the implied meaning is tautological.

  • TD BestEVER

    Splitter proved he’s 10X better than Blair with these matchups tonight.

    I swear you people either don’t watch the games or don’t know how to break down games…….1 or the other…….

    Splitter did VERY LITTLE when he was matched up vs Gasol, Randolph, or even Arthur(that alley-op play was Splitters fault) on offense or defense…… He was matched up against Gasol only a couple time in the post(1-2) for Gasol with the miss going half way down before rolling out……

    He KILLED HAMED HADDADI to the tune of 8pts/6rbs in 9minutes……… So yes he killed a player who never really plays because he sucks…….

    I’m gonna wait until the season is over before I really try to dive into all the things that Splitter/Blair need to work on to become better……..As well as who we can trade, and should look to go after…….

  • http://twitter.com/graydongordian Graydon Gordian

    Duncan has been covering Gasol and vice versa. Who cares what they are listed as? That is the match-up.

  • Junierizzle

    Why are you going out of your way to trash SPLITTER? You were one of the main ones that wanted him to play.

  • Hassan

    “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”

    …..Dream on.. we are toast…we will loose game 5 in SA….

  • Ryan

    While much of you may be trying to break down small little things that probably don’t matter, the larger picture here isn’t the team in general, but moreso how this team has viewed this entire series.

    The Spurs lost tonight and are going to lose this series because of their unwillingness to compete and a lack of respect. We basically expected Memphis to lay down in this series because we are the almighty Spurs, winners of the West, and felt we didn’t need to show up at all and could treat this team like any other Eastern conference cellar dweller and have our way….

    This elitist attitude is running rampant all over the league… it’s why LA is tied with NO right now, Dallas is struggling to close out Portland, and, dare I say it, Orlando may see a first round exit after their mega trade. Guys need to respect the teams their playing and understand that winning games doesn’t come by who you are, what city your from, or who you play for… you actually have to go out there and compete and win. Memphis has played this entire series with absolutely nothing to lose while we have sat here going through the motions pretending like this is nothing new.

    Winning teams find ways to win… they don’t expect handouts, or trophies to automatically fill their cases. You have to go out there and earn it. This team has lost sight of that… Heart, desire, and effort are all things you can’t coach. It’s why Memphis is up 3-1 right now…

  • Bob

    You’re discounting the Grizzlies defense. They closed out well on the shooters. Taking heavily contested long shots isn’t the best shot. During the season the defense on shooters isn’t that great. But in the playoffs, you really need to execute to get a in rhythm jump shot. The pass out to the shooter was either too low/high or not with enough time to get a good in rhythm shot. The Spurs needed to pound inside with postups or backdoor cuts or attack from midrange. The drive and kick game is just not effective against the Grizzlies right now.

  • Bruno

    Blair is his priority

  • Hassan

    The Eulogy was ready by mid-season once the promises of improved defensive intensity were not fulfilled and no defensive players were brought in on trade deadline to replace our deficiencies(contrary to OKC and guess who…memphis(with Battier trade)…. I hate to say so But I proposed several trades for Dalembert, Nene or a trade for Splitter(yes splitter as we could have put him in the lineup and let him learn by playing & posibbly loose some games or even #1 seed…but none was done. we also needed a defensive-minded SF who is 6’6′ or taller as we keep playing manu & hill as the 3 and get killed by taller Sam Young, Allen, Battier and even in the regular season….

  • Bruno

    If Spurs could screw with Splitter, imagine what would do with Gasol, at most he would be playing with Scola on Rockets.

  • Hassan

    They are out dude…it’s over & I say that sadly…..
    It has been a nice run with this group but since 2007..I have yet to see that fire in their eyes and father time may have something to do with that…& 4 rings….

  • Hassan

    Get young 20-25 yr old players like who….????

  • Hassan

    Agree…..

