With their 94-82 Game 6 win over the Golden State Warriors, the San Antonio Spurs will advance to the Western Conference Finals for the eighth time in the Tim Duncan era, where they will face a rested and ready Memphis Grizzlies team.
After their first taste of real postseason competition in the Warriors, the Spurs showed off what can help—or hinder—their chances at a fifth finals appearance.
Tony Parker Goes Cold
As each round of the postseason gets tougher, so does the responsibility get heavier on the players who carry their team. And although San Antonio is complemented by a formidable supporting cast, players like Tony Parker can't afford to not show up if they want to represent their conference when the league is narrowed to two.
18 percent. That is the field goal percentage that TP9, the leader of this title-contending unit, brought to the floor in Game 6. Now, nights like these happen to every player, star or not. But this team knows that at its age, it will need everything working right to be able to get through two more teams in order to hang another banner at the AT&T center.
The Warriors found success this series when Parker was unable to score more than 20 points, not including Game 6, where Tony found his three-point touch late in the game. Against a defensive-minded team like the Grizzlies, it will be absolutely crucial for Parker to have all of zero off nights.
Now, granted, I am being a little hard on the Frenchman. By all accounts, he still was the MVP of this series, averaging 24.4 points and 5.8 assists per game. However, when you are a star, you will be required to pay more attention to your deficits than your accomplishments, especially on a team coached by Gregg Popovich. Although Parker still had a great series, he will have to not disappear even once to find success in the next one.
They Can Win When Tony Parker Goes Cold
For three and a half quarters in Game 6, Tony Parker didn't look like an All-Star point guard. In fact, he barely resembled a starter. Parker had a dismal shooting performance for the majority of the contest, going 1-16 from the floor until hitting ten straight in the final four minutes. Six of those came in two huge threes from the corner, but it was balanced offense from the Spurs that made up for the star guard's lack of contribution.
Center Tiago Splitter finished with 14 points, Kawhi Leonard added 16 and Danny Green dropped 11 on 60 percent shooting. When Tony wasn't getting the job done offensively, others decided they would.
Anyone who's watched a Spurs game in their life knows this is why the team is never counted out. What happens when your MVP candidate goes invisible? Your other options pick up the load and patiently wait for him to return.
This is what separates experience from youth in playoff basketball. It's chemistry and trust in one another that allows a team to pick up the slack and not get discouraged when their big names go a little small.
Manu Ginobili is Streaky, but Still Effective
Ginobili seems to have found his best fit as quarter-closer and passer. His playmaking abilities and on-court presence are continually an added bonus to his companions in silver and black. Additionally, Manu managed to hit what will go down as one of the great playoff shots in recent memory during the Spurs' Game 1 comeback in San Antonio.
Somewhat of a bummer, however, is the hot/cold nature of Ginobili's shot that has marked this series. He scored only five points in Game 6 on 16.7 percent shooting, while his best night of the series was a humble 44 percent in Game 4.
Manu also seems to have a knack at prompting camera close-ups on Gregg Popovich's "are you kidding me" face, causing unnecessary turnovers with behind-the-back throwaways and risky passes. The three-point line has not been kind to him either, going 29 percent from beyond the arc this series.
When he's not botching bizarre no-look passes, however, Ginobili still possesses excellent court vision and remains a crafty finisher. Opposing teams respect his clutch abilities as well, and he will always be on the floor in close fourth quarter games.
Defensive teams are very unforgiving on offensive mistakes, though, and the Grizzlies are just that. Boasting the stopping power of the league's Defensive Player of the Year in Marc Gasol, Ginobili will have to limit careless turnovers and allow his veteran postseason experience to come through.
Death, Taxes and Tim Duncan
Go ahead and read around the Internet about Tim Duncan this season, and return here when done.
Good. You won't be seeing anything new written here, because Duncan's continued efficiency has not given this writer anything new to mention. Which is a great, great thing for Spurs' fans.
The Big Fundamental averaged 19.6 points and 11.2 rebounds this series, with his lowest outing in the Spurs' Game 5 win, scoring 14 points on 38 percent shooting. Tim, at 37, is at that rare point in his veteran career where he is either still surprising everyone, or no longer surprising anyone.
Being surprised at a dominant Duncan performance is so last season, and a great place to be for a 16-year player.
Kawhi Leonard is Exciting
The Spurs' will never be featured heavily on the late-night highlight reels, mostly because playing basketball like a game of chess is never exciting.
For a long time the Spurs' only flashy explosions came from Manu Ginobili. But now, a new and much younger player is causing fans to jump off their couches.
Kawhi Leonard is a first-round pick out of San Diego State acquired by the Indiana Pacers and dealt to San Antonio on a draft-night trade for George Hill. He is known for his elite perimeter defense, being a potent stopper to any team's go-to shooter. With Kawhi's big hands and length, he is able to strip the ball from the offense and make offensive rebounds uncommon for a 6'7" player.
Leonard has played more this series than anyone else on the roster, clocking in 40.2 minutes per game. Pop has given him increased responsibilities and has encouraged aggression, and it is paying off. He is averaging 14.7 points and 9.2 rebounds per game on a steadfast 55% shooting. Like Duncan, he plays with that ever-uninteresting disposition and rarely is seen with more than one expression.
But his play has been anything but uninteresting. Leonard has shown he loves to elevate and slam it quite nastily, coming up with huge dunks throughout this series.
Like this one.
And this one.
After playing catchup the first two games of this round, the team is starting to finally look like they are playing what they call in Texas, "Spurs basketball." They proved they have the fuel in the tank to shut down a young and fiery Golden State team, and now they must show that they can battle a grind-it-out, physical and confident Grizzlies squad.
With four wins separating Duncan and Pop from their fifth taste of Finals basketball, is it safe to assume this could be their year?
Not quite safe, but not yet sorry.