By David Thorpe & Anthony Macri
Less than a year ago, it looked like the San Antonio Spurs era of championship caliber play had come to an end. A 4-0 sweep at the hands of the Phoenix Suns had exposed the Spurs as an aging, unathletic team whose three stars seemed ready to move on. Tim Duncan had reached the point of no return physically, Tony Parker looked like he was mentally preparing to play at a new destination, and it seemed possible that Manu Ginobili’s style of play had finally caught up with him at age 33. Things are rarely what they seem with the Spurs, however. Spearheaded by a bounce-back season from Parker, a masterful change of approach and philosophy from coach Gregg Popovich, and an infusion of youth and energy, San Antonio jumped out of the gate to a 28-4 start this season, and wound up with the best record in the West at 61-21. They accomplished this feat in an unconventional way (at least for the Spurs): they looked to push pace (especially early in the season), shot a lot of 3s (4th in the league in attempts), and made a good amount of those attempts (1st in the league in 3pt FG%). That offensive output landed them 2nd in offensive rating (just a tick behind the Denver Nuggets), proving it is definitely possible to teach an old dog new tricks.
The Memphis Grizzlies, on the other hand, relied on their defensive play to give them an opportunity to win games. At the beginning of January, they sat six games under .500 and looked nothing like a playoff team. However, an aggressive defense that forced more turnovers than anyone in the league and an offense that did just enough pounding the ball inside to finish out the year on a 32-16 run, landing the final playoff spot in the West. The Grizzlies were dealt a blow to their postseason chances, however, when versatile and athletic forward Rudy Gay was lost for the year with a shoulder injury, as he gave them a better chance for consistent scoring, an area in which they struggle. However, thanks to their defense, the Grizzlies finally have enough bite to get a hibernating fanbase in Memphis excited again.
In their four matchups this season, each team won two games, with both squads defending their home court. While the Spurs hold homecourt advantage, Grizzlies fans can hold out hope as both their wins came late in the season (both during March). Interestingly, Memphis has out-rebounded San Antonio in all four games this season.
If the Spurs inability to keep the upstart Grizzlies off the glass costs them a game at home, and if Manu Ginobili is unable to return from injury quickly, things could get interesting in this 1 vs. 8 matchup.
Five keys to the series
Can the Spurs get the D back?
While San Antonio’s change in offensive approach made them a more dangerous opponent on that side of the ball, they also seemed to lose some of the defensive swagger that characterized their team for the last decade. The Spurs missed rotations and assignments with more frequency than years past, and their communication on the defensive end suffered as players adjusted to the new pace of play.
Things do slow down in the post-season, however, and while Memphis is not an offensive powerhouse, it is more likely the game will be played at their desired tempo than at the one San Antonio played throughout the season. If that is the case, it will give the Spurs a chance to rediscover the kind of lockdown defensive approach that served them so well in the past, and re-integrating that with an improved offense could make them a very tough out if they can survive the first round.
Lack of consistent scoring for Memphis
While the Grizzlies made do without forward Rudy Gay (they managed to finish the season 15-10 since his injury in mid-February), it is hard to see how they can be effective in the postseason with the scoring a real question mark. Outside of Zach Randolph, who is one of the most reliable double-double players in the league, who strikes fear in the hearts of opponents? As a team that relies on its defensive pressure and ability to create takeaways in order to score points, matching up with an efficient offensive unit that doesn’t turn the ball over could prove problematic.
The real key for Memphis creating more scoring is OJ Mayo. A gifted scorer, Mayo is capable of regularly going for 18 points a contest, though this season he averaged a career low 11.3 points. With Spurs guard Manu Ginobili sidelined to start the series, Mayo could take advantage of the situation and attack the San Antonio defense off the bounce, where they are a little weaker. In addition, forward Darrell Arthur could pick up some of the slack in the frontcourt, as he has played better in the latter part of the season, averaging 12.4 points and 5.2 rebounds during the month of March.
Whether it is those guys or someone else, Memphis will need help putting the ball in the basket to really contend with the Spurs over the course of a seven game series.
Battle in the paint
As Tim Duncan has gotten older, the battle for supremacy in the painted area has become a more winnable one for his opponent, and the Grizzlies definitely have a player that can get the job done down low in Zach Randolph. Randolph averages nearly as many defensive rebounds (7.8) as Duncan averages total rebounds (8.9). Marc Gasol has also been solid in the post, and while he and Randolph seem an odd pairing in the paint (conventional wisdom would say they take up each other’s space), it does work at least marginally well.
In addition, despite being near the bottom of the league in 3-point field goal percentage, Memphis is No. 6 in the NBA in overall field goal percentage – and their focus on scoring in the paint reflects that reality. The Grizzlies are also sixth in the league in offensive rebounding, getting after their missed attempts to help create additional possessions. The Spurs have done an admirable job on their own defensive backboard, however, and Memphis will have to work to create second chances.
While Duncan has been in decline for the last few years, the most interesting piece to their puzzle in the paint is DeJuan Blair. Blair is a lunch pail player who is very comfortable operating effectively out of the spotlight. The second-year forward is very physical and strong, and while he underperformed in four games against Memphis this season, he has a chance to redeem himself in this series.
The status of Manu Ginobili will obviously become more important if Memphis is able to compete or steal a win or two early in the series. However, coming in, it is critical to recognize the kind of year he was having prior to the injury. Ginobili is responsible for attempting 5.5 three point shots per game, and while he made just under two per game, the threat of his jumper really opened things up inside for the Spurs. He leads the team in free throws attempted as well, with just over five shots from the line, while making 87.1% of his attempts.
For a healthy stretch of the year, Manu was statistically the best player on the Spurs, and while a case could be made now for Tony Parker, denying how important he is to San Antonio’s overall prospects would be silly. On the defensive side, while he is not a lockdown-style defender, he is able to play passing lanes well and his ability to anticipate gives him opportunities to take away other team’s strengths (a well-timed trap, or sneaky double-team from the blind side on a post player, for example).
Against Memphis, his absence will be felt immediately, as the Spurs’ overall performance has fallen off in the last twenty games or so of the season anyway. Without Ginobili, the Spurs will not have anything like an aura of invincibility, and the Grizzlies have a chance to grab a game or two before his return. .
Any victory in this playoff series will be a franchise first for the Memphis Grizzlies. While their lack of experience is not a guarantee of failure this time around, it does not help as they go up against one of the most experienced teams in the league. Perhaps, though, like their ability to rally together after the injury to Rudy Gay, the Grizzlies simply won’t know any better – and this could mean an ability to challenge the Spurs over the course of the series.
As hot as the Spurs started the season, their temperature cooled to lukewarm at best during the months of March and April. Over their last twenty-three games, San Antonio played barely better than .500 basketball, going 12-11 and looking mostly ordinary. With Ginobili in the fold, it would be easy to say that the Spurs can rely on their vast postseason experience and just ‘turn it on.’ Without him, however, things will not be that easy. If the Spurs can move past this adversity, though, it may serve to galvanize them for the remainder of the playoffs.
Prediction: Spurs in six