Lionel Hollins might be a genius after all. The Memphis Grizzlies coach wanted the Spurs, he got the Spurs and he was this close to owning the Spurs.
Well, all the Spurs except Manu Ginobili.
No one owns Manu. Absent from Game 1 because he was nursing a banged-up elbow, Ginobili returned to do his own banging Wednesday night in a 93-87 victory that resuscitated more than San Antonio’s standing in this first-round series. The Spurs’ championship hopes would have gone on life support with another loss to this relentless and bruising eighth seed.
"Manu on the floor gives us another weapon," a relieved Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said.
Hollins said before the game that Memphis expected Ginobili to play, but can anyone really prepare for what comes with El Contusion? Ginobili makes plays at both ends of the floor that go beyond the simple stat-sheet entry of steal or block or basket. It’s impossible to give No. 20’s disruptiveness justice.
"Manu elevated their team and the crowd was much more electric, but Manu is Manu," Memphis sixth man Shane Battier said. "He could be in a body cast and he’s still gonna make plays."
The game’s opening moments provided a glimpse of what was to come. A keyed-up and elbow-braced Ginobili soared over 7-foot-1 Marc Gasol for an offensive rebound and swatted a Zach Randolph attempt into the stands before the game broke a sweat.
This just a week after suffering a hyperextended right elbow two minutes into the regular-season finale against Phoenix.
"It was a little uncomfortable. I felt I did OK," Ginobili said after a series-turning performance of 17 points, seven rebounds, four steals and four assists. "I took some risks — I went for steals and rebounds. I didn’t play like I was worried of getting hit or anything happening. Overall, I felt better than expected."
Ginobili’s ability to make plays a step or two ahead of everyone else illustrated one fundamental difference between the Spurs and their less-experienced challengers. The Grizzlies were in Game 2, as Hollins anticipated, but also routinely undermined their upset chances with boneheaded plays.
"We forget who we are sometimes," Hollins admitted.
Memphis gave up the lead early in the third quarter by throwing up a series of brain bricks. Inexcusable turnovers, dangerous passes and just plain carelessness turned a 48-45 lead into a 56-48 deficit. That poor decision-making was all the Spurs needed to exploit their huge edge in experience.
"We made too many mistakes," Hollins said. "We didn’t have the patience necessary, and then the game got away from us."
Still, the Grizzlies were in it late, down just three points with less than four minutes remaining. That’s when the Spurs again showed their veteran guile. A 3-pointer from Richard Jefferson, a steady stream of free throws awarded by attacking the basket and a number of closely contested misses inside by Memphis’ big men spelled out the San Antonio triumph.
Had the Grizzlies kept their heads, maybe they’d have the West’s top seed on the verge of the most shocking playoff exit of the Duncan-Popovich era. Memphis exploited its Randolph-and-Gasol advantage inside for its first-ever playoff win Sunday. And for a San Antonio franchise that built its championship foundation on the Twin Towers, being outmuscled inside, especially against a No. 8 seed, had to be humbling.
The Spurs’ bigs — Duncan, Antonio McDyess, Matt Bonner and DeJuan Blair — held their ground in Game 2. The Spurs’ frontcourt collapsed around the basket and battled Memphis’ big Grizzly Bears, limiting Randolph and Gasol to 7-of-23 combined shooting and 23 points. Those two were 19 of 25 in the opener for 49 points.
"We knew we could do a better job on them," said Duncan, who fouled out but had 16 points and 10 boards. "They killed us last time and that was a big part of their win, so we took it upon ourselves to go out there and battle a little harder, make it a little tougher."
The Grizzlies return home holding the homecourt edge, knowing a two-game sweep at FedEx Forum puts the upstarts on the verge of the West semifinals. There’s also a sense of what might have been had Memphis authored another fourth-quarter effort reminiscent of Game 1.
Instead, the Spurs appear to be in control despite the 1-1 series scorecard. The prospect of San Antonio winning just one game away from home doesn’t seem daunting, especially for a team that was 25-16 on the road during the regular season.
"Going back to Memphis down 2-0 was going to be really difficult to overcome," Ginobili said. "We brought some edge and played hard and got the win."