Leonard had single-handedly dragged the Spurs to the brink of a 3-1 series lead, scoring 16 straight points and erasing a double-digit deficit, before the miss allowed all of Tennessee to let out a collective sigh of relief.
When the Grizzlies found themselves in the same position five minutes later, they didn’t extend the same courtesy. Marc Gasol’s floater over LaMarcus Aldridge with less than a second remaining would give Memphis a 108-106 victory and tie the hard-fought first-round series at two games a piece.
Still, Leonard’s performance will live on in its own quiet corner of the history books. He became the first-ever player to have at least 40 points, five three-pointers and five steals in a playoff game,affecting every facet of the game the way only he can do. If he wasn’t hitting clutch three-pointers or deftly getting to the rim, he was battling for loose balls and ripping them away from opponents.
The Spurs forward was nearly matched punch for punch by Memphis’ own understated star, Mike Conley, who turned in what was likely the best game of his career. Conley had 35 points, nine rebounds and eight assists and feasted off a porous Spurs defense for much of the night.
Memphis’ offense was once again less one-sided than San Antonio’s, with ball movement that consistently found its way to the hands of open three-point shooters. When the game was on the line, Coach David Fizdale seemed happy to turn to either Gasol or Conley, while the Spurs system has but one node right now: Leonard.
That’s not to say he didn’t have some help – Tony Parker turned back the clock with 22 points and five assists, and Aldridge had his moments in the second half – but it wasn’t nearly enough for a team that required every ounce of Leonard’s brilliance to stay competitive.
The other question for San Antonio: where has its number-one defense gone? In the last two games, the Spurs have a defensive rating of 111.8, which is worse than the number put up by the last-ranked Lakers in the regular season. Missing Dewayne Dedmon (out Saturday due to illness) hurt, but the Spurs overall seem overwhelmed by a Grizzlies offense that was middle-of- the-pack heading into the playoffs.
The good news for them: the home team has won every game so far, and the series’ pivotal Game 5 will be at the AT&T Center on Tuesday.