For a brief moment Saturday, it looked like the Memphis Grizzlies might roll to a comfortable victory.
With 4½ minutes left in Game 4 of their first-round series against the San Antonio Spurs, they led 88-80 after a 3-pointer from Mike Conley, who had been making big plays all game. The Spurs were suffering from another off-night in Memphis, with LaMarcus Aldridge almost invisible offensively aside from a brief burst in the third quarter and Tony Parker carrying much of the load. Their best player, Kawhi Leonard, had 19 points on 6-of-18 shooting, and San Antonio was 4 for 21 from 3-point range.
At that point, Memphis might have felt a bit of relief. It had turned the ball over 17 times and was still in control. Zach Randolph had scored only 10 points on 3-of-11 shooting, but things were OK. Or, at least, they might have been OK against a different team.
"The Spurs don't ever let you breathe," Grizzlies coach David Fizdale said.
As soon as it seemed like Memphis might separate itself, Leonard got his enormous hands on a pass from Conley, which was intended for JaMychal Green. This started a fast break, which triggered some classic San Antonio ball movement, which resulted in Leonard hitting a 3-pointer. On the Spurs' next possession, Leonard drew a foul on the inside and hit two free throws. Then he poked the ball out of James Ennis' hands and went coast to coast for a layup, plus the foul. The next time San Antonio went down the floor, Leonard hit another 3 to give his team the lead.
It all happened in 85 seconds.
Leonard's personal 11-0 run put the Spurs in the driver's seat, but Memphis managed to keep it together. Even after the MVP candidate hit a Jordanesque midrange jumper to put the Spurs ahead with 12 seconds left, the Grizzlies had an answer: Conley used a screen to get Parker on him, attacked the paint and hit one of those herky-jerky, right-handed floaters he has hit hundreds of times before.
"I learned a long time ago against the Spurs, if you don't have mental stability when they punch you in the mouth, you're in the wrong business," Fizdale said. "Because we saw what they can do in their place if you don't take that punch right. So I really thought we did a good job of just sustaining, of weathering storms."
After forcing overtime, Conley pulled the same trick out of his bag, finding a hole in San Antonio's defense and getting off a clean look:
And after Leonard scored his 42nd point on a 3-pointer to tie the game at 108, the Grizzlies seized their opportunity. Marc Gasol didn't catch the ball in the most advantageous position, and he didn't exactly create a ton of space, but he lofted a runner over Aldridge's outstretched arms and delivered his team a signature victory:
One could dwell on all the things that went Memphis' way -- the Spurs' missed open jumpers, the hole in the middle with Dewayne Dedmon out of the lineup, Conley's wild 3-pointer plus the foul in the second quarter -- or the fact that, if the ball had bounced slightly differently, the Grizzlies could be down 3-1 approaching Game 5 in San Antonio on Tuesday.
But the manner in which they won, with Conley starring and Gasol coming up big in the clutch, makes this a defining performance in franchise history, a nod to grimy playoff victories of years past and an illustration of why Fizdale wanted to change things this season.
The Grizzlies' 110-108 victory felt familiar because they persevered in a difficult situation. They played physical defense, survived an onslaught from a superstar and found themselves in a possession game, going back and forth, battling for boards, executing their offense at a slow, deliberate pace. They showed heart, grit and all the other lovely intangibles that inspire cliches this time of year. In order to win, they needed rookie guard Andrew Harrison to get a chasedown block on Patty Mills in overtime, and they needed Gasol to make a tricky runner in transition over his brother. They needed every last bit of energy they had.
In other ways, Memphis did this differently than it had in prior seasons. It shot 12 for 27 from 3-point range, and Fizdale did his best to keep lineups on the floor that would make the Spurs defend the perimeter. With a spaced floor, Conley had the ball in his hands and functioned as the clear No. 1 option, the way that he has all year. He had 35 points, nine rebounds and eight assists, and his career playoff high wouldn't have been possible if the Grizzlies were playing through Gasol and Randolph in the post. This was exactly what they hoped for when they signed Conley to a maximum contract last summer.
"I don't think we're going to have the discussion about how much money he's worth anymore," Fizdale said. "I think that's moot. I don't want to hear about it at least. The guy is a superstar. And you watched it this year happen, but now you're watching it on the biggest stage with the biggest lights and he's really rising to the occasion. I mean, can you think of a guy you'd rather root for? This guy is as good as a human being as you can get. So I just, whatever good happens for him, I expect it, and I'm just really proud of his evolution as a player."
Conley and Leonard had themselves a playoff duel. Fizdale said he tried to forget about the business of basketball and just enjoy it. He also said he's taking suggestions on how to stop Leonard. That might not be possible, but his team showed that, while some things have changed in Memphis, others have stayed the same: The Grizzlies' toughness hasn't gone anywhere, and as long as Conley and Gasol are around, they are always going to be a tough out.