by Kevin Lipe
The Grizzlies fell to the San Antonio Spurs 116-95 yesterday afternoon, completing an 0-4 sweep at the hands of the Western Conference's 2nd-seeded team—the third time the Spurs have eliminated the Grizzlies from playoff contention, all of them sweeps. The short-handed Grizzlies won the second quarter of the game—a rare feat in this series—and went into the locker room at halftime trailing by only two points, but in the third quarter, the Spurs realized what was up, knew they only had to play their basketball for one quarter to put the game out of reach, and did exactly that, outscoring the Grizzlies 37-21 in the 3rd. From there on, the final frame was mostly a formality.
I'm not sure what sort of in-depth analysis of these games or this series can even be done. The Grizzlies were missing several of their best players, barely led at all in the series (though they did, especially in the games at FedExForum). They never really had much of a chance to even win a game, and yet... they came out and fought for it. Against impossible odds that turned out to actually be impossible. It was a long-time-coming end to one of the most fraught and frustrating seasons the Grizzlies have had in a long time, maybe going back to the year before the Pau Gasol trade. And yet, that team had ten fewer players see game action through the course of the year.
I'll have more to say about the year as a whole, what it meant, and what the Grizzlies have to do going forward—there's a lot to be said about that—but for now, let's give the Spurs series a proper sendoff.
★ Knowing something is inevitable doesn't mean it's fine when it comes. I knew in my heart of hearts that the Grizzlies probably wouldn't win a game in the series—but they almost pulled it off in Game 3, and in Game 4, they were playing well in the first half by following the same template: hitting shots when they could, forcing the Spurs into hasty decision-making, hounding them on defense, keeping them on their heels. The Spurs were winning, but not by much, and it seemed like if the Grizzlies could just keep them discombobulated enough that they couldn't make their big run, the Griz had a chance to steal a home game and make it a Gentlemen's Sweep.
That didn't happen. Instead the Spurs came out and did some Biblical "the Grizzlies will strike your heel and you will crush their heads" stuff, putting the Grizzlies in a blender and turning them into a pulp in the third quarter. It was the first time and only time in the whole series that the Spurs looked like the efficient basketball dream destroyers that they are, fully engaged and playing like they meant it, and the Grizzlies just had no answer for it. And how could they? Their hopes rested on Zach Randolph (who was limping around by that point) and Vince Carter and Matt Barnes—who are great role players, but the two of them aren't going to beat the Spurs by themselves.
I was taken aback by the quickness with which the Spurs punted the Grizzlies into the offseason in that quarter. I had a suspicion it was coming, but when it did, I was still deflated by it—no mean feat in a season full of such deflations at the hands of decent-to-good teams.
★ Lance Stephenson is a warrior. And I don't mean the Golden State kind. Stephenson set a new career playoff scoring high with 26 points on 11 of 19 shooting. He was the only guy on the floor who could make the Spurs' defense react to him instead of going through the same pre-schemed motions of denial and double teaming (like they've been doing to Zach Randolph for years. "Oh, yeah, you're going to your left hand? We know"). Lance was everywhere, trying to put the team on his back, and in the first half, he almost did it.
I don't know whether Lance will be on the Grizzlies next year. But whether he is or not, despite all of the questions about his head and his heart when the Grizzlies traded for him, he turned out to be a very polarizing and sometimes breathtaking player who also sometimes does the dumbest possible thing at the worst possible moment, but who never did anything but try to win basketball games for a team that desperately needed his help.
Whether he stays in Memphis or not, I'll never question whether Stephenson can make it in the league again. In the right situation, properly motivated and kept in check by an established locker room culture, I think he can still be great. I enjoyed watching him this year—he's always entertaining, even when he's not making good decisions, but in the Spurs series he seemed like the only guy whose natural abilities made them work for it.
★ I was surprised by Joerger's emotional postgame presser. Here's the video, for those of you who haven't seen it yet:
@BleacherReport) April 24, 2016
In a season where Joerger has sometimes seemed at odds with how his team was contructed (especially early on), to see him at the end of a long, brutal slog through this season, overcome by emotion when thinking about his team and their refusal to quit even when it seemed like there was no way they'd hang in to make the playoffs is something I won't soon forget.
This season was emotionally draining for me, and I was just watching and writing about these guys. I wasn't with them in all of the practices and meetings, all the meals on the road, all the shootarounds, halftime speeches after watching somebody else leave with something broken, flights back to Memphis with somebody else in a walking boot. If it was hard for me to watch, I can't imagine how much harder it must have been for the guys who were going through it (and still are, now that Jarell Martin's foot thing has flared back up). Joerger's reaction to the end seems to reflect the same pride and determination that the team has carried itself with ever since the trade deadline, when the "Goon Squad" started as a conscious decision to be positive about trades that shook up the rotation pretty majorly on a team that had only recently started to find its footing.
You can only carry on for so long in the face of crushing odds and inevitable decline. Once the Grizzlies got to the Spurs series, there was no way forward. To have that be over, and to know that most of the guys on this team will never play in a Grizzlies uniform again—Barnes, Andersen, and Farmar almost certainly won't, Lance Stephenson has a team option that probably won't get picked up (though that doesn't mean he won't be back), Hairston definitely won't (though he got a DNP-CD in Game 4, so who'll notice?), and the team has a decision to make about Vince Carter, too—has to be tough for a guy who has worked extremely hard to keep them together.
I don't know that Joerger deserves as much credit as people are saying for the way the Grizzlies played down the stretch—I think a lot of that came from the players on the team, the way they carry themselves, and who they are—but I do think he's done a good job in impossible circumstances, and I can't imagine how bittersweet it must be to know that (1) your team didn't get it done and there was nothing you could do about it and yet also (2) it's finally over.
★ This was really two seasons. One before the trade deadline, and one after. More to come on that, but the stretch run injury-pit Grizzlies were qualitatively and quantitatively different from the Jeff Green/Courtney Lee/Marc Gasol team. Just wanted to put that thought out there so I can talk more about it later.
★ The Spurs never really played well. Except for spurts at the end of quarters, the Spurs never really looked like the world-beaters they were in the regular season. I'm not sure how much of that is actually because they played badly, and how much of that is because they knew they could sweep the Grizzlies mostly on autopilot, but either way, they've got to straighten that out if they're going to advance. It was hard to tell whether Tim Duncan is finally showing his age or just coasting at 65% because he knew he didn't need to work any harder than that. I guess we'll find out.
Joerger cut his press conference short after he got so emotional, because he didn't feel like he had anything else to say. As folks started milling about after Joerger left:
Overheard muttering from visiting media afterward: "And I was going to ask him about pick-and-roll coverage."— Chris Herrington (@HerringtonNBA) April 24, 2016
Exit interviews and the draft, I guess. It's going to take a while to digest this whole season, but that process starts today with the final media availability.