Three-Pointers: Tony Parker, Spurs sweep Grizzlies to advance to Finals
The Spurs defeated the Grizzlies 93-86 to complete a four-game sweep in the Western Conference finals.
• That was fast. While Memphis didn’t roll over after two consecutive heartbreakers in overtime, they didn’t stand much chance, either. In firm control from the outset, San Antonio put the finishing touches on its second convincing sweep of the postseason, racing to the Finals with an impressive 12-2 record.
“I don’t believe we won this thing 4-0, We didn’t kick anybody’s butt,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich told reporters. “I’m not trying to be overly gracious or anything, it’s true.”
Disagreeing with Popovich is an inherently risky proposition but kicking butt is exactly what San Antonio has done since the 2013 postseason opened. That’s no disrespect to the Grizzlies, who played hard throughout, or the Warriors, who showed flashes of brilliance in arguably the most entertaining series of this year’s playoffs. This is also not intended as an accusation of fake, grandstanding sportsmanship from Popovich. The Spurs have been kicking a lot of butts, those are the facts.
Check it: San Antonio’s run through the Western Conference this year was a more dominant performance than any of the Tim Duncan Era’s four title teams managed. The Spurs hold a +10.1 point differential so far this postseason, outpacing any of the previous four title teams. Only the first Spurs title team, back in the 1998-99 lockout-shortened season, comes close with a +8.2 differential.
The pathetic showing by the injury-ravaged Lakers, who lost by 11-plus points in all four games, gooses the numbers a bit, but the Spurs handily defeated the Warriors and Grizzlies twice each, too.
Here’s a chart that compares the regular season and Western Conference playoff performance of the 2013 Spurs to the four title-winning Spurs teams.
What jumps out, besides this year’s huge postseason point differential? How about the regular season winning percentages that all hover between .707 and .740. That level of consistent excellence over a 14-year span is outrageous.
Also: the defense. San Antonio’s title teams have always been elite on that end. The Spurs’ smooth offensive attack often overshadows the team’s defensive prowess, so now’s a good time to point out that Memphis averaged just 87.8 points per game in this series, even with the benefit of two overtime periods. Nobody on the Grizzlies, aside from perhaps Quincy Pondexter, can lay claim to having a solid offensive series start-to-finish.
“We were average [on defense last year].” Popovich said. “It was our goal to get up into the top echelon on defensive teams. We’re not the best [this year] but we’re a whole lot better.”
San Antonio held Zach Randolph to 30 percent shooting and Marc Gasol to 40 percent shooting, and neither Grizzlies big man cracked 20 points during the series. They held Mike Conley to 38 percent shooting and constructed a reality in which Pondexter, Jerryd Bayless, Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince felt a too-heavy scoring burden. More often than not, the Grizzlies attack collapsed upon itself.
“They taught us a lesson, how to play at this stage, this far into the season, this far into the playoffs,” Gasol said. “They taught us a lesson how to execute, how to play, how to read schemes. They taught us a lesson all around. I think we’re going to be better because we played against one of the greatest teams of the past 15 years.”
The numbers suggest that you can’t accuse Gasol, who was thoroughly outplayed by Tim Duncan, of hyperbole.
Now it’s a matter of hurry up and wait. Game 1 against the Heat or the Pacers won’t happen until June 6, by which point the Spurs will have enjoyed nine full days of rest before their first Finals appearance in six years. Assuming Miami advances like everyone expects, the 2013 Finals will pit two legitimate juggernauts against each other.
“I think if you stay the course and you’ve got leaders who are quality character people and you follow them as long as you can,” Popovich concluded. “I’ve been hanging on Timmy’s coattails for a long time.”
• Tony Parker the magnificent. It made sense that Popovich would hand the big picture credit to Duncan, but The Big Fundamental played hot potato with the acclaim, rightfully pointing to Tony Parker as the single biggest difference-maker against Memphis.
“He’s been amazing,” Duncan said. “Every year he gets better and better and better. I told him I’m just riding his coattails. He’s been carrying us. You see tonight he just takes over and handles the entire game. He’s awesome. He was outstanding the whole series. He controlled the whole series with his penetration.”
The key question entering the Western Conference finals was whether Parker was healthy. The key question entering The Finals is whether anyone can stop him.
“He was in a zone,” Conley said of Parker, who finished with 37 points (on 15-for-21 shooting), six assists and four rebounds. “They play so well together, any adjustment we make, they make another one.”
The proper word here would seem to be “dismantle.” A Grizzlies perimeter defense that made life miserable for Kevin Durant often looked like Swiss cheese after Parker was through with it, as his ability to get all the way to the baseline with his penetrating drives eventually wreaked enough havoc that, once the Grizzlies backed off a bit, he could find any mid-range jumper he wanted at any moment. His shot has been hit-or-miss over the last month but it was hit-hit-hit on Monday, and his 11 fourth-quarter points took the life out of multiple Grizzlies rallies.
“He’s had a lot of really good games,” Popovich said. “Obviously, this ranks up there, without a doubt. I’ve said it a lot this year, I thought he played better than any point guard in the league.”
The Frenchman painted his performance on Monday night as a simple adjustment: after carving up the Grizzlies for 18 assists in Game 2, it was time for his own offense to flow. He poured in 26 points in Game 3 before scoring a season-high 37 Monday night, the most by any Spurs player since Parker tallied 37 back in February of last year.
“After Game 2, when I got a lot of assists, I knew they wouldn’t help as much,” he said. “I was just being aggressive and taking what the defense gave me.”
Taking it whenever he pleased. A season-high performance in a slam-the-door-sweep in the conference finals to earn a chance to play for the fourth title of his career at the age of 31? What more can we reasonably expect?
“I was 21 when I won my first one,” Parker said. “You think it’s easy and you’re going to go back every year. In 2007 we won our third one in five years, and you think it’s going to keep coming, and I’m 25, and six years goes by, and every year it gets tougher and tougher. … If we go all the way it’ll definitely be my favorite because it gets harder and harder.”
How much would that fourth title change our perception of Parker’s legacy? How many notches would it carry him up the historical pecking order?
• The beautiful game. Surely this has been pointed out before, perhaps many times, but the San Antonio offensive attack — the quick ball movement, the spacing, the probing, the reshuffling — often resembles an elite soccer team. They toy, and pick out the absolute best chances to score, and they seem to do it with an unspoken understanding of where everyone will be in relation to each other.
The Spurs drove the soccer angle home hard in Game 4. First, Manu Ginobili threw a pass between the legs of Tayshaun Prince, a “nutmeg” in the football vernacular. Then, Kawhi Leonard threw an inbounds pass with two hands over his head, as mandated in soccer. The bounce pass led Parker into space, as they say, hitting him perfectly on a backdoor cut that produced an easy layup. You almost expected him to head the ball off the backboard for full effect. When you watch the video, remember that the Grizzlies ranked No. 2 in the NBA in defensive efficiency this year.