Kawhi Leonard takes over in crunch time again as Spurs eliminate Grizzlies

Ball Don't Lie
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/4896/" data-ylk="slk:Kawhi Leonard">Kawhi Leonard</a> dominated the Grizzlies in crunch time to lead the Spurs to the series win. (AP)
Kawhi Leonard dominated the Grizzlies in crunch time to lead the Spurs to the series win. (AP)

The Memphis Grizzlies have become critical darlings over the last several seasons thanks to their grit-and-grind philosophy and a tendency never to quit no matter the odds against them. By that standard, their performance in their first-round playoff series against the heavily favored No. 2 San Antonio Spurs was one of their best moments in recent memory. After dropping the opening two games on the road and looking on their way to a quick exit, the Grizzlies battled back to even the series and were in position to force a Game 7 up 88-81 in the fourth quarter of Thursday night’s Game 6. It was a classic performance in the Grindhouse, full of the tough play that has made Memphis such a pleasure to watch over the years.

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Unfortunately, those qualities often don’t mean much in the face of a superstar like Kawhi Leonard. The Spurs’ MVP candidate came up huge throughout this series and closed out the Grizzlies with another dominant stretch over the final few minutes. Leonard scored six points over a span of 34 seconds to cut that 88-81 lead to just one point and broke an 82-82 tie with two tremendous drive-and-kick assists to lead the Spurs to a 103-96 win and a Western Conference Semifinals date with the rival Houston Rockets.

It’s fitting that Leonard finished off Memphis, because this series belonged to him. He set new playoff career highs in scoring in both Games 1 and 2 (both wins) and again in Game 4, during which he put forth one of the best playoff performances in a loss ever. His scoring stats in the Game 6 win were impressive, too — Leonard finished with a game-high 29 points (8-of-19 FG, 12-of-13 FT) and added nine rebounds, four assists, and three steals.

What was remarkable on Thursday, though, is that Kawhi showed he doesn’t just make the San Antonio offense work with his scoring. His two tiebreaking assists were genuinely creative and resourceful. On the first, he drove through the lane and turned left not to make the standard pass to Tony Parker in the corner, but short to David Lee for a lay-up. The second was a more normal play — a drive-and-kick to Parker for a jumper — but it’s still worth noting how far Leonard has come in such a short time. A few years ago we praised him for developing a jumper. Now he’s dicing up elite defenses with dribble penetration and visionary passes that some All-Stars never figure out.

Yet Leonard may not have been able to set up his teammates if Parker hadn’t done so much to ease his scoring burden. Despite turning 35 years old in a little more than two weeks, Parker put up 27 pointis on a hyper-efficient 11-of-14 shooting. It was clear early on that Parker would make a big impact in this game — he made his first six field goals to score 11 points in the first quarter and 15 by halftime. In all, Parker experienced a terrific series, a nice sign for a team thought to lack the backcourt production of other contenders. He scored 15 points in all but one game and made at least half or one shy of half his field goals in all but his 0-of-4 Game 3. More tough matchups will come in the next round (and beyond, if the Spurs get there), but for now Parker’s emergence is perhaps the most important takeaway from this series.

The Grizzlies countered these star turns with their own. Mike Conley continued to build on his reputation as an elite point guard with a team-high 26 points, many of which came on tough drives to the rim that resulted in floaters, lay-ins, and fouls. As with most of what the Grizzlies do, though, this was a team effort. All five starters finished in double figures, and a hot start from three-point range (8-of-15 in the first half) seemed destined to carry them to a win.

Unfortunately, they simply had no answer for Leonard in the fourth. Many teams struggle to contain such excellent players, but the failure must have hurt especially for the Grizzlies, a team that attempted to address its years-long weaknesses on the wing last summer by adding Chandler Parsons on a max-level contract. Parsons played in only 34 games and looks like a potential cap-killer moving forward, and now the Grizzlies have suffered the same kind of early-round elimination that inspired that move in the first place. Head coach David Fizdale’s first season as head coach was undoubtedly successful, but the disappointment still stings. Here’s hoping Memphis fares better, or at least differently, come next spring.

The Spurs also got to experience the familiar on Thursday night, albeit a little more positively. Their reward is a date with the in-state rival Houston Rockets, a team against which they won three of four meetings this season. However, neither won by more than six points, and playoff series tend to expose weaknesses that don’t necessarily show up in the regular season. Gregg Popovich and Mike D’Antoni have met in epic series before, and this one could join them. It starts Monday, and we’re very excited.

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Eric Freeman is a writer for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at efreeman_ysports@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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