SAN ANTONIO -- Three meetings in 17 days, with a first-round matchup between these squads likely looming later this month in the Western Conference playoffs.
That was the situation faced by Memphis Grizzlies coach David Fizdale and the San Antonio Spurs' Gregg Popovich when their teams met Tuesday in a snoozer that saw the clubs combine for 68 first-half points before the Spurs seized a 95-89 overtime victory. The win tied the season series between the teams 2-2, and for at least another 10 days or so, the coaches won’t have to think about each other or their respective squads.
“I never enjoy it,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said last week when asked about all the meetings between these teams in such a short period of time. “No matter who you’re playing at this late a date, to play somebody that many times and then very possibly have to play them starting in the playoffs, you just don’t want to do that. You’d rather just stay away from them and just play them when the playoffs come.”
Fizdale didn’t disagree.
"I’m right with him -- trust me," he said. "And I guarantee you: He’s not losing as much sleep about coaching against me as I am about coaching against him. But it is what it is. This is how the schedule works out. Every team goes through some weird thing, where you're saying, ‘Why are we playing this team this many times?’ or ‘Why are we on the road coming back home, going back on the road?’ Every team has that in their schedule. So right now, for us and the Spurs, this is our little pocket of weird, and we’ve got to play it out."
San Antonio did so without the services of two starters, Danny Green (quadriceps contusion) and Dejounte Murray (groin), which meant extra minutes for Jonathon Simmons and Kyle Anderson. That possibly led to the Spurs' coming only one point shy of matching their season low for scoring in the first half (32 points Dec. 8 against Chicago). San Antonio produced 33 points in the first half, in part because it suffered through a drought of 8 minutes, 50 seconds in which it couldn’t produce a field goal.
On the bright side, San Antonio held the Grizzlies to 35 points, which marked the lowest scoring first half by any of the Spurs' opponents all season.
But for the coaches and the teams, not much else positive came from this. Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley busted open his right eye in a freak fourth-quarter collision with Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard that left the two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year with a headache. Conley was called for a foul on the play and was forced out of the game. Memphis’ medical staff had to repair the gash with what a Grizzlies athletic trainer called "a continuous stitch."
In the third quarter, the Spurs' Manu Ginobili sustained a right quadriceps contusion that forced him out of the action.
“These are two competitive teams, two connective groups,” Fizdale said. “I think you have got really prideful veterans on these teams that have been through a lot of wars. I think it has been a great regular-season series, but we have got a lot of regular season left to play right now. So we’ll see how it shakes out.”
But now San Antonio, which earned its 60th win for the sixth time under Popovich, can look forward to its fourth playoff series against the Grizzlies since 2011. Sure, the Spurs have basically owned the Grizzlies in the playoffs, racking up a 14-4 record with three sweeps in those four series, but in 2011, Memphis pulled off a 4-2 upset -- a fact not lost on the five-time NBA champions.
“They just play physical defense, and they crack you,” Spurs guard Patty Mills said. “You know, you’re cutting through the lane, and they crack you. They set hard screens. It’s really physical, and it bogs us down offensively. So I think for us to counter, we need to do our job defensively and run out of that, get rebounds and flow into offense that way. But it seems to be the main thing whenever we play that team is how physical defensively they are and how it puts us in mud a little bit. If we ended up playing them in the playoffs, we’ll look out for that, for sure.”
Certainly, Leonard will too. Throughout these three meetings in 17 days, Memphis has made scoring a difficult proposition for San Antonio’s leader in that category. Leonard put up 32 points on 10-of-24 shooting Tuesday, marking the first time since March 15 that he produced a 30-point outing.
“They pack the paint,” Leonard said of the Grizzlies. “They don’t want you getting easy layups. They make you shoot 3s. They’re very physical, and they get their hands on a lot of balls.”
Memphis also made sure to give San Antonio an idea of the type of series it can expect to face. When the Spurs swept the Grizzlies last season, they were without top players Conley and Marc Gasol. This time, they’ll be ready to go.
“This is a game where we wanted to send a message that we were not going to be a team that’s going to lay down at the end of the year,” Conley said. “We’re a team that continues to push, continues to fight through adversity, and I’m proud of a lot of the guys who played tonight. We’re looking forward to going to the playoffs.”