Spurs look to keep 6-game win streak versus Grizz alive in Memphis
The matchup between the Spurs and Grizzlies has become a very familiar one, but it’ll look just a little bit different when the two meet in Memphis tonight. This marks the first of 3 to 5 weeks worth of games San Antonio will be without Tiago Splitter, which makes things dicey against Zach Randolph and all that Grit ‘n’ Grind.
But the Grizz will still be without Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol, who has been cleared for light practice for the first time since he sprained his left MCL against the Spurs on Nov. 22. Memphis is 8-12 in the big man’s absence, and its defensive-efficiency numbers have just plummeted without the team anchor.
And that was to be expected. In the NBA, you don’t lose a player of Gasol’s caliber and expect to maintain the familiar course. He’s vital to the Grizzlies’ success, and not just on defense. Memphis runs a lot of offense through Gasol in the high post, and without him there’s been a ton of pressure on Zach Randolph to produce. And he has. But they don’t have the same kind of high-low presence, and it’s certainly been an issue.
Now, in the middle of all of this, Mike Conley is playing through a myriad of injuries. The Grizzlies are not in a great place, but suddenly the Spurs aren’t in tip-top shape themselves.
Splitter’s absence is going to affect the Spurs greatly over the course of the next month or so, especially against inside-oriented teams like Memphis. Jeff Ayres will get the initial start (per Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express-News) as was expected, and that’ll likely be the scenario we see for the most part as Tiago recovers.
Without Splitter, Tim Duncan is going to carry a much larger burden in terms of interior defense. Tiago normally takes the ‘dirty’ assignments down low defensively with Duncan playing off the ball and spelling him from time to time, but that changes now.
Ayres is a very good defender, but he’s a little bit undersized at his position and isn’t much of a rim protector at all. His value lies in the fact that he can extend toward the perimeter and cover the stretch bigs in the league, which is something the Spurs struggle with when Splitter is on the floor.
The involvement of different pieces over an extended period of time is going to be interesting to watch, and against team like the Grizz you’d expect to see a little more of Aron Baynes than you normally would. He’s a very big body inside who, like Ayres, has no problem getting physical and under opponents’ skin a little bit. Those attributes will be valuable in Memphis.
Boris Diaw told us at practice on Sunday morning that despite the coaching changes, there’s not much new with the Grizzlies. These teams really know one another like the back of their respective hands, and tight matchups have typically become the norm.
But in their third meeting of the season, things will be different than usual. No Gasol and no Splitter is detrimental to both sides, but the Grizz are affected much, much more by their star’s absence. If the Spurs’ offense — which doesn’t really miss a beat without Tiago — can continue what it started on Saturday against the Clippers, San Antonio should be just fine.
What to watch for tonight:
- How will the Spurs’ defense fare without Splitter? As I wrote about extensively yesterday, San Antonio doesn’t lose much on that side of the ball when Ayres is on the court. In fact, the team defends the perimeter a hell of a lot better. Still, Duncan is now without his partner on the interior. It’s going to be interesting to see how he holds up, especially against the better opponents.
- Can the starting lineup continue its upward offensive trend? I’m starting to think the “Belinelli in the starting lineup” experiment isn’t just a short-term fix to get Danny Green going. He’s provided excellent secondary ball-handling when defenses crash down on Parker, and the ability to move the ball from side to side quickly and efficiently was the difference in the Spurs’ first-quarter explosion on Saturday. Let’s watch and see if they build on that surge.
- We’re still waiting on a breakout game from Kawhi Leonard when he shares the court with the Big Three. Again, people probably had excessively high expectations for the guy coming into the season with the team’s high-usage players all still in town, but it would be fun to see a big game, regardless.
- San Antonio perennially deals with injuries very, very well, and I expect much of the same. Splitter is a very important part of this team for a number of reasons, and his offense was starting to come along. He will be missed, but the Spurs will survive. In fact, this window of time will give guys like Ayres and Baynes a chance to play a more prominent role, thus gaining more experience in the process. Just cross your fingers that no one else of real significance goes down, or else attrition would start to cause some serious concern.
The Spurs have won six straight games against the Grizzlies, and they have a very good chance to keep that streak alive tonight. Unless Gasol makes an unexpected and sudden return to the lineup, which, I’m telling you, is something you shouldn’t count out.
Tip-off is at 7 p.m. CT on Fox Sports Southwest.