Gregg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs saw their impressive 22-season playoff streak get snapped last year, but they had a shot at getting back into the postseason once again this year. The 10th-seeded Spurs had their chance to restart that streak against the No. 9 Memphis Grizzlies in Wednesday's first Western Conference play-in game but it was the Grizzlies who held on after taking a sizable first-half lead for the 100-96 victory.
In the end, it was Jonas Valanciunas, Ja Morant and Dillon Brooks who helped lead the way for Memphis as the trio combined for 67 points, 37 rebounds and 10 assists to help the Grizzlies land a Friday night showdown against the Golden State Warriors, who lost their play-in game against the Los Angeles Lakers late Wednesday night.
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With this trio helping lead the way on the offensive end, the future is bright in Memphis and this could be an opportunity for this group to get some playoff experience under their belt, regardless of who they end up taking on Friday night.
Here are three key takeaways from the game:
1. Valanciunas dominates in the paint
Ever since the Toronto Raptors sent Jonas Valanciunas to the Memphis Grizzlies in the Marc Gasol trade a few years ago, the Lithuanian center has become something of a forgotten man around the NBA. That's a product of playing in a small market for a team that's at the back-end of the playoff race, however, not because his play has slipped.
In fact, Valanciunas arguably played the best basketball of his career this season. On Wednesday night, he finally had a national TV audience to show what he can do. He was absolutely dominant in the paint, en route to 23 points, 23 rebounds and three blocks. And while single-game plus-minus isn't always the best indicator of what happened in a game, it was not a fluke that he finished plus-26 in a four-point win.
The Spurs simply had no answer for him on either end of the court. He created some baskets for himself in the post, crashed the basket to earn some crucial second-chance points and was a stifling defensive presence at the rim at times. Valanciunas might not have gotten much attention this season, but he'll get plenty of it over the next few days, and for good reason. This was a big time performance.
2. Brooks gets it done on both ends
Over the weekend, in the Grizzlies' matchup with the Golden State Warriors to close the regular season, Dillon Brooks was tasked with guarding Steph Curry. And while Curry finished with 46 points, there was no question the game changed and life got easier for him when Brooks fouled out in the middle of the fourth quarter.
In this matchup with the Spurs, Brooks was once again given the toughest perimeter matchup: DeMar DeRozan. This time, he didn't foul out, and he completely shut down the Spurs' high-scoring guard. DeRozan finished with 20 points, but shot 5-of-21 from the field and couldn't get anything going with Brooks guarding him.
Here's a short compilation of some of the work Brooks was doing defensively. He was doing a terrific job crowding DeRozan's space and getting a good contest without fouling.
Brooks wasn't just a defensive specialist in this game, though. He ended up leading the team in scoring with 24 points, and came up clutch in the fourth quarter. Brooks played the entire fourth and scored eight key points in the middle of the quarter to end a tough offensive stretch for the Grizzlies.
The Spurs came out strong in the fourth quarter, and after a rare DeRozan bucket took their first lead since the opening basket of the game. Brooks then scored on four straight possessions to get the Grizzlies back in front, which is where they'd remain the rest of the way.
3. End of the road for the Spurs
Last season, the Spurs missed the playoffs for the first time in 22 years. Now, after the loss to the Grizzlies, they've once again been eliminated. Which means for the first time in franchise history, which dates back to 1967 when they debuted as the Texas Chaparrals in the ABA, the Spurs have missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons.
That was a truly remarkable feat, and will likely never be matched, but all things must come to an end. The Spurs' time as a perennial playoff team certainly has. Now, the questions begin about what comes next for a franchise that has almost never found themselves in a rebuilding phase.
LaMarcus Aldridge left in the middle of the season and has since retired, and fellow veterans DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay are free agents this summer. The Spurs have some interesting and talented young players, but will Gregg Popovich want to go full youth movement or sign some veterans and make another run at the playoffs? And speaking of Popovich, what does his future hold? He's now 72 years old, and though he hasn't indicated that he wants to retire, it's fair to wonder how much longer he'll want to coach. In any case, this will be an interesting offseason in San Antonio.