The San Antonio Spurs eliminated the Memphis Grizzlies from the playoffs on Thursday with a 103-96 victory on the road, thanks to a 15-4 run late in the fourth quarter. Kawhi Leonard led the Spurs with 29 points, 10 of them coming in the final frame. He also had nine rebounds, four assists, three steals and just one turnover in 40 minutes. Two of his assists came down the stretch, setting up David Lee and Tony Parker.
Parker finished with 27 points on 11-for-14 shooting, an outstanding performance against a tough defensive team. The Grizzlies got 26 points and five assists from guard Mike Conley in 45 minutes and had scoring contributions up and down the roster, but they just couldn't consistently get stops in the second half. San Antonio outscored Memphis 58-46 after halftime.
The Spurs advance to face the Houston Rockets in the second round.
Three things to know:
The legend of Leonard
It's hilarious to think that there were some doubts heading into this series about Leonard's ability to carry a team offensively in the postseason. His one-man run late in the Grizzlies' unforgettable Game 4 win was one of the most impressive performances of his career even though his team came up short. Credit to Memphis there: In general, when Leonard goes off like that, San Antonio comes out on top.
Leonard was once again the best player on the court in Game 6, and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich called him the best in the league afterward. When the Grizzlies went on a 9-2 run to take an 88-81 lead, Leonard did what superstars do:
Look at how the presence of James Ennis had absolutely effect on him, and look at how Leonard calmly created the contact with Zach Randolph and then lofted it in. That's a high degree-of-difficulty shot, and he swished it like it was nothing. Every time he does something like this, it's worth remembering that he hardly ever even looked to create his own shot when he came into the league. San Antonio's initial plan was to make him into a 3-and-D guy.
This won't get attention like "Take that for data!" did, but I loved what Memphis coach David Fizdale said about Conley after the game. When Fizdale and the rest of the Grizzlies contingent met with Conley to try to convince him to re-sign with the team last summer, Fizdale sold him on a new role in a new system. Rather than playing inside-out through Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, he wanted to space the floor and give Conley room to create. Gasol and Randolph would still get their touches, of course, but Conley would be the primary playmaker, and Fizdale wanted him to be aggressive.
"Every night I would close my eyes and envision this for Mike Conley when I thought about or team. And wow — he really had a great season, and I think he showed people in this playoffs he's a big-time player that's not afraid of the moment, that loves competition. We saw a little bit of feistiness come out of him, which that's the part I'm going to keep poking at … now that he's going into his later years, he's gotta get a little grumpier. But he's just such a good guy. But I'm really proud about the way he adapted, he evolved. He looks like an nba point guard of today's nba now.
This season, Conley did everything he could to reward the franchise that drafted him, extended his rookie contract when others doubted him and eventually signed him to the most lucrative contract in NBA history. He played the best basketball of his career when under the most pressure, and against the Spurs he rebounded from a subpar Game 1 and averaged 24.7 points and 7.0 assists in the series, shooting 48.5 percent and 44.7 percent from 3-point range. He's been called the "most underrated player in the league" so many times that there's no way it can be true anymore, but it's time we start talking about him as a superstar.
Reminder: Conley broke his back in November and was back on the court less than three weeks later. Let's never forget that.
The Grizzlies will be back, and they should be better
San Antonio won this series 4-2, but that doesn't do justice to how even this series felt for a lot of it. The first game was a blowout, but the Grizzlies actually outscored the Spurs in the 224 minutes that Conley was on the court. While Memphis couldn't quite force a Game 7, it definitely earned the "Let's go Grizzlies!" chants from the crowd when Leonard at the free throw line with 12.5 seconds left and the outcome decided.
Popovich credited Memphis' deliberate, disciplined offense succinctly: "They're hard to guard. They make you guard forever." One has to wonder how much better the Grizzlies might have been on that end if they had a healthy Chandler Parsons in the lineup. If he ever becomes what they hoped he would be, watch out.
Regardless of the absence of Parsons and defensive stopper Tony Allen, Memphis challenged a more talented team until the end. It came back from down 2-0 and made the series interesting. These Grizzlies might look a little different, but they played with the spirit of prior teams in the grit-and-grind era.
"It was a war," Fizdale said. "It was what everybody expected it would be, what I thought our team would do. There's a lot of charactger in that locker room. You know, the better team took care of business. And they beat us, and they beat us fair and square. I mean, that's great, just throw me in the fire with Pop, right? I love it. But it was awesome, and I'm really proud of our team and the way they competed this series. "