The Grizzlies terrify me. I should start off by saying this has nothing to do with residual fear after the 2010 loss; even though most of the biggest names are the same, both teams have undergone significant transformations. No, what scares me about this Grizzlies team is that both their strengths and weaknesses make them a match-up nightmare for our guys. Let's break down how they play and why it might be Spurs poison.
The Grizzlies are one of the most disruptive teams in the league. Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Rudy Gay, Jerryd Bayless and Quincy Pondexter are all good at putting pressure on ball handlers and playing the passing lanes. If you remember the last 4 games of the Thunder series, you know the Spurs need a little freedom to run their precision and movement based offense. With Conley and Allen hounding Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the Grizzlies could slow down the Spurs by making them take an extra second to get into sets and double check before making passes. They are also an extremely physical team that sets the tone early and gets away with a lot of contact. If the Spurs have trouble getting their offense running they might need to rely on Parker and Ginobili to create on their own while being guarded by good-to-great man defenders in Conley and Allen.
If the Spurs decide to run a bigger part of their offense through Duncan in the post, the Grizzlies have the perfect player to counter that: Marc Gasol. Duncan got the best of Marc last season and will probably do it again this year, but the younger Gasol's physicality and energy on both ends could really wear Duncan out over the course of a series. The Grizzlies know that, which is why out of a total 120 minutes Tim played against Memphis, 108 were against Gasol.
Also, while Duncan can definitely score on the Spaniard if he gets the touches, the Spurs offense slows down as a result. The team only outscored the Grizzlies when both Gasol and Duncan were on the court by a mere 2.3 points and their offensive rating with Pau's brother on the court was 91, a whole 17.5 points less than their season average and 7 less than their average against the Grizzlies, which speaks volumes of Marc's fantastic team defense. He cuts passing angles off the ball, bumps cutters and contests shots without compromising his position and his even keeled approach is the perfect complement for their risk-taking perimeter defense. That combination of athletic and savvy defenders makes the Grizzlies very tough to score against.
Their one true glaring weakness on this end of the floor is defensive rebounding. It might sound surprising considering the size they have, but the Grizzlies are one of the league's worst teams on their own glass. Gay and Gasol are not good defensive rebounders and even Randolph doesn't rank among the league's elite. Unfortunately, the Spurs are not a good offensive rebounding team and probably won't be able to take advantage.
What the Spurs could exploit is the mediocre pick and roll defense from their second unit. Mike Conley does an amazing job of fighting through screens and recovering and Tony Allen is no slouch but the rest of their guards are not particularly good at it. Randolph and especially Speights are slow and can get lost on the perimeter. If the Spurs use double screens or run consecutive P&Rs, they should be able to get good looks. Gasol usually sags back, which could give Parker a few open jumpers.
Looking at stats that are usually signs of good offense (like attempts, and field goal percentage at the rim, and percent of three-pointers made) it's hard to see how the Grizzlies manage to be good at scoring. They take a lot of shots at the rim but don't convert at a high rate, they take very few shots from 3 and are not that good at converting, and only around half of their field goals come from assists. Yet they rank in the top five in offensive rating based on two factors: offensive rebounding and low turnovers.
Offensive boards haven't exactly been hard to get against the Spurs so far this year, and an elite rebounder like Zach Randolph could take full advantage of that. Guys like Marreese Speights and even Gasol and Gay are all adept at crashing the boards so the Spurs will need to be very mindful of sealing off their men. Considering Memphis' size, it wouldn't surprise me to see Tiago and Tim playing together, which means Splitter will need to up his defensive rebounding effort.
With how sloppy the Spurs can be at times and the resulting turnovers that causes, they need to get those possessions back through steals. That is hard to do against the Grizzlies, because they're are just good at protecting the ball as they are at causing turnovers. This is a team that feasts on lazy passes and halfway box outs, two things the Spurs unfortunately do plenty of.
Limiting their easy scoring opportunities really hurts them as their half-court offense is not particularly good. Their lack of spacing makes it hard for them to execute pick and rolls, which often leads them to depend on their scorers, Gay and Randolph, to create for themselves. Conley usually gets them into sets but he doesn't handle the ball as much as Parker or even Ginobili, as they try to either isolate Gay or Randolph or move the ball and find cutting opportunities. Marc Gasol is a fantastic passer off the high post and the Spurs will need to be very careful not to overplay passing lanes because he will find guards and wings cutting backdoor. Their biggest weapons might be Gay's all around scoring and Randolph's post dexterity but Gasol and Conley are the ones that keep the ball moving.
Can the Spurs beat them?
Of course San Antonio can win, but it will take a lot of focus on defense and the glass, not to mention a lot of patience and precision on offense. The Spurs have had trouble pulling down defensive rebounds and have turned the ball over a lot. You can't do that against the Grizzlies. Those easy points off putbacks and on fast breaks are essential to their offense. In the half-court, the disciplined Spurs defense can control Memphis' scorers. Not over-helping is a must as well, as Gasol, Conley and Randolph can all find the open man. If help needs to be sent, it should always come from whomever is guarding Tony Allen.
On offense the Spurs need to move the ball until there is an open shot; not settling for the first shot available, but moving the ball if anyone else is open. Ultimately, it will be about not making mistakes and hitting good shots despite their great defense. They won't give up a lot of open 3s or shots at the rim, but they can still be scored on by a good offense.
There are no must-win games in November but this is a really good measuring stick for the Spurs, who could get back on top in the West with a win. Beating the Wizards and Raptors was great but it's time for a real test. Let's hope the Spurs are up to the task.
Stats courtesy of Hoopdata, Basketball-Reference and NBA.com