The minute the game ended, the very minute it ended, the Memphis Grizzlies players understood exactly what had just happened. They had been outclassed. That's all. Great old players can do that to you.
You know, when Muhammad Ali was getting old, he would steal rounds by fighting hard the last 10 or 15 seconds to leave an imprint on the judges' minds. You know, when Michael Jordan was getting old he added this extreme fadeaway jump shot that no one could block. You know, when the pitcher Gaylord Perry was getting old, he started playing more and more head games with hitters -- was he loading up the ball, was he not loading up the ball, who really knew?
The Memphis Grizzlies understood perfectly. They might be as good as the San Antonio Spurs. But they lost the Western Conference Finals 4-0 anyway because they do not know the things that Tim Duncan and Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili and coach Gregg Popovich know.
"They hit the big shots, they got the big stops, they had an answer for every run," Memphis' Quincy Pondexter said, and he was still a little bit in awe. "That's a championship team. We're going to learn from the things they do."
"We will learn," center Marc Gasol confirmed. "We have already started learning."
Monday night's clincher for San Antonio was a professional job. The Spurs took the lead 8-6 about five minutes into the game when Tony Parker sprinted through the defense and made a reverse layup. And, yep, they led the rest of the way. After the first quarter, Memphis never got closer than three. Occasionally, the Grizzlies would seem on the brink of a breakthrough. And then Kawhi Leonard would get a big steal or Tim Duncan would impose his will or, most likely, Parker would race through and hit a big shot.
But perhaps even more than the scheme was this: The Spurs set the table for this performance in Game 2. In THAT game, Memphis had come hard after Parker, dogged him with double-teams, and so he dished out 18 assists to wide open shooters all over the floor. That left a mark. This time, Memphis backed off Parker a bit to guard those other players. And so he shot and scored more or less at will.
"They do a little bit of everything," a bewildered Gasol said when it ended.
"They play basketball the way it's supposed to be played," Pondexter said.
The Spurs reached the Finals for the first time in six years but for the fourth time in the remarkable careers of the big three -- Duncan, Parker and Manu Ginobili (Duncan was part of another San Antonio championship team in 1999, before Parker and Ginobili joined the Spurs). Now, there's a sense they've gone about as far as they can go. Most people expect the Miami Heat to put away the pesky Indiana Pacers at some point soon and then most people expect that all the Spurs' veteran moves and the many tricks they have learned along the long road will not be enough against LeBron James and the rest of the defending champs.
Maybe not. But there are a couple of things about this Spurs team that are easy to miss. For one thing, other than the three, they are relatively young. Leonard is 21, extremely athletic, and he's developing into a perfect Spurs' player -- that is, he plays in the system and seems to make key plays in the right moment. For all the heroics of Parker, the biggest shot of the game might have been Leonard's crowd-silencing 3-pointer toward the end of the third quarter, with Memphis down just three and making its first really sustained run. He also had four steals in the fourth quarter, each of them crushing to the Grizzlies.
Tiago Splitter, at 28, has also come into his own this year as both an offensive and defensive force, and Danny Green, at 25, has emerged as the Spurs' deadly 3-point shooter. All three of them have really come into their own this year. Because of them, these Spurs are subtly different from their grinding championship teams. They actually like to get up and down the floor a bit. So, that should be interesting.
And then, well, it's dangerous to underestimate a champion. The Spurs will be rested and they are healthy, and they do know some things. At some point after the Memphis game ended Tuesday night, someone asked San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich why he stuck with these same players for all these years. Didn't he think about getting younger? Didn't he think that he might end up stuck with an old team no longer had enough to make it back to the Finals?
Popovich, surprisingly, did not put down the line of questioning. He admitted that it was logical to think that his team's better days were gone, admitted that if he was on the outside he might have thought the same thing. And he conceded that in today's culture, it's always tempting to get a new coach, a new system and new players to keep up with the times.
But, he said, these guys -- Duncan, Parker, Ginobili -- are just special. What they've done, what they continue to do -- what they did in this Memphis series -- it might not be logical. Then again, is greatness, real greatness, ever logical? "I just know one thing," Pop said. "I'm lucky to coach them."