After battling back from an 0-2 deficit to tie their best-of-seven series with the San Antonio Spurs, the Memphis Grizzlies came back from 18 points down to trail by only five with just under five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter of a pivotal Game 5. Mike Conley had been brilliant, dominating late in the third and early in the fourth to keep Memphis afloat. When Conley went to the bench for a brief rest before the final push, the Grizzlies weathered the storm, matching the Spurs shot for shot and trailing by just 102-97 with 4:51 left.
With Conley cooking, and Marc Gasol dealing, and JaMychal Green and Andrew Harrison hitting shots, the Grizzlies were right there, just five minutes, five points and one last strong closing kick away from becoming the first road team in this series to come away with a win. Instead, the Spurs unleashed hell.
In the blink of an eye, San Antonio ripped off a 12-0 run that turned a two-possession game into a 17-point blowout. Thanks to a pair of bombs by Patty Mills, a couple of brutally effective drives by Kawhi Leonard, and a cherry-on-top dunk by David Lee, both coaches pulled full hockey-style line changes before the final two minutes.
This was a five-point game with 4:51 left, and we wound up with both benches emptied with 2:12 left.
— Dan Devine (@YourManDevine) April 26, 2017
That furious flurry in the final five minutes propelled the Spurs to a 116-103 win that gave them a 3-2 lead over the Grizzlies. San Antonio now has a chance to close the series out in Memphis in Game 6 on Thursday night.
Asked if he could detail what went wrong for his team down the stretch, Grizzlies head coach David Fizdale answered in the affirmative.
“Yeah, I can, actually: The Spurs did what they do,” he said. “Every mistake, they capitalized on, and it ended in a three every time. It’s just really bad mental breakdowns. You give up 116 points to the Spurs, you’re probably not going to win. Simple as that.”
San Antonio shot 52.5 percent from the field as a team and knocked down a series-high 14 3-pointers on 28 attempts, riding a more balanced approach than they’d mustered in Memphis, but one that was still led by their All-Star forward:
Leonard led all scorers with 28 points on 9-for-16 shooting (3 for 5 from 3-point range, 7 for 8 from the free-throw line) and added six assists. He also picked up a pair of secondary or “hockey” assists, as he worked diligently to take advantage of the extra attention the Grizzlies defense threw his way — which, y’know, comes with the territory when you’ve averaged 32.5 points on 58 percent shooting through the first four games of a series — by drawing out traps, beating blitzes and keeping the ball moving so his teammates could attack going downhill with four-on-three or three-on-two advantages.
“Well, they’ve [doubled Leonard] the whole series, and he’s getting used to it,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said after the game. “He’s just gone through the ceiling, improving every year with all parts of his game, and this is one of the things that he’s had to work on this year more, because people come after him. And he’s doing a great job of finding people, and that’s how you get uncontested shots. He understands that he’s a facilitator as well as a scorer.”
Back in the friendly confines of AT&T Center after a rough few days in Tennessee, several Spurs role players relocated their swagger. Manu Ginobili threw his 39-year-old body around the court after loose balls with an energy that seemed to energize his team and himself, as he finally got off the schneid after going 0-for-the-first-four-games to score 10 points on 4-for-6 shooting with three assists, three steals, two rebounds and a block in 18 minutes off the bench.
The biggest difference-maker in San Antonio’s second unit, though, was Mills, who bounced back from a 2-for-7 Game 4 by blistering the nets to the tune of 20 points in 21 minutes, making seven of his 10 field-goal attempts and shooting 5 for 7 from long distance, including a perfect 4 for 4 from beyond the arc in the final frame:
Time and again down the stretch, Mills skittered off a screen on the perimeter, caught the ball on the move, took a step or two to his left, launched, fired and connected. The Australian spark plug delivered gut punch after gut punch to a Grizzlies team that has long made its bones on defense, but that couldn’t keep a lid on the Spurs — or a leash on Mills — after intermission.
Leonard and Mills combined for 31 of the Spurs’ 61 second-half points on Tuesday. They teamed with veteran point guard Tony Parker (six points, five assists in the final two quarters) and strong interior work from Lee and LaMarcus Aldridge to fuel a San Antonio attack that overwhelmed the Grizzlies’ typically stout defense down the stretch.
“I thought the fight was in us. I just didn’t think the execution was there,” Fizdale said. “You guys watched the game. The Patty Mills threes are just our guys falling asleep. A nothing play, and then all of a sudden, Patty Mills breaks free and it’s a three. Our attention to detail and our ability to focus in chaos was not there tonight.”
The Grizzlies’ inability to secure stops spoiled a stellar performance from Conley, who again proved his worth as the kind of versatile and punishing offensive weapon who can make life miserable on even an elite opponent like the Spurs:
Conley led Memphis with 26 points, hitting 10 of his 17 shots while also dishing out six assists, swiping four steals, grabbing two rebounds and blocking a shot in 35 minutes. When the Spurs took control after halftime, capped by a 9-0 run that gave them a 78-61 lead late in the third quarter, it was Conley who beat back the tide, scoring 12 points in the final 3:08 of the third to keep Memphis within hailing distance.
After getting the Grizzlies within 11 at the start of the fourth, Conley kicked off the last stanza by sparking a 7-0 run that chopped San Antonio’s lead down to two possessions, at 87-83, with 9 1/2 minutes to go. They’d get no closer, though, as the Spurs kept Memphis at arm’s length before delivering the knockout blow in the closing minutes.
The series now shifts back to FedEx Forum, where the Grizzlies just proved they could knock off the 61-win Spurs if their one-two punch of Conley and Marc Gasol (17 points, seven assists, five rebounds in a team-high 41 minutes in Game 5) comes to play, if they get just enough contributions from veteran bruiser Zach Randolph and their grab-bag of wings (Vince Carter, James Ennis, Andrew Harrison, Wayne Selden, Troy Daniels) and if their defense can disrupt San Antonio’s secondary performers enough to force Leonard to do it all himself. If they can do that one more time in front of a raucous Grindhouse crowd, they can earn a winner-take-all finale on Saturday night.
“The good part is that I’ve got a locker room full of guys that really want to get back here to play Game 7,” Fizdale said.
The bad part: To do it, Memphis will have to stifle not only Leonard, who’s been arguably the best player in this postseason thus far, but a rejuvenated Parker (16 points and six assists in 30 strong minutes in Game 5) and a supporting cast that found its touch in Texas. The Grizzlies have long been willing to take two punches to deliver one of their own; what remains to be seen, though, is whether a Memphis squad with its back against the wall and no margin for error will have a strong enough chin to withstand another haymaker like the one the Spurs threw to close out Game 5.
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