The San Antonio Spurs finished Saturday’s Game 1 against the Memphis Grizzlies with the sort of dominance that makes one wonder if a first-round series is already all but over. Halfway through Monday’s Game 2, that impression seemed confirmed. The West’s No. 2 seed followed its series-opening 29-point win an equally impressive first half, getting out to a 56-37 lead at the break that somehow did not express how thoroughly they’d controlled the game. Memphis couldn’t score on San Antonio, had no answer for Kawhi Leonard, and seemed headed for another blowout loss and an uncomfortable flight home for Games 3 and 4.
It’s to the Grizzlies’ credit that they came back to draw within as few as four points in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately for Memphis, the best player on the court was on the other side, and Kawhi Leonard wasn’t going to let the No. 7 seed get any closer. The Spurs’ MVP candidate scored 12 of his career playoff-high 37 points (9-of-14 FG, 19-of-19 FT) in the final 9:30 to finish off a solid 96-82 win. San Antonio now heads to FedEx Forum for Thursday’s Game 3 up 2-0 and in excellent position to make this a short series. The Grizzlies return home on the strength of a nice second half and have reason to hope they can get back in the series, but there’s no question which side has the advantage right now.
The Spurs can hold that confidence largely because Leonard is playing some of his best basketball of what was already an All-NBA season. Kawhi has set a new playoff career high in points in the first two games of this series, but that’s only the statistical manifestation of how good he has been. Simply put, Leonard has set the terms of most offensive possessions for the Spurs and carried the team when others have been unable to create shots.
On Monday, Leonard’s excellence usually took the form of getting to the free-throw line. He made all 19 of his free throws (10 in the first half, nine in the second) to constitute the majority of his scoring and to give the Spurs a steady stream of easy points. Grizzlies head coach David Fizdale took issue with many of the calls that put Leonard on the line in an instant-classic post-game rant, and he has something of a point. But it’s also true that Leonard often puts the defense in difficult positions and initiates contact with his style of play. The free-throw disparity was glaring — 32 to 15 tends to stand out — but it also wasn’t unearned.
Through two games, Kawhi Leonard has 69 points on 20/28 from the floor. That works out to 2.46 points per attempt.
— Duncan Smith (@DuncanSmithNBA) April 18, 2017
Leonard got enough help early to build the Spurs a huge lead. LaMarcus Aldridge and Tony Parker both followed up strong Game 1 performances to hit double figures in the first half, and the Spurs shot 22-of-23 from the line to keep the offense humming. However, they were able to lead by as many as 26 in the second quarter because the Grizzlies did so little when they had the ball. Mike Conley (14 points on 4-of-8 shooting) and Zach Randolph (10 points on 5-of-9) offered some offense, but everyone else managed to shoot just 6-of-28 (21.4 percent) for 13 points. Those numbers cannot sustain an offense in this era, and the Grizzlies suffered immensely for it.
Fizdale countered by inserting Randolph into the starting lineup for the second half, and it worked well enough that it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him on the court to begin Game 3. Memphis cut the margin to 11 by the midway point of the period and out-scored San Antonio 28-19 in the quarter as a whole to keep the pressure on heading into the fourth. The Grizzlies went on to score the first six points of the period to make it a four-point game, and suddenly the Spurs looked at risk of blowing a huge lead and letting the underdogs back in the series.
Instead, Kawhi took over again and ensured that Memphis could only finish up their two road games with a renewed sense of hope. The Spurs didn’t exactly inspire everyone with their second-half performance on Wednesday, but they’ve now dominated four of eight quarters against the Grizzlies and now know that just one road win can give them a chance to end the series at home in Game 5. The way Leonard is playing, though, it might be a bad idea to bet against them finishing off a sweep. He doesn’t seem prepared to let his team lose.
– – – – – – –