Grit and Grind is back.
Led by bruising center Jonas Valanciunas and gutsy guard Dillon Brooks, the Memphis Grizzlies moved a step closer to their first playoff appearance since Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen defined an era in Grind City. Valanciunas amassed 23 points and 23 rebounds, and Brooks added 24 points in a 100-96 victory against the San Antonio Spurs to open the Western Conference play-in tournament.
"Those two guys were big-time for us tonight," Grizzlies star Ja Morant (20 points, six assists, six rebounds) told reporters. "A lot of credit to everyone on our team. We all got it done, but ... [Valanciunas] locked down the paint for us tonight, and then DB — tonight gave him another case to be on the All-Defensive team."
Brooks helped limit Spurs star DeMar DeRozan to 20 points on 21 shots. San Antonio shot 35% as a team. The loss eliminates the Spurs from contention for a second straight season after 22 consecutive playoff appearances. Memphis advanced to face the loser of Wednesday's game between the Los Angeles Lakers and Golden State Warriors on Friday, with the eighth seed and a first-round date with the Utah Jazz awaiting.
Wednesday's opener was nearly the Gorgui Dieng revenge game. Bought out by the Grizzlies in March, the veteran Senegalese center signed with the Spurs soon afterward. He changed the tenor of the game upon entry into the fourth quarter, combating Valanciunas, who already had a 20-20 game through three quarters. Dieng even drilled a 3-pointer to cut a deficit that was once 21 points to 77-73 with 9:43 left, and DeMar DeRozan capped a 7-0 run two minutes later with a jumper that gave the Spurs their first lead since 2-0.
Brooks responded with four straight buckets to push Memphis' lead back to 87-83. Each time San Antonio climbed back within one possession, the Grizzlies had an answer. Morant floated in a 12-footer. Kyle Anderson knocked down a 3. And when Rudy Gay's triple drew San Antonio within 99-96 in the final 10 seconds, Morant knocked down the second of two free throws for his 20th point and a must-win victory.
"That's what I do," said Brooks. "I score in crunch-time, and I'm just ready for any situation or whatever comes at me. I'm just ready to go whenever my teammates or my coach calls on me. I'm
The Grizzlies jumped out to a 27-6 lead in a first quarter that looked headed to a third straight play-in blowout. Valanciunas was the anchor, finishing the opening frame one rebound shy of a double-double.
Asked to assess the opening 12 minutes by ESPN's Lisa Salters, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said simply, "We got our ass kicked in the first quarter." Eighteen of Memphis' 38 points in the frame came in the paint.
"It was amazing. There's really nothing like it," Grizzlies forward Jaren Jackson Jr. (10 points) told reporters after the game. "Especially early on, you feel that energy from the crowd, you see the towels in the crowd, it kind of reminds you of the old Grindhouse days. It was just very surreal. You can't really put it into words."
The Spurs punched back. Patty Mills opened the second quarter with a 3-pointer, and long-armed point guard Dejounte Murray (10 points, 13 rebounds, 11 assists) wreaked havoc on both ends of the floor. Murray sandwiched a pair of assists to rolling center Jakob Poeltl around a dime to Mills for another 3, and Keldon Johnson followed a driving Murray layup attempt with a put-back dunk that cut the deficit to 41-39 seven minutes before halftime.
The Grizzlies withstood San Antonio's charge, reestablishing a seven-point halftime lead they maintained through the third quarter. Valanciunas' interior work, Memphis' defensive effort and transition scoring kept the Spurs at bay, despite a 6-for-21 shooting drought (0-for-5 from 3) in the 12 minutes after halftime.
It was the kind of victory Memphis became accustomed to from its gritty veterans last decade. Against the savvy Spurs, no less. Now, the young Grizzlies are tasked with grinding out one more win against another team with a championship pedigree in hopes of securing the playoff spot that eluded them a year ago.
"Our plan is to pack for a three-game road trip," added Morant, making Memphis' intentions clear.
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