SAN ANTONIO -- As the numbers flickered on the official scoreboard clock and kept getting smaller and smaller, it became apparent that for the strong to survive, a miracle would be needed. The 48 minutes of the game were nearly gone and so were the San Antonio Spurs. Seconds separated them from the end of the season and a first-round playoff loss to the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies.
With fewer than 10 seconds left in the game, the Spurs trailed by three points. They already trailed in the series 3-1.
Yes, a miracle was needed.
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They got two -- the second far greater than the first. On an inbounds play with 9.4 seconds left, Manu Ginobili struggled to get his shot off and that took precious extra seconds off the clock. But when he finally launched a prayer from the corner -- floating sideways as he released the shot from 22-feet -- he got little but net. The officials signaled three points and the Spurs appeared to have tied the game.
In checking the replay, however, officials determined Ginobili's foot was on the line. Only 2.2 seconds were left in the game. The Spurs trailed by a point. They had to foul and they did quickly. Zach Randolph made two free throws. The Grizzlies were up by three again. Only 1.7 seconds remained.
The second miracle was simply stunning. The youthful Grizzlies were told by Lionel Hollins, their coach, to forget about guarding two-point shots. Let the Spurs make it. Don't let them shoot the three.
The players said OK, then watched as rookie Gary Neal took the inbounds pass from Manu Ginobili behind the 3-point line, dribbled once still behind the 3-point line, worked his way right, got an open 3-pointer and nailed it as time ran off the clock. Neal beat his defender, but the other Grizzlies were inside the arc, guarding the players that Hollins had told them to forget about.
The Spurs had their miracle, the tie, an overtime, the momentum; and they made the young Grizzlies pay. San Antonio forced a Game 6 with a scintillating 110-103 victory over Memphis Wednesday, and they knew they were fortunate. In fact, Ginobili spared no words.
"We were lucky," he said.
They were because once again, the Grizzlies spent much of the game proving they not only could compete with the Spurs, but that they also were the better team. The Grizzlies humiliated the Spurs in the second half of Game 4 of the series, outscoring the Spurs 56-36 in the second half and winning the game by 18 points.
Neither team was sharp at the beginning of Game 5, but Tim Duncan began putting on a show, scoring 11 points in the first period with several baskets coming on his signature bank shot. Less than 17 minutes into the game, the Spurs had a 15-point lead and seemed ready to extend the series.
But the Grizzlies fought back to trail by only eight at the half, and by the time one minute was left in the third period, they had a five-point lead.
Once again, the burly inside duo of the 6-9 Randolph and 7-1 Marc Gasol gave the Spurs fits. Randolph had 14 points in the third period and ended the game with 26 points and 11 rebounds while Gasol had 11 points and 17 rebounds.
Ultimately, however, the Grizzlies simply lost their poise and that is not unusual for a young team experiencing the pressure of leading a playoff against the best team in the conference.
Hollins lamented his team's inability to execute on Neal's 3-pointer. "I look up and I'm yelling because everyone is inside the 3-point line and trying to guard them man," Hollins said. "At that particular moment, if we just give up a two and call a time out, get the ball inbounds and get the foul, we win the game."
The Grizzlies staff had warned the players about Neal's 3-point ability. During the regular season, Neal made 129-of-308 3-pointers for 41.9 percent. He said he'd once made a game-winning shot in a high school state championship game, but he'd never made as big of a shot as time ran off the clock.
"With 1.7 left, I knew I'd probably be able to get away with a dribble or a pump fake," said Neal, the first-year player from Towson. "In that situation, you just want to get your shot and I got it."
Neal had only seven points in the game but hit three of his five shots. Ginobili led San Antonio with 33 points, Tony Parker had 24 -- including six in overtime -- and Duncan had 13 points and 12 rebounds.
The series will continue in Memphis on Saturday and Hollins will be interested to see how his young team responds. It did not respond well in overtime when the Grizzlies were outscored 13-6.
"I think we were down after the loss of the lead; then they tied it up at the end," Hollins said. "We had too many guys that were hurt and not mature enough at this state [to] just let it go."
The Grizzlies still have the lead and the home court advantage. But Game 6 will be like overtime for them -- a game they did not expect to be playing. Can they finish the team that had the best record in the West during the regular season, a team led by three veteran superstars?
Or is that team that spent the regular season proving it was so good ready to act like it in the playoffs?