Three close games have come and gone, and in each one the outcome has only been decided in the final seconds, in the final play. We look up at our opponents from the bottom of a shallow but very real 1-2 hole – but we know and we still believe that the Spurs can play much better, should play much better, will eventually play much better.
Reality dictates that the Spurs have so far been expertly dismantled by Lionel Hollins’ Grizzlies. What was once, during the regular season, a dazzling array of offensive weapons has now become formulaic, predictable grind that is largely dependent on the players individual skill and small stretches of smart passing by the Big Three. With their suffocating man-on-man defense, staying home on the sharpshooters at all times and leaving everyone else wide open, the Grizzlies have removed the threat of the Spurs’s fearsome triple, the keystone of our offense (2 of 15 tonight, down from the 21 attempted triples we average per game). To make matters worse, what few open triples we have had have been squandered, turning a bad situation into a fatal offensive drought.
Like a castle of cards, with the 3-pointer taken away, the second-unit that was responsible for the Spurs’s stellar bench production has struggled. Hill contributes with scrappy penetrations and quick hands, but his outside shot is off. Blair has given the Spurs what he always has, boundless energy, offensive rebounding and the occasional layup or putback, but he has still been relegated to the far end of the bench. Neal has struggled to finish either on triples or with his once-effective floaters, and the tall Memphis backcourt has exposed his defensive limitations. And Bonner, dear and lovable Bonner, who played with commendable effort in Game 3, simply cannot be paired up with either the starting Memphis frontcourt or Darrell Arthur. San Antonio’s bench, the jewel in the Spurs’ regular season crown, has been virtually stolen by a sweep of Shane Battier’s long arms.
Memphis has also taken away the Spurs’ running game, slowing the game down and bothering and bumping and annoying our guards into several turnovers when they have tried to stage a fast break. Parker in particular looked lost during some stretches tonight, picking up the dribble when he should have passed, passing when he should have shot, and committing turnovers that we have not seen from him since 2003. His four blocked shots speak of bad decision making, and in tune with every Spurs not named McDyess, his outside jumper has taken a vacation.
And what Memphis has not touched, chance seems bent on robbing from us. During the third quarter of Game 3, Tony Allen, whose role as a Ginobili stopper is largely based on giving hard fouls and failing to look innocent afterwards, fell on top of the Argentine. Manu pushed himself to his feet and immediately grabbed a hold of his elbow, the one hidden beneath a bulky blue and black brace, wincing. For the rest of the game, Manu shot his free throws with one hand, his trusty left, while his right arm stayed bent. He converted most of them.
I believe that no one was able to quite understand what happened to McDyess, our only reliable answer to Zach Randolph’s single-minded strength. His arms were stretched and high, looking for a rebound, and then he came down and bent over, hurting and showing it. Later on it was said that a muscle strain on his neck caused his hand to go numb, and he recovered by the time he reached the dressing room. His absence forced Popovich to use Bonner during crunchtime, giving the Randolph-Gasol tag team a clear advantage in the low post that will surely be capitalized in Game 4 if McDyess cannot play.
For three games now, the Spurs have played Memphis’s game, following Memphis’s rules. It is a slow, abrasive, inside-out style that was once the trademark of these very Spurs, irritating, dangerous. It is a style that the Spurs have left behind, almost a negative copy of the free-wheeling modus operandi responsible for their regular season success. If they are to win three of the next four games, it is also a style that the Spurs must overcome.
Memphis might have taken away some of the Spurs’s weapons. Do they have any other arrows in their quiver?