- Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN Staff Writer
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The spacing was all wrong.
Four Grizzlies were crowded on the right side of the floor as Mike Conley dribbled in place, waiting for his teammates to find their seats so Memphis could get down to business.
With about five minutes left in regulation, the Grizzlies figured to have, at most, 10 possessions left in an 80-80 game, but then Jerryd Bayless raised his hands as if to say, "What gives?" as Quincy Pondexter claimed a spot not 4 feet to his right in the far corner. Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins motioned for Bayless to cut through to the left side and relieve the congestion, and Bayless followed suit.
At the right elbow, Marc Gasol was also confused. He turned his palms upward as he brainstormed with Conley about what to do next. Without much force or confidence, Gasol offered a step-up screen to Conley's right that didn't nick Kawhi Leonard, whose pressure pushed Conley a good 35 feet from the basket.
Finally, there was some hope. Just in front of him, Hollins watched Gasol screen Danny Green, which triggered two possibilities for his team -- Bayless curling around Gasol ready to catch the ball on the move, while Gasol rolled into open space on the left side.
That's two nice options on a possession that started out as a crime scene.
Conley's bounce pass hit Bayless in motion, and Hollins' chin lifted ever so slightly in anticipation. Buckets had been sparse since a 29-point first quarter when everything came easy, and now Bayless was making his approach into the paint, with Gasol wide open behind the Spurs' defense.
Bayless' floating pass was effectively a jump ball 4 feet in front of the rim. Danny Green leaped highest.
As Green tipped the remains of the Grizzlies' possession into the hands of Tony Parker, Hollins winced, lurched back, then turned away. He found a plastic silver bottle of talc that was resting within reach on the scorer's table and gripped it hard, pressing it against the padded surface.
When Hollins looked up again, Green was finding Tim Duncan alone underneath the Spurs' basket for an easy slam.
The Grizzlies never lack for effort, and it's one of the primary reasons they've hung around until Memorial Day weekend, outlasting teams with greater offensive talent and lesser flaws. But there are times when the gears grind and precision erodes, when it looks like the Grizzlies will never score another basket.
"We're not efficient with what effort we're getting," Hollins said after the game. "That's where we have to be better."
This has never been a simple formula for the Grizzlies. Since the current core was assembled, the Grizzlies have never had a platoon of pure, knockdown shooters. Conley has graduated from iffy to proficient. O.J. Mayo was the team's leading 3-point shooter the previous two seasons in shots made, but he hit at an unexceptional 36.4 percent clip both seasons. None of the regulars this season touched 40 percent.
A team whose most lethal shooter from long range is Quincy Pondexter probably has no business in a conference finals, and players, coaches and team execs have all acknowledged these shortcomings. And it's this self-realization, a firm understanding of what the team can and can't accomplish as a unit that's made the Grizzlies so good over the past few months. Self-awareness is a powerful thing, and it has endowed Memphis with a true survival instinct. The Grizzlies have managed to find enough table scraps as bullies on the offensive glass and predators in the post. They get periodic bursts of confidence from Conley and sneaky play behind the defenses from Allen.
Yet a team can gnaw at the margins for only so long before the bone is picked clean. The Spurs' big men keep two feet in the paint, while their lanky wing defenders swoop in from the baseline and load up. Routine post entries into Gasol and Randolph are messy affairs, and when the ball finds its way into the paint, the help is almost always on time.
In today's NBA, long-range shooting and speed are the most reliable antidotes to this brand of defense, but this is where the Grizzlies are in short supply, and it's finally caught up to them. These are shortcomings Memphis will undoubtedly address on the wing this offseason, but until then there simply isn't enough firepower to burst through the Spurs' barricade.
Traditionally, teams that lose the first three games of an NBA playoff series are buried beneath history. No team has ever come back from a 3-0 series deficit, and the well-seasoned, poised Spurs are an unlikely victim to defy probabilities. But the Grizzlies still speak hopefully, even in their self-critiques.
"We've got to do other stuff, get to our second and third options and get the ball upcourt fast -- that's something we've got to work on," Zach Randolph said after the game, as if these tasks were long-term projects.
"We've been learning for the past few games," Gasol said with all the confidence of a guy who expects to see this learning process to fruition. A moment later, Gasol used the future simple tense: "We're going to have to communicate more, like we always do."
"It's a good learning lesson," Conley said at the podium, echoing Gasol's sentiments. "There's no group of guys I'd rather be with down 3-0 to try to fight back into it."
There's no pleasant way to cede defeat, but the Grizzlies have been playing with house money for the better part of a month. That their key young players can own up to their flaws yet still speak in the language of the future bodes well for Memphis.
6dEthan Sherwood Strauss