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VOL. 132 | NO. 75 | Friday, April 14, 2017

If It’s the NBA Playoffs, It Must Be Grizzlies vs. Spurs

By Don Wade

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For the fifth time in the 10 playoff seasons in franchise history, the Memphis Grizzlies will play the San Antonio Spurs. They have been swept them by them in the first round twice (2004 and 2016), swept in the Western Conference Finals (2013) and shocked the NBA by upsetting the Spurs as the No. 8 seed in the first round (2011).

The Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs will meet in the first round of the NBA Playoffs, the fifth time in 10 Grizzlies playoff appearances that they have met at some point.

(Austin McAfee/CSM)

So, there are no surprises. The No. 7 seed Grizzlies will meet the No. 2 seed Spurs yet again, the series starting in San Antonio at 7 p.m. on Saturday, April 15. They know what it means to play the Spurs and what they must do to have a chance. Any chance.

“No mistakes,” power forward Zach Randolph said. “Especially against this team. Pop (Gregg Popovich) is the greatest coach in the history of the game.”

Yes, Tim Duncan has retired and players such as Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are not what they once were. But Kawhi Leonard is the best two-way player in the game. The Spurs went 61-21 and their 30-11 road record was second-best in the NBA. The Grizzlies, however, split the season series 2-2 and won both games in Memphis.

“This is not these guys’ first rodeo,” said Memphis coach David Fizdale, who is in his first playoff series as a head coach. “They know what time of year it is. They understand our opponent is elite.”

Coach David Fizdale says the Grizz must play in the moment because playoff games “change so fast from possession to possession.”

(Daily News File/Andrew J. Breig)

But as the Grizzlies (43-39) ended the regular season on Wednesday, April 12, with a meaningless 100-93 loss to the Dallas Mavericks at FedExForum, they were not so concerned with the Spurs. Rather, they were more focused on themselves.

After all, there is some reason for optimism. They are much healthier than they were last season when they used an NBA-record 28 players and they took on the Spurs without their two best players: point guard Mike Conley and center Marc Gasol.

Even Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said, “It wasn’t a fair fight.”

Forward JaMychal Green, who did play in the series last season, said: “We’re more confident. Our big guys are ready. They’re gonna have their hands full with us.”

This time, Conley and Gasol are not only healthy but coming off the best scoring seasons of their careers. Conley led the team with a 20.5 scoring average and Gasol averaged 19.5 points per game. Conley’s 40.7 percent shooting from 3-point range was the highest of his career and Gasol was given freedom to shoot threes and made 38.8 percent.

But, as has happened so many other years, the Grizzlies have reached this point almost without a mention in the national NBA narrative.

“For us and Memphis, this is our time to show what we got,” Conley said. “We don’t really get the national attention and we float under the radar for a long time. Playoffs are normally the time when everybody wakes up and says, ‘Alright, Memphis is pretty good. They’re a team to be reckoned with.’”

Conley, Gasol, Randolph and Tony Allen are in the seventh straight playoff series together (Allen suffered a leg injury against Dallas, but Fizdale seemed confident it wasn’t going to be serious).

Fizdale’s own playoff experience comes from being on the Miami Heat bench through the championship runs led by LeBron James and Dwyane Wade under head coach Erik Spoelstra.

“You truly have to stay in the moment,” Fizdale said of the difference between the regular season and the playoffs. “The games change so fast from possession to possession. If you were to lose yourself on a call, on a bad play that you made, a bad play that your teammate may have made, that can turn into three or four possessions when you lose. That’s the difference in a playoff game a lot of times.”

None of the games last season against the Spurs were close. The Grizzlies were just outmanned. But when they were swept in the 2013 conference finals, two of the losses were in overtime. When they beat the Spurs in six games in the first round in 2011, the Grizzlies won two games by three points and lost a game in overtime.

Big man Brandan Wright has never played the Spurs in the playoffs with the Grizzlies, but he has with other teams.

“They make you work every single possession,” Wright said. “It’s going to take a full effort to take them down.”

Which was something the Grizzlies knew even back in training camp. In the West, there are no easy first-round series. And to go anywhere, you have to defeat multiple great teams. The Spurs being one of them.

“This team we have here has been through everything together,” Conley said. “Especially the vets. We’ve been through the good and the bad. We’ve overcome a lot even with people having odds against us.

“We’re going to give our best and we’re definitely confident we can win.”

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