Looking at the Spurs’ first postseason without Timmy

Marco Benitez
San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich talks to players during a timeout during the first half of Game 4 in an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the Memphis Grizzlies, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)

If the San Antonio Spurs' first regular season post-Tim Duncan was any indication of how their Playoffs run would unfold, many would have thought that they’d romp through the first round, and only begin to encounter adversity in the Conference Semifinals, where they’d meet either the Russell Westbrook-led Oklahoma City Thunder, or James Harden’s Houston Rockets.

In fact, even after game two against the Memphis Grizzlies, a match where the Spurs coasted to a 14-point win at home, many thought that San Antonio’s high-octane offense was just too much for a Grizzlies team without much firepower and with no answer to The Klaw. In games one and two, Kawhi Leonard had led all Spurs with 32 and 37 points respectively, and was the best player on the floor for either team. Of course, not having Tony Allen, the Grizzlies’ best perimeter defender to match up against Kawhi was a big disadvantage, but ultimately, Memphis was just outplayed by San Antonio on both ends of the floor. 

It was on the defensive end where the Spurs locked down the Grizzlies in both games at home, not allowing them to score more than 85 points in either match, and holding them to below 40 percent shooting from the field. The Spurs had also managed to out-work the Grizzlies big men inside, out-rebounding them on both occasions, en route to a 20-11 advantage in second-chance points through two games. 

Offensively, the Spurs were their usual pass-first, three-point shooting selves, always looking for the best percentage shot, and knocking down three’s at close to a 40 percent clip through games one and two. In fact, Spurs starters shot better than 50 percent from three in both games. Aside from Leonard, Tony Parker was vintage Tony Parker through the first two games of the series, averaging 16.5 ppg, connecting on 5-of-7 from three, and committing just two turnovers in both games combined.

As the series shifted to Memphis however, the Grizzlies were able to find their groove in front of their home crowd, as their offense started to click behind stellar play from Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. Familiarity with their home rims also helped, as their three-point shooting improved to above 40 percent for games three and four, while their frontline flexed their muscle, out-rebounding the Spurs 84-79, and out-scoring them in the paint, 86-78. Both Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph put up double-doubles in games three and four, and have started imposing themselves inside the paint against the less physical San Antonio frontline. In the past, Randolph and Gasol clearly had a more difficult time scoring inside against Tim Duncan, who despite having slowed down offensively, was still the Spurs’ defensive anchor. 

Mike Conley too has been near unstoppable the past two outings in Memphis, scoring 24 and 35, respectively, and dishing out eight assists in each match. Neither Parker nor Mills have been able to keep up, and the Spurs cannot afford to have Kawhi, their best offensive weapon so far, also guard Conley the entire game. 

Many say that the playoffs are a totally different animal compared to the regular season. Playing the same opponent in a seven-game series gives teams much more opportunities to scout each other, adjust strategies, take advantage of mismatches, hide weaknesses, and exploit strengths – something almost impossible in the regular season where it’s almost a different opponent every night. If games three and four were any indication, San Antonio is in for a dogfight this series. Many Spurs fans even argue, that Memphis coach Fizdale’s “Take that for data” press conference may have even altered the officiating somewhat, at least giving Memphis a fighting chance. But for as long as the Grizzlies’ Big Three of Conley, Gasol and Z-Bo are clicking, questionable calls or not, Memphis will definitely be in contention to win in the end-game, and it will boil down to which team can execute, or which superstar will have the last shot.

And talking about superstars, many a Spurs critic has said that Pop’s team is still one superstar away from truly being able to contend against GSW or Cleveland; that even a healthy Pau Gasol or LaMarcus Aldridge aren’t enough complementary pieces to Kawhi to win them a sixth title. The reality that Tony Parker can no longer sustain excellent play for 40 minutes, or that Manu Ginobili has been a shadow of his Hall of Fame self this series, both underscore that fact that the Spurs, model of execution excellence that they are, will still need another superstar – preferably in the backcourt – to match up with the Curry’s, Harden’s, Irving’s, and even Conley’s of the league. Patty Mills and Danny Green are excellent pieces. But they are more specialists than all-NBA material. Dejounte Murray may BE that eventual superstar, but he still has some ways to go.

That sort of criticism does have its logic, but if there’s anything we’ve learned from watching this franchise succeed the past two decades, is that it’s never to underestimate Gregg Popovich’s teams, as they have found ways to succeed time and time again. 

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