Memphis Grizzlies head coach David Fizdale grabbed the NBA world’s attention on Monday night when he responded to his team’s 96-82 Game 2 loss to the San Antonio Spurs with an instant-classic rant directed towards the officials. Comedy and quality of argument aside, the goal of Fizdale’s comments was clear — to energize his team and hopefully gain the Grizzlies a few more calls. Everything else — the laughs, the $30,000 fine his players went on to cover, etc. — was secondary.
It’s safe to say it worked as intended. The Grizzlies found a way back into the series in Thursday’s Game 3 at FedEx Forum with a comfortable 105-94 win that cuts the Spurs’ advantage to 2-1 and turns Saturday night’s Game 4 into a pivotal contest. After two road games in which they only looked competitive for a half at a time, the Grizzlies fed off the energy of the Grindhouse crowd and were the better team for 48 minutes. With many fans in “Take That For Data” and “They’re Not Gonna Rook Us” t-shirts in honor of Fizdale’s press conference, Memphis excelled in an often ragged game, kept Kawhi Leonard from continuing his career-best form, and sent many of the Spurs’ key players to early exits.
The difference was clear enough from the opening tip. Fizdale kept with the lineup he used to open the second half of Game 2 and inserted veteran forward Zach Randolph into the starting lineup for a dose of immediate offense. The Grizzlies scored only 21 points in the first quarter, but he also offered an immediate threat that built as the first half continued. Randolph put up 13 points and nine rebounds in the first half on his way to a stellar 21 points (9-of-16 FG) in 29 minutes, and it’s probably fair to assume he’ll find himself on the floor at tipoff for the rest of this series.
What didn’t change in Game 3 was the foul disparity that raised Fizdale’s ire over the first two games. Both teams were whistled for six fouls in the first quarter, but that evenness soon gave way to a very different second quarter in which the Grizzlies were handed five fouls and the Spurs received just one (in the final 10 seconds). The second half actually went in the other direction — the stats finished with the Grizzlies at 24 and the Spurs at 21 fouls — but Thursday’s game did not seem to be officiated differently than the prior two in the series.
If the Grizzlies earned more calls in Game 3, it wasn’t because the refs were nicer. It was because they more often set the terms of physicality and forced the Spurs into uncomfortable spots defensively. This was true of the game as a whole, but also periods when the Grizzlies weren’t getting whistles to go their way. The one-foul second quarter was a very good one for the Memphis offense — it scored 29 points to San Antonio’s 25 — and only point guard Mike Conley was moderately dependent on free throws to put up impressive scoring numbers (24 points on 7-of-13 FG and 8-of-8 FT).
Rather, the Grizzlies put up points because they were quicker, made few mistakes, and looked more focused. A team doesn’t shoot 50.6 percent and commit only five turnovers against an elite defense because of good luck — they have to earn it. The Grizzlies played like a committed, confident team, helped to enforce their preferred ragged style, and often made the Spurs look overmatched. It was a throwback win for a team with a clear identity — Randolph, Conley, and Marc Gasol all scored at least 21 points, and the defense stifled the Spurs when it mattered. It’s telling that Fizdale refused to talk about the foul numbers in his post-game press conference — he didn’t want to get fined again, of course, but he also didn’t have to point to them for proof of anything. The performance spoke for itself.
In the process, San Antonio looked like a team that might depend too heavily on Kawhi Leonard. The MVP candidate followed up two consecutive playoff career-high scoring nights with 18 points on 6-of-11 shooting, a nice game that certainly didn’t carry the Spurs like in their series-opening wins. Grizzlies partisans may point to Leonard four free-throw attempts as a reason this night went differently, but it’s also true that the often Spurs do just fine when he puts up these kinds of numbers. The problem in Game 3 was that no one else did much to help. LaMarcus Aldridge needed 10 free throws to get his 16 points, and ever other player in double figures got there in garbage time. Simply put, the Spurs don’t look like a championship contender when Tony Parker (0-of-4 FG), Danny Green (0-of-4 3FG), and Pau Gasol (2-of-9 FG) struggle so mightily. For everything that Leonard does, he’s not on the level of James Harden or LeBron James when it comes to creating for his teammates.
The question now is if this impressive win is a sign of shifting fortunes in the series or a nice consolation win on the way to a five-game elimination. The Spurs remain the better team, but this victory at least showed how the Grizzlies can tie things up on Saturday and turn the rest of the series into a best-of-three. If they focus on repeating this performance, there’s a good chance they could do it.
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Aldridge seven FTs in 1st, Grizzlies get four
Fouls are 6-6 though
Z-Bo starts and goes for 13 and 9 rebounds, Gasol has 11 on good shooting too
Question is if it’s sustainable, Memphis is 21-of-40 and 5-of-12 with one turnover and up 4
Kawhi dominating again with 15 on 5-of-9
Fouls 11 to 6, Grizzlies might be upset but they also just foul more