MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Back in the Grindhouse, the Memphis Grizzlies finally delivered the kind of grit-and-grind effort that has been their signature for the past six seasons. But the San Antonio Spurs have some signature characteristics of their own, and those traits have Memphis one game from elimination.
Let’s face it: The Grizzlies had every opportunity to roll over Friday. After falling behind by as many as 13 during the first half, Memphis had absorbed nine quarters of pounding during the series. They hadn’t held a lead since Game 1, and that was a mere one-point advantage enjoyed for all of 26 seconds. Earlier in the day, the team announced that rookie Jarell Martin was done for the playoffs with a foot injury. That left one backup big man, JaMychal Green, and he was battling flu-like symptoms. Yet it was at their nadir that the Grizzlies dragged some grind back into their house.
“I thought their game plan was great and their effort was even better,” coach Gregg Popovich said after the contest, won 96-87 by his visiting Spurs. “That’s why it was such a good game.”
After promising to throw some different looks at San Antonio, Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger started veteran wing Tony Allen in place of center Chris Andersen, which pushed small forward Matt Barnes to power forward and Zach Randolph to center. While the smaller lineup sprung a few open looks in the first quarter, Memphis couldn’t convert -- managing just 18 points in the first 12 minutes. Joerger stuck with the undersized groupings for much of the game, and eventually it started to pay dividends.
Lance Stephenson sparked a second-period rally, scoring six points off the bench and drawing an offensive foul. Memphis held San Antonio to 6-of-19 shooting and outscored the Spurs in a quarter for the first time in this Western Conference first-round series, though the Grizzlies still trailed by a point at the half.
“The idea was to play our veteran guys while we were playing small,” Joerger said, “because it’s a bang-bang adjustment to try to do that with the younger guys.”
While the rally brought some energy into the FedEx Forum, it was in the third quarter that the intensity ratcheted up to a playoff level for, really, the first time in a series that had been viewed as a likely runaway and had to that point played out just as the prognosticators had foreseen. It was Randolph, a grit-and-grind mainstay, and Barnes, in his first playoff run with Memphis, who led the way. Barnes not only grabbed 11 rebounds to tie a career high, but he battled LaMarcus Aldridge in the paint at times on defense, even drawing an offensive foul at one point.
“[Barnes] is a warrior,” Joerger said. “I have not been around a guy as competitive as Matt. He leaves it all out there and makes no excuses.”
Randolph pounded inside against the bigger Spurs, and while San Antonio racked up 12 blocks in the game, Memphis kept running to the glass even with its big-man rotation so short. Randolph had five offensive boards and the Grizzlies grabbed 15 of their own misses. Memphis finished with an 18-1 edge in second-chance points and took 50 shots in the paint, hitting just 22.
“We definitely played hard tonight,” Randolph said. “It’s all we can do. It’s right there.
“It’s tough. It’s tough.”
With the veterans providing the example, Green kept up the effort off the bench. Despite being hampered by a congested head and a shortage of playoff experience, Green scored 10 points on 5-for-5 shooting off the Memphis bench. In one sequence, he stopped Kawhi Leonard on a drive at the basket, then sprinted to the other end to lay in a lob pass from Xavier Munford.
“My team needed me,” Green said. “I didn’t have anything broken.”
Randolph had totaled just 17 points combined in the first two games, and his struggles against the Spurs trace back to 2011, when he led a Memphis upset of San Antonio in another first round, one that seems like a long time ago. He finished with 20 points Friday, needing 21 shots to get there, underscoring just how difficult it’s been for Memphis every step along the way of this trying series.
Somehow, though, the Grizzlies gritted and grinded their way to a one-point lead entering the fourth quarter. They had hit just 17-of-41 in the paint, and just 3-of-12 from behind the arc. They were minus in points off turnovers. Yet there they were, in the lead and their crowd alive. San Antonio’s starters had not logged a single fourth-quarter minute in the first round, but Popovich’s mainstays were needed in Game 3. Unfortunately, that meant lots of Leonard, who dominated the game at both ends down the stretch as the Spurs implacably executed all through what turned out to be a no-sweat finish.
“Kawhi Leonard’s got to be one of the top two, top three, players in the league at both ends,” Randolph said. “That kid is the silent assassin.”
Leonard finished with 32 points at the offensive end while racking up four steals and five blocks at the other end. With the rest of the Spurs turning in ho-hum performances, it was a star turn for the NBA’s emergent superstar. It was the kind of outing the Grizzlies can’t match, not when their own franchise players -- Marc Gasol and Mike Conley -- are accessorizing their snappy suits with less-snappy walking boots. Not that the Grizzlies have used that as an excuse to cry uncle in the face of overwhelming odds.
“We fought,” Barnes said. “Obviously there are no moral victories in the NBA, but we did some good things tonight. It just slipped away in the fourth quarter.”
Memphis won’t have much time to stew over a loss that might well have been the best shot it will be able to muster, as Sunday’s Game 4 is a 1 p.m. ET start -- just over 36 hours from the conclusion of Friday’s game. It’s not quite a back-to-back set, but it’s as close teams get to one in the playoffs.
“We have something to build off of,” Vince Carter said. “We just have to let it all hang out on Sunday.”