By Rob Mahoney
The Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs -- two Western Conference rivals forever linked by their magnificent 2011 playoff series -- have formed a habit of playing one another to a standstill. Friday night brought their second meeting of the 2012-13 season and the second occasion in this particular matchup that required overtime to reach its resolution. After neither team was able to build a sustainable cushion over the course of the initial 48 minutes, the Grizzlies created a small buffer (and defended like mad) in the closing moments of overtime to secure a 101-98 victory.
• Memphis hardly runs a model offense, but there really is something to be said about the way the Grizzlies grind opponents down over the course of their drawn-out possessions. Any of their attempts to score in the half-court wind up draining 20+ seconds off the shot clock, though not for lack of trying; most every Grizzly is working as the shot clock dwindles, whether to establish post position, cut as they can or carve out space to spot up on the perimeter. Yet Memphis' floor spacing and flow are generally so cramped as to make every pass and cut that much more difficult to execute. As such, opponents are forced to defend an opponent that's either working the ball, on the move, or actively fighting them for position every step of the way, and though all of that consistent work doesn't make Memphis even an average offensive team, it does take a toll on opponents who have no choice but to guard all of the Grizzlies' various options over the course of the entire shot clock every trip down the floor.
• That's especially brutal once we also factor in Memphis' defense, which managed to hold San Antonio to just 98 points on a perfectly manageable level of efficiency. The Spurs actually executed quite well overall, and had stints of successful offense in which their ball movement broke down the Grizzlies' otherwise timely rotations. The side screen and roll is as vanilla as NBA offenses get, but San Antonio -- and Manu Ginobili in particular -- showed why that familiar flavor can still seem new and exciting. Together with Boris Diaw, Ginobili attacked the foot speed of Zach Randolph, and benefitted from immaculate floor spacing as he set up Diaw on his open rolls to the rim. Tony Parker (who was fantastic overall and finished with 30 points on 21 shots, including a game-tying three-pointer to force overtime), too, was able to get some good movement off of those same sets, though largely by working the next-level read. Although the Grizzlies are far too good defensively and far too familiar with the Spurs to be beaten outright in the pick and roll by their two most renowned opponents, they frequently left Tiago Splitter wide open under the hoop as they flocked to the ball and to any open shooters in sight. Memphis clearly had no intention of losing by way of the corner three, and as a result saw fit to abandon Splitter just long enough for the Spurs to find him.
Yet by game's end, even those breakdowns were nonexistent. After having their defense challenged in a variety of ways throughout the game, the Grizzlies went into full lockdown for the final few minutes of regulation and the entirety of overtime. There would be no points unearned; it got to the point where the Spurs had to call multiple timeouts just to get the ball in for a mere shot at a game-tying three-pointer, a look which was smothered to death before it even left Ginobili's hands. There were slips here and there when Memphis couldn't completely account for the weak points in their team defense, but for the most part this was masterpiece in coverage against a formidable offense executing at a high level. If we were only so lucky to get five more overtimes.
• Let's sing the praises of Darrell Arthur and Tony Allen -- two of the unlikeliest saviors of Memphis' admirable effort. While the Spurs drew most of their biggest crunch-time plays from the likes of Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili, the Grizzlies benefitted from the opportunism of two of their scrappiest players. Allen was expectedly outstanding on the defensive end, but also found himself as either the ball-handler or finisher in a number of crucial fast-break situations. To say that isn't Allen's forté would be a colossal understatement; Allen's layup attempts are an adventure in themselves, each so wild and unique that they're impossible to replicate. Yet Allen held it together enough to either intentionally or haphazardly make the right play when the Grizzlies needed points most, all without forcing Memphis to settle into its half-court offense.
Arthur, too, had a fairly dominant crunch-time stretch. Lionel Hollins opted to play Arthur over Marc Gasol
for the final eight and a half minutes of regulation, and his decision was rewarded by two huge go-ahead jumpers that seemed at the time to stave off the Spurs -- not to mention the sound defense, deflections, and crucial, contested rebounds that came both before and after. Almost everything that Arthur does on the court is understated, and it's rare that he has an opportunity to soak in a few minutes in the spotlight. That makes this a particularly fitting occasion to appreciate all that he does in just 16 minutes a game for the Grizzlies, and all that he accomplished with his hustle in helping to earn Memphis its 24th win of the season.