MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Six years ago those boring old San Antonio Spurs were winning another title and then Tony Parker was jetting to Paris to wed Eva Longoria and Tim Duncan, we think, was happily married and that barren pasture on top of Manu Ginobili‘s dome, well, the recessive gene hadn’t quite kicked in.
“Mmm, you could see it a little,” Ginobili said.
The point is a lot has changed over six years. And then something like Saturday night happens, a 103-94 Spurs overtime win that might as well have dialed back the calendar to 2007 or heck even ’05. Even as San Antonio has retooled, added snipers to transform the old plodders into a high-powered offensive juggernaut and significantly reduced the median age all around the Big Three, it was the Big Three on this night that carried them to the brink of a fourth Finals appearance together and the fifth in the Duncan-Gregg Popovich era that now bridges three consecutive decades.
This vintage performance ripped the heart and likely the soul right out of the Memphis Grizzlies, who hoped to ride a first-ever Western Conference finals home game in front of a 16th consecutive playoff sellout crowd back into this series.
They were this close, a missed Mike Conley floater that would have won it at the buzzer in regulation. The irony had it gone down would have been that Ginobili, stuffing the stat sheet in every way, opened the door with a missed 3-pointer with 20.9 seconds to play. Memphis called timeout and Ginobili, on the bench, was so upset with himself that if he had hair longer than an eighth-of-an-inch he’d have yanked it straight out.
“Yes, of course I was upset because I made a very similar one a few minutes before and I thought I had a good opportunity to almost close the game and I missed it,” Ginobili said. “They had 20 seconds to win it and it could have been painful to lose like that.”
The start of Game 3 was painful for the Spurs, who couldn’t quite believe what was happening after all the talk of “Remember Last Year,” two wins away from their first Finals berth since ’07 and then wiped out four in a row by Oklahoma City.
Eight turnovers in the first quarter with four by Parker in the first two minutes as he called it maybe “the worst start of my career.” Down 18 points before the first 12 minutes were up. The Grindhouse in full throaty howl. With 4:53 left in the opening quarter and Memphis up 16-5, Popovich called a 20-second timeout and sat all five starters, pinning the first eight minutes as “one of the worst starts I have ever seen.”
“The first half I was grandfatherly and in the second half, what word can I say?” Popovich said. “I was ugly because I wasn’t going to watch it again.”
By the end of the night, with Duncan scoring the first five points of a breeze of an overtime considering the grinding hell of the first 48 minutes, the victory was being hailed as momentous by those who have seen it all on a team that has seemingly done it all. But as Parker said with a believing smile: “This is one of the best wins since I’ve been here with Timmy and Pop.”
Ginobili: “One of the best wins I’ve witnessed being a Spur.”
These are proud players wearing the uniform of a proud franchise and they all know that this kind of thing can’t last forever. It probably shouldn’t have lasted this long with Duncan now 37 and breaking down at 35, and Ginobili 35 and warding off injury with every maniacal drive and Parker a high-mileage 31 with enough nagging injuries from head to toe to suffice for a lifetime.
Just two years ago, right here, the up-and-coming Grizzlies again read the Spurs their last rites, an eighth-seed toppling a tired, creaking No. 1 in the first round. But then this happens and the fairy tale keeps going. The Big Three in Game 3: 69 points, 21 rebounds, 15 assists. Nothing coming easy. Everything earned. Tiago Splitter‘s 11 points amounted to the only other double-figure scoring the Spurs got outside The Big Three.
The Spurs can pull off a most unexpected sweep on Monday night in Game 4 back at Memphis’ FedExForum. They’ve now taken out the Grizz with a blowout in Game 1, avoided a late collapse to win in overtime in Game 2 and then clawed back from the horrific start when the Grizzlies were making steals and fastbreaking and fueling their fans with belief.
Parker, who simply terrorizes these defensive-minded Grizzlies, finished with a game-high 26 points and five assists. After his turnover frenzy in the first two minutes, he had three more the rest of the game, logging 44 minutes. Duncan was phenomenal setting screens, battling inside for 10 boards to go with 24 points and five assists in 44 minutes, leaving Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph out of answers.
The last time Duncan logged as many as 44 minutes in a single game? Dec. 27, 2008.
And Ginobili, the warrior who ripped away rebounds to give him seven for the game, fed teammates for five assists and twice in the final 90 seconds of regulation came out of a timeout to backdoor on Quincy Pondexter, the second time fouling out Memphis’ best perimeter option who had hit three of the team’s seven 3-pointers.
“Those were huge,” Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said of those four of Ginobili’s 19 points. “They hurt us.”
The Spurs will look to apply the final hurt on Monday night and if they do put away the Grizz, they’ll await the surviving combatant from an Eastern Conference series that could go on for a while.
That’ll suit those old boring Spurs just fine.
“We’ve been old for probably eight years now,” Ginobili said. “I remember in 2007, our last championship, they were saying that we were old, and it’s all right. I guess we are. But we play well, we play together and every year we are out there contending. That’s a great thing.”
And that never gets old.