Every time Tony Parker made another impossible shot, he was easy to hate. Every time Tim Duncan turned back the clock by sprinting down the court, he was easy to hate. Every time coach Gregg Popovich made an adjustment and put the Grizzlies’ offense deeper into the mud, he was easy to hate.
The San Antonio Spurs, even now, are not to be confused with the detestable Los Angeles Clippers of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. But over four games in a Western Conference Finals that ended way too soon, Grizzlies fans learned to loathe the team that other NBA fans simply find “boring.”
But if you still feel that way now, days after the Spurs finished their sweep of the Grizzlies with a 93-86 victory in Game 4 at FedExForum, then you’ve missed an opportunity to get what you can from the experience.
Fortunately, the Grizzlies have not.
“They taught us a lesson how to play at this stage in the playoffs,” center Marc Gasol said of the Spurs. “They taught us a lesson how to execute. They taught us a lesson how to play, how to read schemes. They taught us all around.
“I think we’re going to be better because we played against, to me, one of the greatest teams there’s been in the past 15 years.”
Is there solace in that? Maybe not right this second, but there could be in the years to come. If you want to look at other, more successful, NBA franchises and imagine what the Grizzlies might become over the next decade or so, then the Spurs are the best model.
San Antonio is a small market. Yet the Spurs have won four NBA championships since 1999. Duncan and Popovich have been part of all four, with Popovich saying, “I’ve been hanging on Timmy’s coattails for a long time.”
Parker and Manu Ginobili were part of the 2003, 2005 and 2007 Spurs championship teams. The core four have a decade-plus of winning at the highest level. More amazing, perhaps, it has been six years since they last appeared in the NBA Finals.
“I think a lot of people think the grass is greener on the other side,” Popovich said. “And if you could change this coach or trade these guys it’s all going to be nirvana after that.”
The Spurs, of course, have had to change the role players around them. But the key pieces have remained, and remained relevant. A 37-year-old Duncan earned All-NBA first-team honors this season and he ran the floor in this series like a gazelle – or at least fast enough to time and time again beat the Grizzlies’ bigs and perimeter players down the floor for easy fastbreak baskets. He was a defensive force and yes, an old, but not-to-be-denied, warrior.
Parker, 31, simply played like the league’s best point guard. In one game he had 18 assists. In Game 4, he scored 37 points. Throughout, he was virtually unstoppable as a scorer, playmaker and leader.
“He’s the reason we’re here (going to the NBA Finals),” Duncan said.
Ginobili was inconsistent, but no less a pain in the backside. Popovich was the same as ever, the architect of a team that passes better than any other, makes backcuts like it’s the 1950s, and in this season and this series re-discovered its defensive identity. Even at FedExForum, the Grizzlies were unable to shoot 40 percent against the Spurs.
“They didn’t let us up for air at all,” said Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins. “They deserved to move on and I wish them the best because Pop did a great job and their team did a great job.”
Maybe you can’t bring yourself to exactly root for the Spurs in the NBA Finals, but maybe you should. Maybe it would represent a kind of hoops healing.
“We’re going to take a couple of pages out of their book and move on,” said the Griz’s Quincy Pondexter.
Consider that advice worth taking.
Don Wade’s column appears weekly in The Daily News and The Memphis News. Listen to Wade on “Middays with Greg & Eli” every Tuesday at noon on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM.