The Spurs took their opponent’s best punch in the first half of Game 1, enduring a barrage of three-pointers and off-balance finishes by Marc Gasol and Mike Conley and finding themselves suddenly trailing by double digits just nine minutes in. The metaphor took a more literal turn in the second quarter when Manu Ginobili caught an errant forearm from Zach Randolph on a drive to the rim, a blow that left a welt above the Argentinian’s right eye and temporarily forced him out of the game.
Memphis’ early performance – the effort, focus and physicality – was hardly a surprise. The team that has long played under the banner of “Grit and Grind” was sure to come out swinging in this series, even without one of its spiritual leaders, Tony Allen, who’s out indefinitely with a calf injury.
Credit the guys in silver and black, however, for not flinching.
The Spurs quickly tightened up their defense on the two Grizzlies stars while sharpening their execution on offense, running it as often as possible through the ever-improving Kawhi Leonard. Leonard was brutally efficient with the ball in his hands, scoring 32 points on 11-of-14 shooting from the field (many by getting right to the basket), 9-of-9 from the free-throw line, and dishing out a team-high five assists. He earned every last “MVP chant” the AT&T Center crowd had to offer, leading the charge in the game’s decisive third quarter.
On the other end, it was the criminally underappreciated Danny Green who set the tone from the opening moments. He crowded Conley in the corner two minutes into the first quarter, which forced an early Memphis timeout, and was crucial in slowing the point guard down after his hot start. Green also had a game-high four blocks, stifling a couple of Memphis fast breaks single-handedly and coming up with, perhaps, the most important play of the game.
With the Spurs up 60-55 with over six minutes left in the third, the shooting guard stole a pass and took it back the other way, drawing a foul on Conley. The play would energize the San Antonio bench and spark a 24-9 run to finish the period.
In the fourth, the Spurs refused to drop their guard, even with the starters out. The ‘Juice Unit’ not only stewarded the lead to the final horn but built on it, with Jonathon Simmons, Dewayne Dedmon and Kyle Anderson picking up blocks on back-to-back (to-back) possessions. Later, Bryn Forbes and Davis Bertans would both get their first tastes (and points) of the NBA postseason.
With the 111-82 victory, San Antonio picked up its ninth straight W over the Grizzlies since being eliminated by them in 2011. The figure that really matters, though? Fifteen – the number of wins they need to get to the Promised Land and hold up the NBA championship belt once again.