SAN ANTONIO – All teams have their identities. Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins hardly was creating the kind of profile that would go over big on Match.com when he described his bunch as “a fat, grumpy, grubby person.”
The Spurs have their identity too, and when they trudged back out onto the court for the start of overtime, nobody carried the weight of what had happened on his shoulders more than 37-year-old Tim Duncan.
For 16 seasons, he has been their rock, their compass point, their foundation through four championships and now eight trips to the Western Conference finals.
For longer than many of his teammates have been out of elementary school, he has been their cool head, their master planner, their road map out of turns down the wrong street.
So an 18-point lead with just under two minutes left in the third quarter and a seven-point lead with a tick less than a minute to play in the fourth quarter had been swallowed up in the maw of the hungry, grubby Grizzlies and, as has been the case for more than a decade and a half, the Spurs relied on their identity to find themselves again.
Duncan took a feed from Tony Parker and dropped in a layup on San Antonio’s first possession of overtime. He grabbed a rebound off a missed jumper by Parker and converted the follow bucket. Then he did a nifty little twinkle-toe dance right down the middle of the lane and let go with an eight-foot floater that kicked high off the back rim and then settled into the net.
The old veteran who should have been the most tired body out on the floor scored every field goal by the Spurs in overtime and allowed his team to escape with a 93-89 victory that could have been a stunning flip-flop and crushing blow.
It’s easy to say the Spurs are right back where they were exactly a year ago, with a 2-0 lead and in the conference finals and maybe already peeking ahead to a stay on South Beach to kick sand with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the Heat.
But despite their blowout win in the series opener on Sunday, nothing against the growling, grabbing Grizzlies is ever easy.
And the Spurs remember well what happened exactly a year ago this time, when the Thunder pulled off a complete reversal to sweep four straight games and the series.
Since the first day of training camp last October, coach Gregg Popovich has described what happened to his team as “identity theft.”
The Thunder played smarter, tougher, more aggressively and more decisively. So much of the emphasis all through this season has been to insist that his team never forget and never back down from who they are.
However, the vagaries of the NBA playoff schedule, which is made up to honor the whims and wishes of TV executives, had delivered an exhausted team straight off a test of endurance against Golden State straight into Game 1 against Memphis with barely a chance to catch a breath. Then they had to come right back and play Game 2 on Tuesday night while LeBron and D-Wade have had time to pick out Eastern Conference finals wardrobes with a pre-Memorial Day extended weekend off.
This was a game the Spurs needed to stash into their travel bags as they head into a long-awaited three-day respite of their own to heal those playoff tweaks and aching muscles, especially those on the body of a 37-year-old walking legend.
“It’s not over until it’s over,” channeled Manu Ginobili, the Argentinian Yogi Berra. “That’s the only thing we learned.”
For the longest time, it was a night to celebrate Parker, who has been one of — if not the – best point guards in the game while flying beneath the radar of notoriety. He dealt a career-high 18 assists to go with his 15 points and rolled through the Grizzlies’ lane at will.
Late in the third quarter it appeared to be another game that has been unusually customary for the Spurs this spring, where their foundational player Duncan would not even play down the stretch.
In Game 1 of the previous series against Golden State, Duncan was suffering from a stomach ailment and it wasn’t until he left the game and went to the locker room that the Spurs began their dramatic comeback from 16 points down in the last 4 1/2 minutes to win in overtime.
In the critical Game 6 against the Warriors, Popovich took a struggling Duncan out for the final 4:28 and allowed Tiago Splitter to close out the series.
On Sunday against the Grizzlies, Duncan made a careless pass that led to a Jerryd Bayless breakaway and then missed a 14-foot jumper that brought in Matt Bonner as a sub late in the third quarter as Memphis rallied. By the time Duncan returned, the Spurs had pulled out to their biggest lead of the game without him.
It was an odd trend, said some Spurs. Merely a coincidence, said others. They couldn’t run the entire gantlet without Duncan.
And they wouldn’t.
“It was great,” Duncan said. “I was glad I was able to play in overtime … just happy to be out there and do anything.”
Everything, really, when the Spurs needed him most. Which has always been their identity.