  • TD BestEVER

    Because “IT’S ALL IN THE DETAILS” my friend…..I wanted him to play, but not for Blair…..for Bonner…… because Bonner is the real Problem……. trading Splitter for Blair does VERY LITTLE to improve our chances of winning and we saw that tonight……I saw that months ago……. Others didn’t….and now we are gonna repeat the same things again and loose again………

    That + I think Blair is very valuable to this team and need others to wake up and understand……for less than 1million$ BLAIR IS AS GOOD AS IT GETS…….and if he gets a jump shot, he will be even better…….

    So right now Splitter size gives him the edge over Blair…… but Blair could still prove to be the better PRO over the next 5 years………

  • Hassan

    TD=bestever, Splitter still played better than all our Front line including Duncan today…
    Darrel arthur’s should have been blocked out by a Guard as they switched at the 3-point line when splitter had to cover one of the perimeter guys and today our guards actually guarded nobody…..

  • Hassan

    This Team is done people, they are built to have 3 superstars playing at 100% and role players shooting well and also playing defense but both things are not happening…I feel the trio have just lost their zest & desire for another ring as injuries and father time have taken over….and the collection of role players are not enough to compensate…….

  • TD BestEVER

    No winning is my PRIORITY……….But I can’t seem to gather up enough Basketball smart people to actually get any momentum going……….Always keep getting dragged down by crazy argument like Tiago can slow down Gasol………. really how did that go tonight?? Or the Tiago can clog the paint and not give up Easy baskets……….that didn’t go so well either……..

    The ONLY thing I saw out of him today that was new was his rebounding……. EVERYTHING else was what he always does….And the FACT that he was playing against a nobody did help, just look at the numbers………. THEY DON’T LIE………

  • Irwin

    +10000 Ryan

  • Bruno

    Exactly, numbers don’t lie, in first half Splitter/Bonner combo has +/- 0, and Spurs win by 2, in first half of game 3 Bonner/Blair had -10.
    I am not blamming Blair(obvious), Bonner is the cancer. Who knows, maybe Splitter/Blair combo would be better, or Timmy/Blair and Dice/Splitter.
    But u can’t always say the guy just played well because was against other teams scrubs, Bonner/Blair played against the scrubs too, but they were outscored!

  • TD BestEVER

    They actually didn’t switch and shouldn’t have……….. Just go to the top right and click on the replay again………….There was no switch called for or needed……So you either didn’t watch the game/replay or have no idea what you are talking about and just wanted to defend a player you like………. which is cool, but doesn’t help to elevate the Convo of this board or help us PUSH our TEAM to victory……..

  • Anonymous

    Hard to blame Popovich for Duncan getting old. He doesn’t come anywhere close to dominating the post on either end like he used to. That’s pretty much it.

  • TD BestEVER

    This was Hamed Haddadi 1st appearance in this series beside a 30 second stint in game 2 I think………

    But he is better than Blair……And yea I don’t like to admit it….because I do like Blair more than him……. But it will be a long off season and we will see who works the hardest on their game and who returns the better player next year……..

  • Bruno

    But u can blame Pop for change the rotations, or didn’t let Manu play much when we have a chance to win, or for believe in Bonner

  • TD BestEVER

    NO 1 does at his age…….. LOOK AT HISTORY….he turned 35 today and POP has done little to address or sure up some of what he has lost ans that is ALL POP’s fault………

  • Bruno

    I personally start to wonder about Blair in this off season, his minutes are decreasing, looks like Blair is in Pop’s doghouse now. Would be really sad if Spurs trade him , he is cheap and young, Spurs can’t get not better.
    Bonner meanwhile, still here.

  • Art Kho

    Spurs remind me of Larry Bird’s Celtics: perennial contenders and 3 titles.

  • Conan

    I know the situation is not the same, but this one is pretty interesting: Point differential after 4 games in the Mavs Golden State series in 07 was 17. Between the Spurs and Grizzlies right now it’s 18…