By Michael Wallace
Grind City Media
MEMPHIS – Two takeaways from the Grizzlies snapping a 10-game playoff losing streak Thursday with a 105-94 victory over San Antonio, and a look ahead to Game 4 on Saturday at FedExForum.
TAKE ONE … Grizzlies found kryptonite for Kawhi
Among the many adjustments the Grizzlies made on the way to closing the series deficit to 2-1 against the Spurs was finding a way to limit Kawhi Leonard’s robotic dominance on the game. Grizzlies’ coach David Fizdale paid Leonard the ultimate compliment entering Game 3 when he essentially described the Spurs’ MVP candidate as basketball’s version of The Terminator.
“I think he bleeds antifreeze,” Fizdale said of Leonard, who had been averaging 34.5 points on 71.4 percent shooting from the field through the first two games.
Leonard remains perfect from the free-throw line through three games, having made all 32 of his attempts from the foul line. But one of the key components to their breakthrough victory in Game 3 was that the Grizzlies were in a far less charitable mood when it came to sending Leonard to the foul line.
After attempting nine free throws in Game 1 and then a whopping 19 foul shots in Game 2, Leonard was limited to just four trips to the charity stripe on Thursday. He was contained to just 18 points on 6-of-11 shooting from the field, with four rebounds and three assists in 30 minutes.
The lesser heralded of the two lineup tweaks the Grizzlies made was designed to slow Leonard. James Ennis III was moved into the starting lineup for Game 3 and shared the Leonard defensive assignment primarily with rookie guard Wayne Selden. The two triggered a defense that funneled two or three bodies toward Leonard whenever he caught the ball and eliminated his operating space on the wing. Ennis and Selden also contributed offensively in combining for 22 points on 8-of-15 shooting.
With All-NBA defender Tony Allen sidelined for the first-round series with a calf strain he sustained in the final game of the regular season, the Grizzlies needed another answer for Leonard. Before Game 3, Leonard had averaged nearly 13 more points, shot 15 percentage points higher and attempted twice as many free throws against the Grizzlies in games when Allen wasn’t available this season.
I just didn’t play. I shot the ball like twice; they doubled me all game.
This time around, Leonard was held to only two points in the second half just a game after ripping the Grizzlies apart with 37 points, including 19 free throws, in a performance that landed Fizdale a $30,000 league fine for complaining about unbalanced officiating.
“I just didn’t play,” Leonard said. “I shot the ball like twice; they doubled me all game.”
Ennis said maintaining energy and aggression are essential in trying to contain Leonard.
“I think I’m always going to be nervous, because the atmosphere is just crazy,” Ennis said. “I just go out there and give it my all and I play hard. So wherever that takes me, it takes me.”
TAKE TWO … Vintage Randolph to the rescue
Fizdale’s other adjustment worked to near perfection, with Zach Randolph moving into the starting lineup and dropping 21 points, eight rebounds and a block – and even a dunk – on the Spurs in Game 3.
While Fizdale insists the lineup change was borne out of desperation after Memphis struggled to maintain any rhythm on offense the first two games, it was also a methodically cultivated decision. Randolph always believed he was a starter, although the 15-year veteran also never publicly complained about having to accept a full-time reserve role for the first time since his third NBA season.
There’s a bit of irony in Randolph returning full-circle to a starting assignment. Fizdale’s first bold move when he took over as coach this season was replacing Randolph as the starting power forward with JaMychal Green. Throughout the season, Fizdale defended the controversial move as one that was designed to create maximum space on the floor for Mike Conley and Marc Gasol to operate, and to also give the second unit a proven, veteran scorer in Randolph.
Now, Randolph is back in the starting lineup largely because it helps create more opportunities for Conley and Gasol to operate more freely and not have to deal with the Spurs’ collapsing defense. When the Spurs loaded up their defense on Conley in Game 1, Gasol erupted for a playoff career-high 32 points. When Conley got going in Game 2, Gasol struggled in the first half and never got on track.
Inserting Randolph alongside Gasol and Conley essentially eliminated opportunities for San Antonio to double-team anyone consistently. That meant one of the three would work against single coverage. As it turned out, it freed up all three of them to be effective. Randolph, Conley and Gasol combined for 66 points on 55.8 percent shooting from the field.
“For us to win this series, we’re going to have to do that,” Randolph said. “It definitely felt good.”
It was just the fifth time this season Conley, Gasol and Randolph each scored at least 20 points in the same game. The Grizzlies’ record when that’s happened?
“I felt like he was a secret weapon and we finally unleashed him,” Conley said of Randolph’s impact in the starting lineup. “It’s fun to see him succeed. It’s fun to see him do the things he’s accustomed to doing. He really changed the game and hopefully changed the series, and will give us some confidence.”
TAKE THREE … Grizzlies, Spurs seeing eye to eye entering Game 4
The Spurs hold a 2-1 series edge heading into Game 4 on Saturday, but the Grizzlies have played them about as evenly as they did during the regular season when the teams split their four matchups.
Through the three playoff games, San Antonio won five of the first six quarters played in the series while Memphis has either tied or held the edge in four of the last six periods. Overall, both history and home-court advantage still favor the Spurs, who are 27-2 in postseason series in which they started by winning the first two games.
Yet the Grizzlies don’t have to search far to find the last time they rallied from a 2-0 deficit to win a series. That happened in the first round of the 2013 playoffs, when Memphis won four consecutive games against the Clippers after dropping the first two in the series.
In other words, Saturday at FedExForum shapes up as a series-shifting showdown.
“We’ve played Memphis a lot in the playoffs – we know what to expect,” Spurs guard Tony Parker said. “They were hard on us in the regular season. Now, we have to come back. We have to play better in Game 4 and come back strong.”
Now, it’s on to Round 4.
“The Spurs were punking us; let’s be real about it,” Fizdale said. “Of the first eight quarters, they bullied us for five and a half of those. You’re not going to beat the Spurs letting them dictate everything. We had to match it. Otherwise, we were going to get pummeled. We stepped up and took the challenge.”
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