Contrary to rumor, Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins didn’t consider sitting Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph and Mike Conley for Saturday night’s showdown in San Antonio.
Those back-to-backs are draining.
The top two teams in the Southwest Division — maybe the Western Conference right now — collided at AT&T Center at the opposite ends of the energy spectrum. Spurs stars Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker returned from the ultra-exclusive two-day Popovich Spa, while Memphis hit the court for the third time in four nights.
The evening began with a heartfelt standing ovation for Gregg Popovich and ended with another, as the Spurs claimed this battle of attrition 99-95 in overtime. One team had more gas in the tank for those extra five minutes.
Wasn’t that by design?
Pop and the Spurs didn’t need a referendum on their team-first philosophy or redemption for their actions of two nights ago, but they received it anyway. Spurs fans could have passed around a hat to pay off David Stern’s $250,000 sanction.
“I was disappointed by the action,” Popovich said of the fine before the game, “but what I do from my perspective is a coaching perspective. I think what the league does is from a business perspective, and that’s reflected in the action they took. That’s that and we move on.”
Moving on meant facing Memphis in a game that means more within the division and conference than a one-off TV deal in Miami. The Spurs and Grizzlies will meet four times in the regular season and Popovich understands the basketball significance of getting a one-up on a rival.
After two consecutive playoffs trips, the Grizzlies weren’t going to surprise anyone this season with a solid start. This is a team that most figured would be in that second-round mix once the postseason rolled around.
No one outside of Memphis figured the Grizzlies would be this good, as in leading-the-league good. But there they stood as November closed, with the NBA’s best mark at 12-2.
The Grizz arrived in San Antonio fresh, well sort of fresh, after a 4-1 run at FedEx Forum.
“We had a great homestand,” Memphis’ Marc Gasol said. “We had a great month. We have to keep going. We still got a lot of room to grow. We got to keep working towards our main goal.”
Hollins’ formula of success starts much like Popovich’s old one, on the defensive end. More than 500 pounds of Gasol-Randolph beef protect the paint, while Conley is third in the league in steals. Memphis had held three consecutive foes to 82 points or less.
Until Saturday night.
San Antonio opened ready, the Three Amigos spry. Duncan had 21 of his 27 points in the first half. Timmy along with Manu and Tony had 17 of the Spurs’ 18 first-half field goals as they trailed 46-45 at the break.
“I just came out and tried to play hard,” said Duncan, who also grabbed 15 boards. “I got some shots going early. I just continued to attack.
“I came out in the third quarter and did the exact opposite. I had an awful third quarter. I think we all did.”
The Grizzlies increased their lead to 73-60 after three quarters, but …
Funny thing happened, those “other” guys left to labor against the Heat like Gary Neal and Patty Mills led a charge to give the Spurs a chance down the stretch.
Cue the main guns and a finishing kick. Duncan and Parker played more than 40 minutes, while Ginobili put in 35.
The Spurs outscored Memphis by 13 in the fourth quarter to force OT. San Antonio, coincidentally, is the league’s highest-scoring team in the fourth. The Spurs are also 7-2 when down or tied going into the final period.
They’re even better with a little extra rest. Oh yeah, San Antonio (14-4) now leads Memphis (12-3) atop the Southwest by a half game.
“It was a hard-fought game,” Hollins said. “We had our chances, we had the lead. They went with their bench in the fourth quarter and we just ran out of gas.”