In hindsight, the opening possession of last night’s Game 2 between the Spurs and Grizzlies likely foretold what would happen the rest of the way.
Kawhi Leonard is the only player to score 35+ points on less than 15 shots in a playoff game in the last 30 years. 🔥 pic.twitter.com/6E0aphOVvr— San Antonio Spurs (@spurs) April 18, 2017
Upon winning the tip, San Antonio immediately put the ball in the hands of small forward Kawhi Leonard, who then waited. And while Tony Parker ran to set a pin down screen for LaMarcus Aldridge, Danny Green cut across the baseline, and Dewayne Dedmon drew his man’s attention in the paint, Leonard dribbled mindfully on the perimeter, preparing for a seam to open in the defense. Eventually he would cross the ball over once, then twice, and then use a lethal hesitation move to get to the basket for the dunk. His defender, 40-year-old Vince Carter, barely stood a chance.
The Spurs didn’t so much blitz the Grizzlies in Game 2 as they did grind them down, cut off their supply lines and await a cold, long winter. This was The Art of War by Gregg Charles Popovich, a gambit based on tilting conditions in favor of his more talented squad, matching his opponents’ physicality, and deploying a star who thrives when games grind to a halt.
There haven’t been many signs of San Antonio’s pass-happy attack in this series. Instead, Gregg Popovich has made sure Leonard is handling the ball as much as possible, placing point guards Tony Parker and Patty Mills on the wings and letting Leonard operate, either in isolation or in the pick and roll. The result has not always been pretty (they racked up just 14 assists total on Tuesday, to go with 19 from Game 1), but it has been effective.
And although he had four turnovers and occasionally struggled when pressured by multiple defenders, Leonard was once again sensational. He scored 37 points, shot 9-of-14 from the field and made all 19 free-throws he took. No player in the last 30 years has scored more than 35 on less than 15 field-goal attempts before.
Leonard and Tony Parker (who scored 15) helped build a 26-point first-half lead, which gave the Spurs the cushion they needed to survive the inevitable Grizzlies run in the third quarter.
Tempers flared often on the visitors’ side. Mike Conley, known for his cool temperament, stormed at a referee at one point after a no-call, while Marc Gasol could occasionally be seen spiking a ball or slamming his hand against the padding under the rim. Then there was Carter, who bristled at something he felt Spurs forward Kyle Anderson had done on a previous possession and quickly went nose to nose with him, resulting in a technical foul.
The officiating issue certainly wasn’t lost on David Fizdale who, in his post-game press conference, held nothing back in how he felt the game was called. After asserting his team didn’t get the respect they deserved, the Grizzlies coach finished an embittered rant by crying out, “Take that for data!”
Some of the frustration is understandable, though. The refs did miss some calls last night, the Spurs did get more free-throw attempts by a wide margin (32 to 15), and underdogs like Memphis do need to feed off emotion whenever possible.
The Grizzlies now head back home with the hopes of distilling that resentment into something positive and tangible, wanting nothing less than to find themselves in an 0-3 hole. The Spurs know the next two wins won’t come easily, but they seem to have the right plan in place to get the job done.