Gregg Popovich can be a stubborn man, the type to talk the sky out of being blue, but even he can’t argue with fact.
Yes, Popovich has been forced to acknowledge, ever since upstart Memphis swiped Game 1 of this first-round playoff series Sunday, his Spurs team has a habit of turning postseason-opening 0-1 deficits into NBA championships.
It happened in 2003. And in 2005. And again in 2007.
Turns out, there’s a good explanation for that.
“Because we were better than the team we were playing,” Popovich said.
In what was either a thinly veiled challenge to his team, or simply a matter of good public relations, Popovich then wondered aloud Monday if that were still true in 2011, against an eighth-seeded Memphis team targeting a monumental upset.
“We’ll see if we’re a better team than the team we’re playing,” Popovich said. “If we’re not, they’ll win the series.”
The Grizzlies drew first blood in Game 1, riding Shane Battier’s 3-pointer with 23.9 seconds left to a 101-98 victory at the ATT Center that was the first in the club’s playoff history.
Whether Battier’s bomb represents the opening salvo in just the second first-round takedown of a No. 1 seed in the best-of-7 era — or was simply another bothersome first-round blip in a tradition of them for the Spurs — will be settled in the coming days.
What is for certain, thanks to Battier’s clutch shooting, is that Game 2 on Wednesday has taken on the whiff of a must-win for the Western Conference’s No. 1 seed.
Only three teams in NBA history have lost the first two games of a series at home and recovered to win the series. The most recent to do it were the 2005 Dallas Mavericks, who pulled that Lazarus routine on Houston in the first round that year.
“We’re a confident team,” Spurs forward Richard Jefferson said. “We understand it’s a seven-game series for a reason.”
Though not a guarantor of future success, history can offer the Spurs some comfort, though they’d probably just prefer to have Manu Ginobili back from injury.
Beginning with the 2003 playoffs, the Spurs are 6-3 in series that started with an 0-1 deficit, including one first-round series against Phoenix and two against Denver in championship years.
A No. 7 seed last season, the Spurs dropped Game 1 in Dallas, then recovered to win their first-round series in a breezy six games.
Through one reading of Sunday’s outcome, Battier’s game-winner is simply a reboot of Stephon Marbury’s buzzer-beater for the Suns in 2003 or Andre Miller’s 35-point game for the Nuggets in 2005. Sound and fury, signifying little.
“Each year is different,” guard Tony Parker said. “It’s not the first time we lost Game 1. Hopefully, we can use that to our advantage.”
Easing the pain of — or perhaps enhancing the frustration of — their latest Game 1 defeat, the Spurs accomplished much of what they wanted Sunday.
Had it not been for Battier’s 3-ball, the storyline would have been Matt Bonner’s two clutch fourth-quarter threes, or Jefferson’s solid 13-point, six-rebound contribution, or the way the Spurs kept the gritty Grizzlies off the glass.
For the first time this season, the Spurs outrebounded Memphis (40-38), owned the offensive boards (11-5) and scored more second-chance points (15-5).
“If you had told me before the game we’d do all those things, I would say it was a win,” Popovich said.
Battier’s 3-pointer, part of a 55.2-percent shooting performance for Memphis, negated that good work. With it, the Grizzlies announced their presence in the series, as surely as guard Tony Allen later announced their intentions.
“We didn’t come here to win one game,” Allen said. “We came here to win the series.”
The Grizzlies could do just that, if they prove to be the better team. Before the series is over, the Spurs expect to have their say.
One and not done
Until 2003, the Spurs were 0-17 in NBA playoff series in which they lost the opener. The team is 6-3 since in such scenarios, including at least one series win in each of its past three championship seasons. The following shows how the Spurs have fared after losing the first game of a series since 2003:
2003: Beat Phoenix 4-2 in first round; beat Dallas 4-2 in Western finals; won NBA championship
2005: Beat Denver 4-1 in first round; won NBA championship
2007: Beat Denver 4-1 in first round; won NBA championship
2008: Beat New Orleans 4-3 in Western semifinals; lost to L.A. Lakers 4-1 in Western finals
2009: Lost to Dallas 4-1 in first round
2010: Beat Dallas 4-2 in first round; lost to Phoenix 4-0 in Western semifinals
2011: Trailing Memphis 1-0 in first round