As 2021 drew to a close and 2022 loomed, San Antonio coach Greg Popovich put the play of the Memphis Grizzlies in a straight-forward context after they turned back the Spurs (118-105) at FedExForum on New Year’s Eve.
“Grizzlies were tough today, they were good. There is a reason they have 20 wins or whatever it is,” said Popovich. “Aggressive at both ends, come ready to play, they believe in what they are doing, they believe they are one of the better teams in the league and it shows.”
Memphis (23-14) leads the Southwest Division of the Western Conference by the largest margin ever in franchise history. They are five games up on the Dallas Mavericks and currently hold the fourth seed in the West by four games over the Denver Nuggets.
Popovich’s Spurs came into the game as the fastest pace team in the league, said Grizzlies head coach Taylor Jenkins, adding that protecting the paint was a pre-game focus for Memphis.
“I thought we did a very good job of that,” said Jenkins. “We want to play fast. We want to play under our control. It was one of those games where we were trying to get our pace going. “
Memphis got off to a hot start with a 9-0 run that forced the Spurs to call a time out. San Antonio regrouped, responding with a 13-2 answer.
The second quarter had a lot of stops and delays as time was devoted to infection control and official reviews. Memphis star guard Ja Morant matched his first-quarter output with another 10-point effort as the Grizzlies held a slim 63-61 lead at the half.
San Antonio spurted to a 6-0 run to start the second half and led by as many as five points in the quarter. The game was tied at 74 with six minutes left in the quarter when the Grizzlies turned up the defense. That keyed a 16-5 run that propelled Memphis to a 90-79 as the third quarter ended.
The Spurs (14-19) never recovered from that run and were forced to play at the Grizzlies’ pace the rest of the way.
“The third quarter we were sloppy with the turnovers, they got into transition, scored and they really set the tone for the second half of the ball game,” said Popovich. “They played very well for more of the 48 minutes than we did for sure.”
Memphis held San Antonio to 18 points in the decisive third quarter of what Jenkins called a “really competitive game. … Credit our guys. We talk about this all the time. Sometimes you need that halftime or second-time surge, and we had it tonight.”
Morant finished with 30 points, his third consecutive game with 30 or more points. Memphis outrebounded the Spurs 58-47, with center Steven Adams racking 13 rebounds to go along with his 12 points. Forward Jaren Jackson Jr. had 11 rebounds and 12 points for his first double-double of the season. Shooting guard Desmond Bane had 17 points.
Backup point guard Tyus Jones had 18 points (4 assists, 4 rebounds) and played significant minutes against his brother, Spurs guard Tre Jones (13 points, 3 assists, 1 rebound).
“This was the first kind of meaningful minutes that we’ve played against each other. It was was cool,” said Memphis’ Jones. “It definitely added a little bit of fuel to the fire. But no, it was just playing for real. You get wrapped up in the game. Just both of us (are) competitive … it was definitely a good night. I got the final say.”
Tre Jones said he is well aware of his brother’s capability. “I just think that when he has that aggressiveness that he had tonight, he could be at any moment, the best guard on the court.”
As for the Grizzlies team, Tre Jones said, “They’re experienced. They play well together. They know how each other plays. They’re a younger team in the league, but they’ve been together for a few years now, so they play well together.”
Memphis reserve forward Brandon Clarke (BC) again showed that he is regaining his rookie-season effectiveness after missing several games with a knee injury. He scored 17 points (9 rebounds, 2 assists) off the bench.
“I felt like I was in a really good place prior to having that little injury. So, I’ve just been trying to find that rhythm that I had,” said Clarke. “I felt that I kind of got that back tonight. … I felt BC again.”
The Grizzlies have a two-game road trip, beginning with the Brooklyn Nets on Monday (Jan. 3). In a back-to-back, they travel to Cleveland to face the Cavaliers on Tuesday (Jan. 4).
Memphis returns to FedExForum to face the Detroit Pistons on Thursday (Jan. 6).