The 2016-17 season schedule for the Grizzlies carried with it a handful of quirks, one of the strangest of which was the Spurs. As always, the Grizzlies would play four games against their division rival from San Antonio. However, none of those match-ups would take place until after the calendar had turned to February.
Given that anticipation, you would’ve expected a bit more intrigue for Monday’s game. But a forearm injury robbed fans of a potential Gasol vs. Gasol match-up, and a thigh bruise to Kawhi Leonard robbed the Grizzlies of the opportunity to truly measure themselves against the West’s second-best team. The Spurs were the NBA’s only non-Super Team to rank top-5 in both offense and defense, but with the MVP candidate not playing, it’d be hard to draw any substantial conclusions about a potential playoff match-up.
Instead, the Grizzlies would have to content themselves with trying to win and just say to hell with postseason conclusions. After all, the Grizzlies lost all eight contests they played against their division rival last season, and hadn’t beaten the Spurs in over two full years. And besides, a win’s still a win, especially against a Gregg Popovich-coached team, even one that’s short-handed.
The Grizzlies don’t get a lot of opportunities to showcase themselves in prime time on national television, and TNT didn’t exactly do them any favors by scheduling this game after the Wizards and Cavaliers. That game, which went into overtime and temporarily pushed the Grizzlies to NBATV, was electric, with brilliant, gutsy shots made by players who are already household names. The Grizzlies and Spurs, on the other hand, combined for 31 points in the first quarter.
In short, the match-up of two teams with top-five defenses lived up to its billing, and both teams ended the first half with just 40 points. The route to those points was different for each team, though: The Spurs shot 50% from the field; Memphis, meanwhile, shot 36%. The Grizzlies didn’t make it any easier on themselves with turnovers, either, particularly in the second quarter, when they handed possessions and points to the Spurs almost at will.
Whatever adjustments Fizdale and the Grizzlies made at halftime worked, though. Memphis found touch from the field while the Spurs’ shooting cooled, helped along by a Memphis defense possessed with the sort of reckless, physical energy that’s so often been absent this season. It was the sort of performance that showcased what the Grizzlies can be at their best, meaning it was the sort of performance that forces fans to bang their heads against a wall on nights when the Grizzlies come out flat.
At this point, I don’t know what else to say about the Grizzlies effort other than to just shrug and say that maybe that’s who they are: an inconsistent team that’s more motivated against better competition. It’s probably best for everyone’s blood pressure to accept it.
Tonight, though, effort and quickness were far from being in short supply, and after holding the Spurs to a season-low 14 in the first quarter, the Spurs managed just over half of that in the fourth. The Grizzlies ran out to an 8-point lead in the third before the Spurs clawed back, but the Grizzlies pressed on and reopened the 8-point advantage before pushing it to as much as 15, when James Ennis ceremonially ended the contest with a dunk that stopped just short of being a war crime.
There were other glimpses of light buried in the mud, too. For one, Brandan Wright, finally freed from a game of Jumanji gone wrong (or something along those lines), had a few of the sort of high-flying, acrobatic, leap-out-of-the-gym plays that (some) fans have already translated into enough trade value to at least get Phil Jackson to listen to a Melo to Memphis deal (Author’s Note: this trade eventually gets nixed by Mrs. Melo, so don’t get too excited). Tony Allen, in another sure sign of the impending apocalypse, made layups somewhat consistently. And, if that wasn’t enough, Vince Carter rented a room in LaMarcus Aldridge’s head, forcing double-clutches which the 40-year old turned into four blocked shots. It was the most blocks Carter has had in a game since 2009, back when he was with the Nets (per ESPN Stats & Info).
All-in-all, Monday’s win was one of the better ones of the season. While the Grizzlies’ offense floundered in the first half, their defense kept them in the game until their scoring came to life in the second half, and on a night where Mike and Marc struggled offensively (27 combined points on just 7-of-22 shooting), it was the Grizzlies’ role players who were there to pick up the slack.
So playoff expectations be damned. The Grizzlies managed to get off their skid against the Spurs, and even without facing Kawhi Leonard, that’s an impressive win in my book.