Spurs vs. Grizzlies: “It’s not gonna be pretty”
Putting labels on things is a common practice anywhere in life. Entities have to be identified by a name so that we know what they are, what they mean and what their significance is within our lives. When the NBA playoffs roll around, each series comes with a label or a headline of its own. We talk about rivalries and rematches, young versus old, has-beens against up-and-comers. It’s a way to explain the value of a basketball game to someone who asks why you watch. You give them a simple narrative, and immediately you’ve given an overarching storyline that provides a reason to care.
San Antonio and Memphis are about to enter a postseason matchup for the second time in two years, and the title that’s running through the minds of Spurs fans is ‘payback.’ Revenge is a feeling that doesn’t always easily slip away from memory, especially in sports. So as the Grizzlies meat-grinder once again invades the Alamo City, it does so now with a reputation, one that didn’t necessarily preceed it two years ago. Memphis was sort of an unknown entity then. It isn’t now. They’re a threat, and this time, Spurs fans know it.
It’s a rematch in spirit and in pride, but what you’ll see on the court between these teams will be different this time around.
Still, it was only two years ago that the Grizzlies’ core of Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Mike Conley, along with their cast of characters, ousted the then-top-seeded Spurs in six games by just pounding their beat-up bodies into the ground. San Antonio was injured, but the Grizzlies were much better.
Randolph’s 2011 performance was straight out of ‘Space Jam,’ Gasol emerged on the big postseason stage and the pesky but talented Memphis backcourt suffocated Tony Parker and the one-armed Manu Ginobili. It was a national introduction to this new ragtag group of misfits and their old-school style, and it came at the expense of the Spurs. Naturally, these sorts of series are not forgotten in such a short period of time.
And I can tell you San Antonians feel it. The reaction to any mention of the Grizzlies is the same.
What do you think about Memphis?
(/takes deep breath /shakes head)
I don’t know, man. That freaking Zach Randolph.
Freaking Zach Randolph. Unexpected dagger after unexpected dagger — which quickly started becoming expected — quelled any Spurs-ian uprisings at any point during the Grizzlies’ four wins during the series, and it left San Antonio confused.
What just happened?
It wasn’t supposed to happen like that…
ZACH FREAKING RANDOLPH?
When you’re blindsided by an outcome like that it’s something you’ll always feel. The haymaker you never saw coming. And perhaps one of the biggest reasons any recollection of that series evokes so much emotion is what that elimination seemed to mean. Duncan couldn’t move, Manu was hurt again and Parker wasn’t close to himself.
It was the end. I was sure of it, at least.
Without a high draft pick, much cap flexibility and a core that seemed spent, the burning light at the end of the tunnel was just getting brighter for the Spurs. The Grizzlies were kindling the flame.
Yet here we are, talking about another playoff matchup between the two, but his time it’s not a first-round series. This time, the old team that looked finished two years ago and the muddy bulldozers that didn’t have the star-power to fight Oklahoma City are locked up in a battle for the Western Conference crown.
But, as Duncan said, “It’s not gonna be pretty.”
The Spurs found themselves in a track meet against the shoot-em-up Warriors, now they’re about to enter a cage match. Between the AT&T Center and the place they call ‘The Grindhouse’ in Memphis, there’s about to be a brawl. And that’s just fine for this San Antonio team.
The Spurs weren’t equipped to handle the Grizzlies in 2011. Too often they were running lineups featuring Gary Neal as the small forward and George Hill as a two guard against the likes of Tony Allen, O.J. Mayo, Shane Battier and Sam Young. It was a much bigger team than San Antonio, especially with Tiago Splitter’s extremely limited role during his rookie season. But things have changed.
Now, the Spurs have size and depth. The 6-foot-7, 225-pound Kawhi Leonard — whose wingspan is 7 foot-3 — starts at small forward rather than Richard Jefferson, whose 10-minute, 0-for-2 performance in Game 6 of that series was as solid a disappearing act as you’ll ever see. Danny Green was on the team at the time, but he played sparsely and had no real role outside of garbage man. Now he’s the starting shooting guard, and his defense on Stephen Curry was phenomenal in the semifinals.
But the biggest difference stands 6-foot-11 in the paint, two inches taller than Randolph. It should be said, Z-Bo routinely makes people who are taller than he is look silly. He’s a master of neutralizing his defender’s height and length by using his sizable buttocks, wide frame and long arms to drop his opponent off underneath the basket and reach outward with his left hand to kiss the ball off the glass or finish right at the front of the rim.
He couldn’t jump over an oncoming skateboard if one were to be irresponsibly rolled in his direction, but he’ll outrebound almost any 7-footer he has to deal with. Splitter’s emergence as the starting center for the Spurs has been a godsend for Duncan, though. Timmy’s starting frontcourt mate in 2011 was Antonio McDyess, a smart, experienced guy who could hit open mid-range jumpers all day. But when it came down to getting messy with Randolph, there was no way the veteran could hold on.
Splitter has been a different story, however. His size, intelligence and decent footwork has made a massive difference defensively. Now Duncan, who has lost weight in recent years to keep his career alive, doesn’t have to grind against these big, physical forwards and centers for 40 minutes a night. Now, the defensive pressure in the paint is balanced.
Maybe most importantly, though: Tiago has a pretty good recent track record against Z-Bo.
In four games this season against Splitter and the Spurs, Randolph is averaging 14.3 points on just 36 percent shooting. Obviously, San Antonio used different defenders on the big man throughout each game, but Tiago shouldered much of the load. With Duncan protecting the rim, Splitter could afford to be aggressive and body up on Randolph, knowing that a Hall-of-Famer and record-holder for most NBA All-Defensive Team recognitions had his back.
