Column by Buck Harvey
Lionel Hollins waited for the media to form around him, and then he spoke to someone who wasn’t there.
“I just want to say this for Tim Duncan,” the Memphis coach said. “We did not tank the season so we can get the San Antonio Spurs.”
No one believed Hollins two seasons ago. He rested Tony Allen and Zach Randolph in the last two regular games, along with Mike Conley in the finale. And when the Grizzlies lost those games, they drew the Spurs and avoided the Lakers.
That’s why Duncan said then “they chose to play us,” and tanking should concern David Stern even more than resting.
But what was also in play then was Duncan himself. His left knee was bothering him, Spurs staffers say, as much as it ever has. Duncan looked closer to retirement then than he does now, and he was a reason Hollins preferred to play the Spurs.
That’s why Saturday night was significant, as was a non-stop Southwest Airlines flight last week from Orlando to San Antonio.
The Spurs got what they paid for in their match against the Grizzlies. They won in overtime, as their rested stars carried them after the reserves who nearly won in Miami did.
Maybe that’s why the Spurs don’t rule out repeating their exodus from Florida in the future.
“If this happened again would I do the same thing?” Gregg Popovich said. “I don’t have a crystal ball.”
But it’s also unlikely the Spurs will be as blatant next time. Peter Holt would rather not continue to write checks, and, besides, the Spurs have made their point.
Want to sell a good product on national television? Then make sure it’s a fair fight.
Still, Popovich will continue to do what he’s always done, albeit in more subtle ways.
Saturday outlined why. Duncan, after sitting out the Heat game, scored his most points in a first half in almost nine years.
The contrast was the postseason of 2011. The Grizzlies were rising then, and they are better now. They didn’t have Rudy Gay two years ago, and they didn’t have Darrell Arthur last season, and now they have the league’s best record.
Duncan wasn’t the only Spur sagging then. Manu Ginobili was playing with a broken elbow and Richard Jefferson with a broken psyche.
As for Tony Parker: If he had taken over that series as he did Saturday, the Spurs would have advanced.
Still, the same Duncan who looked old the year before when Phoenix swept the Spurs looked older. “Like an old man shuffling through a mall in bedroom slippers,” is how one national columnist put it then.
What followed has been a remarkable resurgence. Duncan lost weight with a disciplined regimen, and the Spurs’ medical staff applied some aggressive therapy to his knee. The result is an All-Star start to the season, and Saturday was an MVP start.
“He’s playing really good,” Marc Gasol said afterward, and the 21 points in the first half said that. Duncan’s quickness was just as startling, though afterward he said he was simply making shots and attacking the basket.
“And I came out in the third quarter and did the exact opposite,” he said. But Duncan slapped a rebound toward the end of regulation, setting up Ginobili’s 3-pointer for the tie. And at the end of OT, his tip expanded the Spurs’ lead to seven.
Still, Duncan remains fragile. His left heel rarely touches the ground, because the knee brace bends his leg. So Popovich will protect him, and these next few days without a game will help him, too.
“I look forward,” Duncan said just before he walked out of the locker room, “to getting my legs back under me.”
This time, it won’t cost the Spurs a thing. Spurs Nation