MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Having just played the game of his life, Kawhi Leonard swayed back and forth, fists jammed into the pockets of his joggers, with a green hoodie pulled low as he pondered just what went wrong in the San Antonio Spurs’ 110-108 overtime loss to the Grizzlies in Saturday night’s Game 4 of the first-round Western Conference playoff series.
“You can’t be happy or sad until you lose the game or win the game,” Leonard said. “I just kept living in the moment at the time.”
And for a while, seemingly every breathtaking moment at the FedExForum belonged to Leonard.
In helping San Antonio rally from 10 points down in the fourth quarter, Leonard delivered the Spurs’ final 16 points in regulation to become the only player over the past 20 postseasons to produce at least his team’s 15 final points of the fourth quarter.
“Honestly, I’m taking suggestions on how to guard Kawhi Leonard,” joked Grizzlies coach David Fizdale. “I’ve tried everything, and the guy is just tough. Man, is he a superstar.”
In this heavyweight slugfest on the hardwood, the teams combined for four game-tying or go-ahead makes in the final 15 seconds of the fourth quarter and overtime, and no playoff game in the past 20 years featured that many such makes, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
In fact, at one point, Leonard embarked on an 11-0 run on the Grizzlies, on his way to finishing with 43 points.
But in the end, Marc Gasol nailed a 12-foot floater with 0.7 of a second left in overtime, off one leg and with LaMarcus Aldridge’s hand in his face, to seal the deal and tie the series 2-2 as it heads back to San Antonio for a Tuesday matchup at the AT&T Center.
“Yeah, I was trying to be up. I was trying to make the catch tough. I didn’t want to foul,” Aldridge said when describing Gasol’s game-winning shot. “I was there. He took two dribbles. I was right there with him. I had my hand up. I contested, and he made a hell of a shot. He made a one-legged, floating-across-the-lane shot. I did what I had to do. I contested it. I was right there. Credit goes to him.”
San Antonio rushed out to a 2-0 lead to start this series, and on seven occasions in coach Gregg Popovich’s tenure as coach, the Spurs have lost Games 3 and 4 after such a start. But they captured victories in five of those series. San Antonio owns a 2-1 record in the past three series it started with a 2-0 lead before losing Games 3 and 4.
“That was a great game,” Popovich said. “Both teams played their hearts out; just a fantastic basketball game. The fans got their money’s worth, for sure. At the end, Marc made a great shot. L.A. [Aldridge] contested it very, very well, and it went down. The effort from both teams was marvelous. We got down a couple of times but stuck with the program and kept on playing, which is always a good thing to see. Usually, down the stretch, it comes down to making shots. Kawhi made a big shot on our last play. Then Marc made a big shot on their last play. It happens over and over in the playoffs.”
Leonard’s 16 points in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter registered as the second most in the past 20 postseasons behind Paul Pierce, who reeled off 18 points in the playoffs in 2003 in the same span of time. Leonard also became the first player in NBA history to score at least 40 points with five 3-point field goals (the 3-point line was established in 1979-80) and at least five steals in a playoff game, according to Elias research.
Leonard’s 43 points tied for the third most in Spurs postseason history. The only player in franchise annals to score more in a playoff game is George Gervin.
But the only score that mattered for Leonard on Saturday was what he saw up in lights at FedExForum as he walked off the court in disappointment. Prior to that, there had been moments when it seemed Leonard was unconscious, raining down bucket after bucket.
“I didn’t feel anything,” he said.
The disappointment of the loss to Memphis left Leonard numb, as well.
In seizing a 2-0 series lead, San Antonio had held the Grizzlies to 82 points in both Game 1 and Game 2. In Games 3 and 4, Memphis averaged 107.5 points, as Fizdale utilized a starting lineup featuring James Ennis III, Zach Randolph, Gasol, Vince Carter and Mike Conley, who set a Memphis postseason scoring record with a team-high 35 points to go with eight assists.
While Leonard connected on 7-of-10 from 3-point range, the rest of the Spurs made 2-of-20 from deep. Veteran sixth man Manu Ginobili still hasn’t scored a point through the first four games of this series; he is 0-of-15, including 0-of-5 in Game 4. Three-and-D specialist Danny Green shot 2-of-9 on Saturday, including 0-of-6 from deep. And San Antonio’s bench was outscored by the Grizzlies’ reserves 27-17.
“We probably could have used a couple others to make some shots,” Green said. “Kawhi had a great game. Tony [Parker] had a great game. L.A. too. Their others are playing really well right now, and we have to get it from ours too, including me.”
Even a resurgent performance from point guard Parker couldn’t save the Spurs. Parker produced 22 points and five assists, and he carried San Antonio during a second quarter in which the Spurs trailed by as many as eight points. Parker hit 5 of 7 shots for 12 points in the second quarter, while the rest of the Spurs shot a combined 1-of-6 for 6 points.
Parker pointed out that Memphis “played the same way” it did in Game 3, when Popovich pulled the starters less than a minute into the second half. San Antonio put together a much stronger effort in Game 4 than in its previous outing, but breakdowns in communication on defense combined with Memphis hitting 46.3 percent of its shots doomed the Spurs.
San Antonio even gobbled up 23 Memphis turnovers and turned them into 31 points.
Still, it wasn’t enough.
“I think everybody here is sick about losing, definitely the way we did,” Aldridge said.
That includes Parker.
“You knew it was going to be a physical series. They are going to make it hard,” Parker said. “You know they are going to do a lot of fouling and stuff like that. They made shots. Playing at home, they play with a lot more confidence. I have to give them credit. I thought we played well enough to win the game. We made enough plays. But at the end, Memphis made the tough shot to go to overtime and the tough shot to win the game.”
The final one left Leonard standing there, hands stuffed into empty pockets, after a brilliant but ultimately empty performance.