When the 2017 NBA Playoffs started a week ago, the first round series between the No. 2 San Antonio Spurs and No. 7 Memphis Grizzlies did not stand out as one of the Western Conference’s best series. The Spurs looked like a clear favorite heading in, and neither team is known for playing an especially beautiful style. Fans and analysts could be forgiven for thinking it would end in roughly five games with little fanfare.
Four games in, we could be looking at the best matchup of the first round. It’s especially hard to shake that feeling after Saturday night’s Game 4, an overtime thriller in which each team’s stars dominated for stretches and matched each other in crunch time. The Grizzlies 110-108 win tied the series at 2-2, but it was something more than its result. This contest was the first truly great game of the 2017 postseason.
We’ll start at the end, because that’s when the drama reached its peak. With 30 seconds remaining, the Grizzlies led 106-102 following a split pair of Mike Conley free throws after an ill-advised (and rarely whistled) bump on the perimeter from Kawhi Leonard. The Spurs superstar atoned for his error with a three-pointer eight seconds later, continuing a stretch of dominance that helped the Spurs overcome an eight-point deficit in the final four minutes of regulation. San Antonio fouled rookie guard Andrew Harrison on the next possession, and he made both freebies to push the margin up to three points.
Unfortunately for Memphis, that left Kawhi with another chance to tie it. A nifty move with Patty Mills left him wide open in the left corner, and Leonard did not fail to convert:
That jumper gave Leonard 43 points for the night and new playoff career-high in scoring for the third time in the series’ first four games. At this point, Leonard seemed to hold its own gravitational pull, and it was difficult to imagine the Grizzlies avoiding a second overtime.
Expectations were that the Grizzlies would go to Conley, easily their best player over the course of the game, to create a play out of a timeout. Instead, he set up a play for Marc Gasol, who answered with a tough runner over LaMarcus Aldridge for a thrilling win:
It was a terrific finish to a mixed night for Gasol, who put up 16 points, 12 rebounds, and seven turnovers in a game-high 46 minutes. The Spurs were left with only 0.7 seconds and no timeouts to answer and could not muster anything but a long prayer from Danny Green.
The end of regulation was just as exciting. Conley gave the Grizzlies an 88-80 lead with 4:41 on the clock, at which point it looked like the hosts could hold on for the series-tying win against a Spurs squad that had struggled to score consistently all night. It would have been a quality, hard-fought win for Memphis, especially after far too many second-half turnovers and a bounceback game for Spurs point guard Tony Parker, who answered his scoreless and assistless Game 3 with a game-changing 22 points on 9-of-19 shooting.
Yet that deficit only provided Kawhi with a greater opportunity to add to his playoff legend. He went on a personal 11-0 run from the 3:54 to 2:29 marks and scored the Spurs’ final 16 points of regulation to turn a likely loss into a potential Spurs win. Better yet, Leonard also made two huge steals during that stretch to create transition opportunities. He was everywhere and seemed capable of winning the game for the Spurs by himself.
It’s entirely possible no one will have a better run for the remainder of the playoffs. Gasol’s jumper will certainly live on as a highlight, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if this game is remembered just as much for what Leonard did to put the Spurs in a position to win. It was the purest distillation of the two-way play that made his MVP case throughout the regular season — Leonard elevated high above defenders to turn tough shots into open ones, bullied defenders and ballhandlers alike, and set the terms of nearly every possession. His turnaround jumper with 12 seconds left gave the Spurs a 96-94 lead and seemed to fit the ascendant narrative as a game-winner.
But the Grizzlies had fought through tough stretches all night, and Conley answered by losing Leonard on a switch and taking Tony Parker for an off-hand runner. The Spurs got 4.5 seconds to answer with a game-winner, but Leonard momentarily stopped dominating and missed a top-of-the-key jumper to send it to overtime.
Such an exciting game understandably becomes more about the big plays than its general flow, but there were several takeaways from Game 4 to assess what now feels like a toss-up series. The biggest one concerns the Spurs, who were fortunate to get such an incredible late performance from Leonard on a night when the offense often struggled to score. Take away Parker’s surprising and arguably irreproducible 22 points, and the Spurs had few options beyond letting Kawhi work. LaMarcus Aldridge was a relative no-show with 13 points (6-of-11 FG) and two rebounds, Danny Green managed all of five points, and Pau Gasol went scoreless in the second half after a solid first. San Antonio is still the favorite in the series, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that things are now tied at 2-2 despite Leonard putting in a playoff-best performance in three of four games. There might be a point at which we mention Kawhi in the same sentence as Russell Westbrook when it comes to one-man offensive shows in the postseason.
On the other side, the Grizzlies have to wonder what caused them to follow five first-half turnovers with 17 after the break. A banner 12-of-27 performance from beyond the arc covered many of those mistakes, but it seems unlikely they can repeat that on the road. It was an atypical offensive showing for Memphis, which did not see Zach Randolph repeat his excellent Game 3, and they’re likely going to need to figure out a different formula for Game 5 on Tuesday.
More star performances from Conley should allow some wiggle room. The Grizzlies floor general was stellar on Saturday, finishing with 35 points, nine rebounds, and eight assists as the most consistent player on the floor. Conley’s style is such that he often seems on the brink of dribbling off his foot, but that raggedness animates the Grizzlies and keeps defenses off-balance. His ability to seize the initiative in Memphis’s wins has changed this series, and he’ll probably have to come up big again if the Grizzlies are going to complete the upset. Simply put, the San Antonio backcourt cannot play to his level.
Whatever happens in Game 5, we’re now a long way from David Fizdale’s “Take that for data” rant after the Spurs went up 2-0. The Grizzlies are back in excellent form and appeared to be the steadier team in both games at FedEx Forum. Whether that play continues on the road remains to be seen, but it’s now impossible to count them out of the series. Anyone who watched Game 4 knows this series could go either way.
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