My wife sat down on the couch, glanced at the TV and caught a glimpse of Tim Duncan‘s incredulous mug making it clear that he disagreed with a foul call.
“He still plays?” she asked. “How old is he now, like 50?”
That is patently absurd, of course. Duncan’s not a day over 49. And after he scored just six points in the Spurs’ victory over the Grizzlies in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals on Sunday, the casual observer might assume Duncan has lost a step.
Duncan’s importance to the machine-like Spurs no longer rests in his point total, however. At his actual age of 37 (and 25 days), Duncan long ago stopped being a dominant scorer. But he is still capable of being one of the top defensive big men in the game, and while his teammates buried Memphis beneath a 3-point barrage, Duncan’s defense was as big a reason as any for San Antonio’s 22-point win.
Zach Randolph, who put Blake Griffin, David Lee and others through the grinder in the first two rounds, was held to just two points on 1-for-8 shooting in Game 1. The Grizzlies mustered 32 points in the paint, giving them a two-point edge over the Spurs in that category, but well below the more than 40 points in the paint they have averaged in the playoffs. In the opening round against the Clippers, the Grizzlies averaged 44.3 points in the paint en route to a six-game victory.
Yes, the Spurs hitting a team playoff record 14 threes on Sunday was huge, as was Tony Parker dicing up Memphis’ Mike Conley in ways Chris Paul and Reggie Jackson were unable to. But Duncan’s stout defense served as a quiet reminder that, contrary to popular belief, defense is everything in the NBA.
Four teams remain in the NBA playoffs. Three of them — Indiana, Memphis and San Antonio — were the regular season’s top three teams in defensive efficiency, which calculates the average number of points per 100 possessions a team allows. The fourth team, Miami, has LeBron James. So the lesson is simple: The best way to get to the conference finals is to be a top-flight defensive team or to have one of the singular basketball talents in generations. Not that the Heat were bad on defense, either; they were seventh in defensive efficiency during the season.
Make no mistake, the Spurs’ Game 1 win was a triumph of offense. Coach Gregg Popovich masterfully drew up a game plan to extend the Grizzlies’ defense outside of the comfort of the paint. Parker and Manu Ginobili ran pick and rolls beyond the 3-point line with seldom-used sharpshooter Matt Bonner, who buried four threes. The Spurs swung the ball from side to side to open up Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green in the corners — Leonard finished with four threes, Green three. The Spurs were able to put up 105 points despite being out-rebounded overall and on the offensive glass, while generating only 11 points off 12 Memphis turnovers.
Over the long haul of a best-of-seven series — or a two-month postseason — such hot shooting cannot be counted upon, though. Ask the Knicks and Warriors how far their long-range bombers took them. The Spurs also looked pretty good in the first two games of last year’s conference finals, Parker noted, before they dropped four straight to the Thunder and shot-blocking menace Serge Ibaka.
In fact, there can be something less demoralizing about losing the way the Grizzlies did on Sunday. After an opponent hits three or four threes in a row, it becomes easier to shake off a loss as one of those days, especially when it comes at the beginning of what should be a long, drawn-out series. After the game, the Grizzlies were clearly disappointed with the defeat, but they mostly greeted the media with shrugs when asked about San Antonio’s performance.
“We just didn’t play well,” Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said, according to The Associated Press. “It’s not anything specific. It’s just that we were running too fast, we missed some layups, we were taking bad shots and our defense was really awful. And the Spurs played well.”
Other than that, it was smooth sailing for Memphis.
The one Memphis player who sounded legitimately flummoxed was Randolph. Shooters get hot sometimes, but there is nothing lucky about solid defense. Randolph could not shake off Duncan’s play as a one-game blip. The Grizzlies’ low-post beast has some things to figure out.
“I gotta be better,” Randolph told reporters. “Like I told my teammates, I gotta be better.”
Randolph is more than five years younger than Duncan and, at this point in their lives, far tougher to cover in the post. Still, as Duncan knows well, a player who can lock down on defense in the playoffs is always valuable. Even at 50.