I had no idea what to expect last night before the game. No outcome would have surprised me, from a Spurs blowout win to a 20-point Grizzlies beatdown like the one they tried to pull off in Game 3. There wasn’t a vibe in the building other than that, having finally lost a game, the Spurs weren’t going to be playing around anymore in Game 4. The Grizzlies, on the other hand, needed to have a strong showing and get a win to avoid taking the series back to San Antonio trailing 3-1. Both teams were desperate to win it.
What happened was one of the most exciting playoff games I’ve ever witnessed, and probably one of the most stressful for the Griz faithful in attendance: a down-to-the-wire win in which Kawhi Leonard put on one of the most masterful performances anyone has ever seen and still lost on a last-second Marc Gasol shot after Mike Conley had controlled 52:59 of the game’s 53 minutes. Last night’s game will forever be remembered as a heart-stopper in which the home team came through.
Conley played the MVP-level basketball he was playing to start the season, back before he got hurt and played NBA basketball with a broken back for several weeks. He was absolutely unstoppable on the offensive end, no matter which Spur was guarding him. Even when covered by the fearsome Leonard, Conley managed to use his speed to get into the lane and find ways to create scoring. Conley’s stat line was a near triple-double: 35 points (56% shooting, including 50% from three), 9 rebounds (all defensive) and 8 assists.
Conley was everywhere, carrying the team on his back through rough stretches, scoring, defending well—Game 4 was Mike Conley’s game, the one in which the aggressiveness that David Fizdale has been cultivating in him all year finally paid off in a big way on the biggest stage. For all of the talk about how this is Marc Gasol’s team, and how Gasol was made the team’s sole captain in training camp, it’s been Conley who has grown the most under Fizdale, finally embracing his ability to be the team’s top scoring option in addition to running the offense. That paid dividends last night, because the Spurs still don’t have a guard who can defend him well, and if they put Leonard on him all the time the Grizzlies have just enough shooting to make that a bad idea.
Conley’s blossoming this year has been amazing to watch, and might be an even bigger accomplishment for Fizdale than convincing Zach Randolph to come off the bench. We always suspected the talent was there, and saw it in little flashes here and there (especially in the playoffs) but I think it’s fair to say, after Game 4 in particularly, that this is Mike Conley’s world and we’re all living in it.
The question everybody had going into Game 4 was “What will the Spurs do to adjust?”, and right away there was immediate intrigue: Dewayne Dedmon was a late scratch with an illness, and Gregg Popovich announced in pregame availability that David Lee was starting in his place. Lee was thoroughly roasted by Z-Bo in Game 3, so it was a curious substitution (Pau Gasol seemed the more obvious fit to me) but it seemed to signal that the Spurs’ strategy would be to double-team Randolph whenever he caught the ball in the post. That’s what they started out doing, and it majorly hampered Randolph’s production early (he was scoreless in the first quarter and only had 4 at halftime).
For the Grizzlies, there weren’t that many adjustments left to make after moving Randolph and Ennis to the starting lineup for Game 3. The minutes shifted around, and there was certainly a renewed intensity on defense once they started to figure out the Spurs’ extremely high pick and rolls, but for the most part, the lineup questions were about “what will the Spurs do to counter” rather than what the Grizzlies were going to change. Fizdale said as much in the postgame, saying he wanted to make sure they Griz were maximizing the potential of their gameplan before making changes out of impatience.
I’m not sure what the Spurs’ next move is, lineup-wise. Davis Bertans played some very good minutes for them in Game 4, so I would expect to see more of him in the upcoming games, but beyond that, Popovich seems pretty committed to the gameplan the Spurs brought into the series. As long as it involves a spot in the rotation for Manu Ginobili and big minutes and production from Tony Parker, I think the Grizzlies are happy with it.
Ginobili’s presence in the game is what allowed the Griz to get more run for Troy Daniels than they have in previous games, because Daniels is still not really good enough on defense to play in these situations unless he’s hidden on someone he literally doesn’t have to guard. Ginobili went 0-5 from the floor, and it felt like all of those were open 3’s that Daniels was letting him take. On the other end, Daniels was able to hit a couple of big 3-pointers and shift the momentum of the game in a non-negligible way (including one listed as 26’ on the play-by-play that felt like it was shot from somewhere in Foote Homes a couple blocks away). Look for Fizdale to press that advantage to the fullest extent possible, because Daniels can be a devastating weapon when he starts to get going.
Game 5 on Tuesday in San Antonio will be interesting. It’s not a series until a home team loses, etc. But if the Grizzlies, who have been mostly outplaying the Spurs since the second half of Game 2, can now go back down to San Antonio with the confidence they’ve built in these two games—especially the rookies like Harrison and Selden and Ennis, who looked overwhelmed in the first two games but found their sea legs at home—I see no reason to think the Grizzlies can’t continue winning.
On the other hand, if the Spurs figure things out in a meaningful way, the Grizzlies could be in trouble, because as I said they don’t have any more tricks up their sleeves. To stretch the metaphor, I think all of the Grizzlies’ cards are on the table, and what they’ve got it what they’ve got. The problem for the Spurs is that none of the “answers” to what the Grizzlies have got are clean enough; they all create matchup issues at other positions. It’s also unlikely that Marc Gasol will have another game as poor as he did in Game 4 (right up to the point that he hit the hard shot that won the game). In all, I don’t really know what to predict here. I thought the Grizzlies would have a lot more trouble coping with Tony Allen’s absence than they are, and a lot of that credit goes to James Ennis and Wayne Selden for doing just enough to keep Kawhi Leonard from being able to win games by himself.
These next two games will probably induce just as much anxiety as Game 4. Bring on the Tums.
After Kawhi Leonard’s breathtaking performance last night, this one seemed apropos:
POP: Give the ball to Kawhi— Jake Whitacre (@jakewhitacre) April 23, 2017
NBA TWITTER: What a coach