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The Best Game of the NBA Playoffs Was Carried by the League’s Two Quietest Stars

Kawhi Leonard and Mike Conley Jr. put on performances of a lifetime.

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

Saturday night’s epic overtime game between the Spurs and Grizzlies was a classic Grindhouse production that culminated in a 110–108 win for Memphis. And if you were lucky enough to catch the local feed, you knew it from tipoff. The broadcast kept the arena acoustics loud — it felt like the crowd was directly combating the voices of announcers Pete Pranica and Brevin Knight. The national broadcast didn’t quite capture the rancor, but by the final minutes of regulation, even ESPN couldn’t stifle the roar. In the best postseason game of the year so far, it was as though FedExForum created its own gravitational field.

That vibe in Memphis was fitting — not because of the shared history of these two Southwest teams or because this was the eighth meeting between the Spurs and Grizzlies this season alone, now knotted at four wins apiece. It was fitting because the atmosphere in Memphis helped sustain an eight-minute crescendo and amplified a celestial clash of two of the most muted personalities in the league — Kawhi Leonard and Mike Conley Jr.

It can be hard to tell where to begin with those two, but let’s start here: Each player possesses a particular sleight of hand that borders on paranormal. Leonard drilled clutch basket after clutch basket deep into the game, but his two game-changing steals in the final four minutes of regulation (and how quickly those forced turnovers sublimated into points on the other end) are the perfect window into the kind of player Kawhi has become.

Leonard flips the 3-and-D concept on its head — it isn’t yeoman’s work in the giant hands of Kawhi. It’s how he, as a bonafide star, chooses to break the game.

Leonard played a team-high 44 minutes, and late in the game found himself bailing his team out on offense and immediately pressuring Conley in the backcourt. For a time, it looked as though Kawhi had caught the entire game in his vise grip. Conley, who had an open opportunity right at the rim on one possession, was so hyper-aware of Kawhi’s lingering presence that he completely overthought the process and clanked a layup off the back of the rim. Leonard’s impact on the game can be as much a product of his opponent’s mental projection as it is his physical presence on the floor.

But Conley wouldn’t be muzzled for long. His sleight of hand is more subtle but no less manipulative. With one off-glance or head turn, Conley creates as much diversion and separation as any player in the league; a split-second, off-kilter motion has the power of an entire Hot Sauce And1 compilation mix:

Conley hit three massive right-handed floaters in the final five-plus minutes of regulation (including the basket to send the game to overtime). When it’s all said and done, his floater game could become more iconic than Tony Parker’s.

The game was a testament to chemistry and preparation — at this point, these two teams know each other about as well as any two teams can. It was also a contrast in how each team’s hierarchies have or haven’t changed in the past 86 games. The Spurs were almost subsumed by Leonard’s individual brilliance late in the game. Plays after timeouts resulted in Kawhi isolations, and — perhaps for the first time in Gregg Popovich’s two decades as Spurs head coach — a perimeter clear-out for Kawhi was the most sensible option for the team. Leonard scored 21 of the Spurs’ final 25 points in the game. These Spurs felt different.

The Grizzlies, by contrast, felt familiar. Coach Dave Fizdale’s decision to reinsert Zach Randolph into the starting lineup appears to have re-magnetized the Grizzlies’ Big Three, something that Fizdale had willfully disrupted all season in an attempt to develop the players in their own orbit. Randolph was a team-high plus-14 on the game, and his backup JaMychal Green, who started for most of the season, came off the bench playing as though he were still a starter and coming up huge both on offense and defense in his new role. The Grizzlies exuded the kind of balance they’ve always been known for. It was fitting that the game-winning basket wasn’t made by the Grizzlies’ game-defining player. Memphis has never been about any one player.

“The line of scrimmage must be won,” Fizdale said during a timeout late in the fourth. It’s funny — Fizdale is the most progressive coach of the Grit ’n’ Grind era, but in the heat of the moment, even he understood that Memphis basketball reduces the game, ostensibly, to football. Heart, toughness, desire. The Grizzlies withstood an all-time performance from an arguably top-three player in the league. You couldn’t help but feel something after the final buzzer sounded. As I wrote last month, “The ideal Grizzlies team is powered by trust; the ideal Grizzlies win is cathartic and is sealed in the final five minutes of a hard-fought game.” What transpired Saturday night, then, will stand as one of the best wins in the team’s history.