by Kevin Lipe
For the first time in a long time, the Grindhouse was itself last night. The Grizzlies had no other option, and they delivered the goods. Last night they gave everything they had, continued to play they way they did in the second half of game 2, and beat the Spurs 104-94 in a contest that wasn’t actually as close as the final score suggests, on the backs of big nights from Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, and Mike Conley. What year is it again?
The Spurs haven’t let Randolph score at will like that since 2011, when he bullied them into losing to the Griz in six games. Ever since then, the Spurs (and their coach, Gregg Popovich) have always game-planned for Randolph, keeping him from getting to his spot, doubling him from the baseline to take away his options, packing all five of their guys into the paint when necessary. Thursday night, none of that mattered much, because Randolph, moved back into the starting lineup just for the occasion, just went straight through them anyway.
What happened last night is probably the Spurs’ nightmare, because it’s the thing they’ve been avoiding against the Grizzlies for six whole years, and the thing for which this year’s San Antonio team is really pretty ill-prepared: turns out it’s a lot easier to guard Zach Randolph, even the 35-year-old version, when Tim Duncan is on the team.
David Lee bore the brunt of the assault, but LaMarcus Aldridge and Pau Gasol got in on the action, too. Randolph was determined to put the team on his back to the fullest extent possible, and he ended up doing it to the tune of 21 points and 8 rebounds in under 30 minutes. It was a vintage Z-Bo playoff game, with the crowd hanging on every jabstep, holding its breath as each high arcing shot hung there deciding whether to go in. After a whole season of coming off the bench, for one night, or maybe for the rest of the series, Z-Bo was in all of his splendor just like no time has passed, like four or five seasons just didn’t even happen.
Even if not a single thing more goes right for the Grizzlies for the rest of whatever time they have left in the postseason, last night can’t be taken away, not from Zach, not from we who watched it.
In other extremely detailed basketball #analysis, it turns out that when your two best players play very well, it becomes much easier to win a playoff game against a good opponent. This shocking new development comes from Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, who scored 24 and 21 points respectively last night. (And for those keeping track at home, that means that three of the Grizzlies’ starting five last night scored more than 20 points.)
Conley and Gasol have each had their individual moments in the series so far, but last night was the first time they’ve been able to (1) put together long stretches of their best play and (2) both manage to play well in the same game at the same time. It did seem like Z-Bo’s early outburst—the majority of his production came in the first half—relieved some pressure on Conley and Gasol and allowed them to work their way into a rhythm instead of getting frustrated early while trying to carry the team. The results were inarguable, and seeing the tandem working so well together was a glimpse of one possible Grizzlies future built around their pick and roll savvy (this is the part where we pretend they haven’t already tried to sign a playmaker on the wing to do exactly that).
Gasol’s body language has been all wrong this series, for what it’s worth. He’s been visibly frustrated with his (younger) teammates at times, and he’s been much closer to “unhinged 2015 Marc” than “December 2016 MVP Marc” for weeks now. Whatever that’s about—and look, I’m a parent, and having a three-week-old at home is probably at least part of it—last night was the first sign of that fog’s clearing, as by the end of the game Marc was coaching up James Ennis instead of shooting eye-daggers at him. But it’s worth monitoring, and his mental state, his artist’s temperament about how he plays the game of basketball, is (as ever) one of the keys to whether the Grizzlies can actually make this a series now or whether last night’s win, no matter how convincing, was more about winning one for pride.
…there’s not one, really, not for the Grizzlies. At least, not one that makes as much sense as the Ennis-and-Randolph swap Fizdale put in place for game 3. But that might be fine. There’s a scenario here which I won’t allow myself to talk about too much because I don’t want to get my own hopes up: the 2013 series against the Clippers. The Grizzlies lost the first game by 21 points, played better in the second game but still not enough better to win, and then, once the series shifted back to Memphis, they… won four in a row, with Game 6 still the most “Memphis” sporting event that could ever possibly take place.
These Spurs are very good, and through the first six quarters of the series, they looked like they were operating on a totally different plane than the Grizzlies, but since halftime of Game 2, they’ve looked more mortal. Sure, they’ve still got the best player in the series in Kawhi Leonard. And the Grizzlies’ wing rotation and backup point guard mess are both still big reasons why the Spurs should win the series. But. But.
If Popovich keeps refusing to play Dwayne Dedmon, and Z-Bo can fit in with the starters more like he did in the second half of Game 3 than the awkward, “Hey guys, remember when we used to do this?” first half, and Andrew Harrison and Wayne Selden can somehow continue to play better than 2013 Keyon Dooling instead of worse than 2013 Keyon Dooling, I’m just saying, it’s not like there’s no precedent. A lot of things have to go the Grizzlies’ way in Game 4 for this to be more than wishful thinking, and because the Spurs are the Spurs, it’s entirely possible that the second half gave Popovich all the intel he needed to create The Ultimate Answer To The Z-Bo Problem Version 2.0. But these Spurs haven’t been playing as well as I expected them to. Manu Ginobili and David Lee are big weaknesses for them off the bench, etc. There are vulnerabilities there, but the question is whether the Spurs will continue to neglect to protect them. There’s not a lot of precedent for that.
It’s Memphis, and it’s the playoffs, so Grizz’s nemesis Natch showed up last night for some wrasslin’. This looks like far and away the most dangerous chokeslam at a Grizzlies game since Zach Randolph did it to Blake Griffin and got called for a common foul. It also serves as a good encapsulation of what the Grizzlies did to the Spurs last night overall: winning by brute strength and a willing disregard for pain, the classic Griz formula.