But then there’s Gasol, the do-it-all giant who orchestrates the Memphis offense from the high post. If Randolph attracts too much attention in the low post, Gasol will be waiting with his spot-up, flat-footed set shot and a release that’s eight feet in the air. If he’s not scoring, he’s facilitating. Whether it’s in the dribble hand-off, pick-and-roll game with Mike Conley or the high-low sets with Z-Bo, the Grizzlies’ center can impact the game on both sides of the ball more than most anyone at his position in the NBA.
Splitter and Randolph will be playing in the mud, but Duncan and Gasol will bring back memories of past big-man classics, both players so tactically perfect in their physical finesse. Duncan is averaging nearly 20 points and nine rebounds in three games against Memphis this season, but the playoffs are a different animal than the regular season. Defenses are tighter, play is rougher and legs are a little more tired. But neither player relies on athleticism, and both have elite basketball intellect.
It’s going to be a chess match in the paint, one that would be more appropriately played in protective padding.
And while the two frontcourts push one another around for 48 minutes a night, the Spurs’ backcourt will try not to be overrun again by the ultra-aggressive Grizzlies guards and forwards. San Antonio now has the size to play along. Leonard and Allen — two defensive stalwarts on opposite sides — will be fascinating to watch in their ever-changing roles. Both act as their respective team’s ‘lockdown’ guy and are often moved around on different offensive players throughout the game, depending on the problem area at the moment.
Allen is arguably the most disruptive perimeter player in the league, but Leonard has transformed into an amazingly versatile player with range, a skill set the ‘Grindfather’ doesn’t necessarily possess. Kawhi has become a budding star in this league, and his presence likely represents the most important difference in this matchup from the previous postseason bout. San Antonio is dependent on him, not just for his defense, but for his scoring and rebounding as well.
Leonard has yet to reach the offensive level of his Big 3 teammates, but he has become one of the top 3 most important players on this team. Without him, the Spurs likely wouldn’t have beaten Golden State.
But all of this is potentially less important than the matchup of triggermen up top. Conley outplayed Parker in 2011, frustrating him into tough shots and forcing uncharacteristic turnovers that had Spurs fans talking trade in regard to their All-Star point guard. Since then, Parker has been better than ever, but so has Conley.
The former Ohio State Buckeye teammate of Greg Oden who left college after one year has taken some time to develop in the NBA, but he has become everything the Grizzlies could have hoped for, and more. Parker’s workload does not drop off with Curry’s departure from the postseason. Things only get more difficult from here.
The two guards will spend a lot of time defending one another, but both will also see bigger defenders placed in their way. It’s a key matchup in the series, and whichever player adjusts more effectively will give their respective team a better chance to win.
And if you’re expecting a show of offensive fireworks, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. The Grizzlies have been right up there with the Indiana Pacers all year long as one of the top defensive teams in the NBA, and Gasol took Defensive Player of the Year honors just a few weeks ago. But the Spurs have been right behind them, playing most of the season as a top-5 defense with an anchor in Duncan that put up adjusted individual numbers that were, in some categories, better than any in his career.
It’s not going to be easy, but somebody’s going to have to score. While the Grizzlies have the edge with their matchup in the paint, it’s the Spurs’ backcourt that gives San Antonio more firepower overall. Memphis can kill you down low all night, but when they’re forced to kick out for 3-pointers it tends to be a bit of a crap-shoot.
The Grizzlies are hitting threes at a 31.4-percent clip during the playoffs, a number that likely has to change if they hope to beat San Antonio. The Spurs, on the other hand, haven’t exactly lit the nets on first from deep, connecting on just 35.6 percent of their attempts from the arc. But whether it’s Green, Leonard, Ginobili, Gary Neal, Matt Bonner or even Cory Joseph, San Antonio could make Memphis pay from deep in a way the Grizzlies will have difficulty matching.
Duncan and Splitter will be very preoccupied with their individual matchups, so expect to see a lot of help defense down low from Leonard and Green, hedging toward Randolph and Gasol and crashing down on the defensive boards. The Spurs are going to force the Grizzlies to shoot from the outside as much as possible in an effort to exploit Memphis’ most glaring weakness. If San Antonio can keep them from running amuck on the glass and limit any extra contributions from the likes of Tayshaun Prince, Jerryd Bayless and Quincy Pondexter, they’ll be right in every game.
After chasing the Warriors around the perimeter all night long for six games, San Antonio should be more comfortable in a situation like this. The Spurs defended the three very well as the Golden State series wore on, but make no mistake about it, that was taxing for everyone involved. Especially for the bigs who were forced to extend themselves in a way that exceeded their normal level of comfort. This team is now capable of grinding it out with the likes of Memphis, something they weren’t in 2011.
And that’s a big reason why I’m picking the Spurs to win this series in six games. Gasol and Randolph will be incredibly difficult to deal with, and the unbelievable pressure the Grizzlies put on opposing offenses both inside and out will make execution and low turnover totals paramount to success for San Antonio. The Spurs haven’t been hitting their shots with a ton of consistency — 46 percent from the field in the playoffs, down from 48 percent in the regular season — but the execution has been there and they’re only turning the ball over 11 times per game, down from nearly 15 a night during the regular season.
Given the likely slow pace of this series and the serious lack of open shots, the outcome will be decided on which team hits on the chances they earn. It’s something Gregg Popovich always talks about, that at its simplest form, basketball is about making shots. I believe the Spurs’ big men will hold their own against Gasol and Randolph, and it will be the San Antonio perimeter players that hit more big shots from deep as the series grinds on.
But going back again to what Duncan said, it will not be pretty. At least not on the surface. But for those of us who love basketball, who love good defenses and the chess matches that happen all over the court between two very smart teams, this is a diamond in the rough. And as the song goes, even diamonds start as coal.