There was nearly six minutes left in the game, the Western Conference's top seed — a team whose core has won three titles together — in danger of falling behind 3-1. And what lineup did San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich put on the floor? Gary Neal-Danny Green-Steve Novak-DeJuan Blair-Tiago Splitter — three of them playing for the first time tonight, a fourth playing in his first game in the series.
Popovich had seen enough. He'd seen the upstart Grizzlies thoroughly dominate his proud, experienced team — 61-21 in the regular season — for the previous 18 minutes, and he knew there was no coming back. There was only a chance to regroup and make sure key players were rested and ready for an elimination game back in San Antonio Wednesday night. Grizzlies fans have seen a lot this season, but nothing like this.
And now the Grizzlies find themselves on the precipice of doing something that's only been done once before — knocking off a #1 seed in a first-round, seven-game series.
I asked one visiting media member, freshly emerged from the Spurs locker room, what the mood was. "Funereal" was the response. The Grizzlies locker room I'd just come from? Calm, composed. Happy but unimpressed with an accomplishment that doesn't yet amount to much.
"We just won the game," Marc Gasol said in the locker room afterward, shrugging. "We understand that we have not won anything yet."
Through one half of basketball, this outcome was not visible on the game's horizon. Spurs point guard Tony Parker, who had underperformed the previous three games, came out with something to prove — having seen, perhaps, one too many 'Mike Conley is outplaying Tony Parker' stories. Parker quicked his way into the lane in vintage style, heading to the break with 19 points on perfect shooting — 7-7 from the floor, 1-1 from three, 4-4 from the line — leading a 55% shooting performance from the Spurs.
On the other end, the Grizzlies offense was sputtering. Catalytic movements — passes or drives — were often absent until more than halfway into the shot clock. The Spurs were denying post touches to Gasol and Zach Randolph (a combined 13 points on 4-8 shooting in the half). And Mike Conley and Sam Young were ending up with mid-range jumpers because nothing else was left.
And yet, somehow, despite not looking like their regular-season selves, the Grizzlies were close — down only 50-48. We've been saying that all series — that the Grizzlies haven't been playing well but have stayed in games. Saying it so often that it was finally dawning that the Grizzlies just weren't going to be able to play that way — helter-skelter, opportunistic, physically dominating — against this team, not even in winning.
But after three more minutes of trading baskets, Darrell Arthur and Greivis Vasquez entered the game, and everything clicked again: A decisive 22-9 run in which Arthur's 10 points on 5-5 shooting — four mid-range jumpers sandwiched around a breathtaking alley-oop dunk set up by his own block — barely conveys how dominating he was. Arthur bottled up Spurs guard George Hill on a full-court trap on his first possession, leading to a turnover. Twice more he found himself alone with a Spurs guard — first Manu Ginobili, then Hill — on a pick-and-roll switch, and both times he denied a good shot. He snatched defensive boards in a crowd. Had the amazing block-to-oop sequence. Zipped a pass to Tony Allen for a lay-up. End-to-end, possession-to-possession, it was maybe the best stretch of basketball I've seen from a Grizzlies player this season.
"I think everybody started to smell blood," Mike Conley said about the third quarter. Like Gasol, his vocal inflection was the equivalent of a shrug. "We realized, a couple more punches and we got 'em. A couple more lay-ups. A couple more steals."
Along the way, the Grizzlies played a second half that looked, for the first time, like the chaotic, aggressive, commanding basketball that has marked the team at its best this season: Scoring 13 points off nine San Antonio turnovers, giving up zero points off only two turnovers of their own.
It ended with owner Michael Heisley — sitting right beside TNT commentator Kevin McHale courtside — raising his arms and smiling wide. Ended, as Saturday's game had, with Grizzlies players huddling calmly at center court. And with Marc Gasol walking toward the stands, raising his hands and clapping.
Now they head to San Antonio, up 3-1, with a chance to take this series.
(Note: Bone-tired and with storms bearing down, I decided to do a quick take rather than a full notebook. This game deserves more, and I'll try to give it more tomorrow.)