MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Tony Parker groaned in discomfort from the visitors locker room at FedExForum, having plunged both feet into an orange Gatorade cooler filled to the brim with ice water.
At least now something would finally cool off Parker after the point guard combined with Kawhi Leonard to burn the Memphis Grizzlies into elimination on Thursday, as the duo combined for 56 points in the San Antonio Spurs‘ 103-96 victory in Game 6 of the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
The victory pushes the Spurs into the Western Conference semifinals, where they will host the Houston Rockets on Monday in Game 1.
“Tony wasn’t just effective today,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “He’s done a masterful job of getting in shape down the stretch of the season and playing his best basketball during this playoff — finding people, scoring himself, working hard defensively. He had a magnificent playoff.”
Parker will need more of that throughout the Western Conference playoffs, as San Antonio’s side of the postseason bracket features plenty of formidable point guards, including James Harden, Chris Paul and Stephen Curry.
Throughout the first-round series, Parker, 34, matched up against 29-year-old Grizzlies guard Mike Conley, who appears to be coming into his own as one of the league’s premier players at the position.
From Games 1 through 5, Conley served as the primary defender on Parker for 44 percent of the plays, with the latter scoring 21 points on 9 of 27 shooting with five turnovers, according to research from ESPN Stats & Information research. In Game 6, Parker found Conley guarding him on 59 percent of his touches. Still, Parker bludgeoned Conley for 17 points on 7 of -8 shooting with only one turnover; four of those shots went uncontested.
Parker started out 6-of-6 for 15 points in the first 13 minutes on Thursday, and he wouldn’t miss his first shot until just 29.8 seconds remained in the first half.
Parker finished with 27 points on 11-of-14 shooting to go with four assists and only one turnover. Parker also made 4 of 4 from the free-throw line.
The scoring output marked Parker’s first playoff game with at least 25 points in nearly three years. (The last time was in Game 3 of the Western Conference semifinals in 2014 against the Portland Trail Blazers).
“He was going tonight,” Leonard said. “He’s been big for us this series, even the last three games, by just attacking and being very aggressive. He’s been here before, and he’s ready for the moments when I see him open, pass him the ball and [he] knocks it down.”
Throughout the season, Parker has said on multiple occasions that his job these days is to get Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge involved early. But the point guard talked with Popovich throughout this series, and the Spurs gradually devised a different plan of attack. Parker and Popovich discussed how Memphis showed a tendency to run under several of San Antonio’s pick-and-rolls, and the Grizzlies were also denying Aldridge the types of shots he likes to take.
Consider that on shots inside five feet this series, Aldridge connected on 15-of-23, according to research from ESPN Stats & Information. But the shooting percentage from six feet and beyond dropped significantly to 19-of-52.
“So I had to be aggressive,” Parker said. “That’s a choice Memphis made. We talked about it last week. [If] they just are going to leave in in the corner [for] 3s and just go under the pick-and-rolls … I had to be aggressive.”
The tactic paid off for Parker.
“You saw it. It was rough,” Grizzlies coach David Fizdale said. “He had his gear. I heard some people say they thought he was done. Are you kidding me? Rudy [Tomjanovich] said it: ‘[Never] underestimate the heart of a champion.’ That’s what champions do. They take advantage of every single mistake that you make, and they did that. They really made us pay every time.”
Leonard took up collections too, nabbing three steals to go with an 8 of 19 shooting night that produced a team-high 29 points, and he did it in the face of the Grizzlies throwing everything at him.
Leonard hit at least one field goal against six different primary defenders throughout the night, according to ESPN Stats & Information data.
“We don’t execute as well as Memphis did,” Popovich explained. “We have a knack for hanging in because things happen. Obviously, Kawhi Leonard is in my opinion the best player in the league right now. He’s the best two-way player and does it all with such class. It’s impressive.”
The Spurs trailed by as many as seven points late in the game, but Parker and Leonard combined to make 6 of 9 attempts on their way to scoring 16 of the team’s 28 fourth-quarter points.
“We were down seven, but in Game 4, it was the same thing. We were down eight,” Parker said. “Pretty similar situation, and we came back. We were up two, and had a chance to win the game. So we just talked [during a timeout] about it, and said, ‘Let’s do the same thing. Let’s keep our composure, play smart, make some stops, and on offense, take our time.’ And that’s what we did. We made some stops. We went where we wanted, and we made some big shots. Kawhi made some big shots, made some big plays, and we got the win.”
Now, the Spurs look forward to getting some rest before the Rockets arrive at the AT&T Center.
San Antonio reserve guard Manu Ginobili called the six-game battle with Memphis “an exhausting series,” while Popovich believes the physical style of the Grizzlies might have served as ideal preparation for the club’s Round 2 matchup with the Rockets.
“The one thing I do like about it is Memphis is a heck of a defensive team,” Popovich said. “They play pretty rock ’em, sock ’em, and I think that gets you ready for anybody you’re going to play. So, I think that was the most important thing for us, for a lot of our guys who haven’t been with us a long time or are new, to see how it works in the playoffs, how things are going to be called, and the kind of tenacity and understanding that it’s a 48-minute game, and anything can happen. We’ve had big leads. Other teams in the playoffs have big leads and you lose them. It’s tough. People are hungry, people want to win.”