MEMPHIS, Tenn.: On the best playoff run in their short history, the Memphis Grizzlies refuse to be satisfied with just reaching their first Western Conference final.
The San Antonio Spurs? Well, they know time is running out for a team that has done so much in the NBA playoffs yet last celebrated a championship in 2007.
Blowing a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference finals a year ago to Oklahoma City has driven the Spurs since training camp, and now they are back with Game 1 today against Memphis, determined not to waste another chance.
“We understand as a team that those opportunities are very rare, and we have another great one right now,” Spurs guard Tony Parker said Saturday. “We have home-court advantage against a very good team, so we have to take full advantage of it.”
The Grizzlies are the former expansion franchise that started off in Vancouver before moving to Memphis, and they started by setting the NBA record for postseason futility while losing their first 12 playoff games.
Coach Lionel Hollins, who won an NBA title in 1977 as a player with Portland, has his Grizzlies believing they can win one, too. The No. 5 seed in the West ousted first the Clippers, then the Thunder by winning eight of its last nine games, including three straight on the road.
“We’re just worried about going forward,” Grizzlies guard Mike Conley said. “We’re happy to be here, but we’re still focused on bigger things, and we got another tough opponent.”
That would be the Spurs with Tim Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobili, who swept the Grizzlies out of their first postseason in 2004. When Memphis finally won a postseason series, it beat the Spurs in six games in 2011, kicking off that series by winning the first game in San Antonio. Ginobili said the Spurs were not at their best that series and struggled to stop Grizzlies big men Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.
“We started with the wrong foot, we lost the first one and they got stronger and confident, and that’s how they beat us,” Ginobili said.
This conference final pits Southwest Division rivals, the Spurs as the dominating big brother with their four NBA championships and the fifth-best all-time winning percentage in the league since 1976.
This should be a defensive showdown between teams built around big men with Memphis countering Duncan with 7-foot-1 Gasol. Memphis held teams to an NBA-low 89.3 points during the regular season, and the Spurs tied for third in defensive efficiency. The Grizzlies also were second defending the three, which could slow down Parker and Ginobili.
“Finding ways to score is going to be very difficult,” Popovich said. “Just playing against their defense is enough of a concern right off the bat.”
Home court mattered during the regular season as these teams split with each winning on their own floor.
Remember when Popovich sent Duncan, Parker, Ginobili and Danny Green home to avoid playing the Heat in Miami on Nov. 29? Well, that rest at the end of a six-game road trip cost the Spurs an unprecedented $250,000 fine. But the move paid off when the Spurs hosted the Grizzlies on Dec. 1 when Memphis was off to an NBA-best 12-2 start with a 99-95 win by San Antonio.
It’s going to be a tough series,” Randolph said. “Every time we’ve played them it’s a tough series. They got Ginobili, Parker, and they got a lot of other guys who do great things for the team.”
San Antonio went 35-6 at home in the regular season, then swept the Lakers to open the playoffs. The Warriors tested that home-court advantage, forcing the Spurs to go to overtime to pull out the first game of that series and win Game 2. The Spurs won Game 5 at home before closing out the series Thursday night.
“I don’t think you need any more challenge than playing in the conference finals and having the opportunity to go to the NBA Finals,” Ginobili said.
A key in this series will be Parker and Conley. Parker is averaging 22.4 points a game this postseason, while Conley is averaging a career-best 17.6 points while handing out 7.6 assists a game.
“He’s the real key to their basketball team,” Popovich said. “Everybody just thinks about Zach and Marc, who are sufficiently wonderful as players. But Conley is very, very important to that group.”
They got an extra day of rest after Wednesday night’s 88-84 win over the Thunder. Now they have geared up again focusing on defense, rebounding and trying to outscore an opponent in the paint.
“It’s the same recipe,” Gasol said. “It’s just a little tougher.”
AP Sports Writer Jeff Latzke in San Antonio contributed to this report.