By BILL O’REAR
Tribune-Herald sports editor
When you consider a lot of the NBA experts, including Magic Johnson and Jalen Rose, are picking the Memphis Grizzlies to win their Western Conference Finals over the San Antonio Spurs, it’s kind of amazing how easily the Spurs rolled to a big victory in Game 1 on Sunday.
But from the tip-off, San Antonio point guard Tony Parker pushed the pace and the Spurs sank an eye-popping 14 3-pointers in a 105-83 win over the Grizzlies. In fact, Memphis star forward Zach Randolph went 1 for 8 from the field and finished with only two points — a performance that left him and many Grizzlies fans shaking their heads in total frustration.
The experienced Spurs did everything right on offense, moving the ball via the pass instead of overdribbling, and Parker and Co. registered 28 assists against one of the best defenses in the NBA.
Parker, the clever 6-foot playmaker from France, led the way with 20 points and nine assists — six to wide-open 3-point shooters. Overall, the Spurs had too much firepower from the perimeter, with small forward Kawhi Leonard (18 points) and reserve Matt Bonner each hitting four 3-pointers. Teammate Danny Green added 16 points, including three treys. The 14 treys tied a Spurs’ team record.
Quincy Pondexter led Memphis with 17 points, Marc Gasol had 15 and Mike Conley 14 in his key matchup with Parker – one the veteran San Antonio star won going away.
But the Spurs’ defense also shined, especially their helpside defense that continually frustrated Randolph and kept the dangerous Gasol in check. The Grizzlies’ big men were pushed out of their comfort zones in the paint, double or triple teamed once they caught the ball, and contained on the offensive glass.
In Game 1, the Spurs were just the better team, better prepared by coach Greg Popovich — currently the best coach in the NBA — and attacked the Memphis weaknesses. Of course, if the Grizzlies don’t make some major adjustments for Game 2, it could be another long day in San Antonio.
Parker set the table in Game 1 while his two other buddies in the “Big 3,” Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, had solid games. But it was the other guys, especially Leonard, Green and Bonner, that fueled a superb team effort.
Leonard, the 6-foot-6 small forward out of San Diego State University, is a budding star in Popovich’s system. In Game 1, he made 7 of 10 field goals, including 4 of 5 treys, and as usual, played splendid defense on anyone he matched up with.
Leonard, who averaged 11.9 points, 6.0 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game during the regular season, is the complete package. On offense, he’s a deadly 3-point shooter who can also slash to the rim and finish in a variety of ways. He’s also a good ballhandler and passer, in both the halfcourt sets or on the break.
But it’s defense that elevates his value tenfold to the Spurs. Leonard is extremely quick, athletic and blessed with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, and he can guard any player of the court. He reminds some NBA analysts of a young Scottie Pippen, a 6-8 defensive terror during his playing days with Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. That dynamic duo led the Bulls to six NBA titles and both were voted among the 50 Greatest Players to play in the NBA during its first 50 years.
Leonard grew up in Riverside, Calif., attended Martin Luther King High School and was Mr. Basketball California in 2009. He then spent two seasons at San Diego State University under highly regarded coach Steve Fisher. In his sophomore season, Leonard averaged 15.7 points and 10.4 rebounds per game while leading the Aztecs to a 34-3 record and a spot in the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16.
In 2011, Leonard was drafted in the first round by the Indiana Pacers, the 15th overall pick, and then traded to the Spurs. He played well in his first season in San Antonio, and made the all-rookie team.
But this has been a breakout season for Leonard, and his versatility and effectiveness at both ends of the court has been a blessing for the highly respected Spurs. He’s also blended in well with the 6-6 Green, a former University of North Carolina standout, to add youth to the starting unit, while Popovich gets the most out of each position.
On Sunday, a Spurs’ beat writer revealed Leonard has been bothered by “jumper’s knee” or right knee/quad tendinitis the last three months and it occasionally flares up. Then the young small forward went out and took care of his business, helping San Antonio roll to a lopsided win.
The soft-spoken Leonard is a budding star. He lets his performance do his talking. But if he continues to expand his game in the Spurs’ team-first system, he might fulfill that promise of being a Scottie Pippen-like player and enjoy a lot of success during a long NBA career.
Email Tribune-Herald sports editor Bill O’Rear at email@example.com.