Shorthanded Grizzlies should help Spurs find rhythm

SAN ANTONIO -- The San Antonio Spurs blasted a shorthanded Memphis Grizzlies squad 106-74 in the opening round of the Western Conference playoffs Sunday, giving coach Gregg Popovich his sixth postseason victory by 30 points or more.

Overcoming a slow first-half start, San Antonio nailed 10 of its first 11 shots in the second half to put away the game by outscoring the Grizzlies 33-14 in the third quarter to go into the final frame ahead 81-51. The sizeable lead sent the core group to the bench, as Popovich finished the contest with his most well-rested team after the opening game of the postseason, according to research by ESPN Stats & Information.

San Antonio’s starters combined to play 118 minutes, the fewest combined minutes for the group in a postseason opener since 2006, when the Spurs faced the Sacramento Kings. No starter played more than 28 minutes.

But an overabundance of rest won’t necessarily prove positive for the Spurs, who are now looking to catch a rhythm in the playoffs, after an odd combination of time off and injuries near the end of the regular season conspired to knock the team offbeat.

Interestingly, the Memphis Grizzlies might be the perfect opponent for the Spurs to strike the balance between rhythm and rest.

“Down the stretch, we did rest some guys,” Popovich said. “A couple of guys got a little bit banged up. LaMarcus [Aldridge] on his hand, and Boris [Diaw]'s groin. So it was a little bit more than rest. But they’re pros, and they’ve all been in the league a long time. It’s not a complicated job really when you think about it. It’s about competing and executing, and if you take a night off, I don’t think you forget how to do those two things.”

Perhaps so, but the case could be made that all the rest added difficulty to the San Antonio’s efforts to peak heading into the playoffs.

The Spurs finished 6-4 over their last 10 games of the regular season, including three consecutive losses from April 7-10 (two came against the defending champion Golden State Warriors), and for the most part appeared to be out of synch; on offense, especially.

The Spurs haven’t pulled together a full, 48-minute performance since their March 23 win over the Miami Heat, but came close against the Grizzlies, whio utilized an NBA-record 28 players during the regular season due to injuries.

“They’re in the playoffs and they’re a good team. It just took time for us to stay the course out there until things broke open for us,” said Aldridge, who finished with 17 points as one of five players to produce double-digit scoring for the Spurs.

San Antonio managed to knock down just three field goals from outside the paint in the first half, which registers as the fewest the Spurs have hit in any half this season. Then, in the third quarter, San Antonio hit 7-of-9 from outside the paint to finish the period shooting 72.2 percent (13 of 18).

The enhanced offense came as a byproduct of stingy defense. In the first quarter, the Spurs made just 35 percent of their attempts, but finished the opening half ahead 48-37, thanks to five blocked shots and six steals as the Spurs outscored the Grizzlies 11-3 on the break.

“The focus of our program is defense,” Popovich said. “We try to be a solid team in that regard, and I thought in the second half we did that pretty good. I thought our offense was really bogged down in the first half. We didn’t move the ball. It was a lot of one-on-one. I think it was seven assists at the half, so it wasn’t a good night for that. And against the Grizzlies, they’re a tough, physical, aggressive team in that sense. So the ball has to move other than dribble. It’s got to be passed and people have to move. I don’t think we did that very well in the first half.”

Luckily for the Spurs, the defense pulled them through.

“I think we started off playing good defense from the beginning of the game,” said Kawhi Leonard, who finished with a game-high 20 points. “I got some easy shots going into that transition and getting some layups and dunks. That’s how you get a rhythm, for my teammates as well. If they’re able to get an easy layup, they’re just going to gain more confidence.”

In all, San Antonio gobbled up 13 steals, including four from Leonard, to go along with nine blocks (three provided by Leonard) and two apiece from Aldridge and Tim Duncan.

“It sustained us until we started making shots. That’s what it’s been all year long,” Duncan said. “We pride ourselves on our defense. Shots are gonna go, and they’re not gonna go. So luckily we’re talented enough and we have good enough scorers that it’s gonna eventually turn that way. But we’ve got to be able to stop people and limit them offensively. It just takes a little while. The playoffs start, and you kind of have playoff jitters. It took us a quarter or two to get that rhythm going. Once we got it going, defensively, we were pretty solid the whole way through. Then just some shots started falling. Then we kind of extended that lead. So I think it was just giving ourselves a quarter or two to kind of get ourselves rolling.”

In San Antonio’s case, it will need this entire series against Memphis -- which will likely last just four games -- to find the rhythm it seeks headed into the next round, in which he Spurs likely will face a spry Oklahoma City Thunder team.

Along the way, if San Antonio continues to perform the way it did on Sunday, it can catch a little more rest too by ushering Memphis out of the postseason early.

“It’s going to be very important to come out with the same energy, focused, executing on the offensive end and trying to get a win,” Leonard said.