Forget 2011, the Spurs are ready this time

This time, these guys will be ready to roll. - Stephen Dunn

Spurs fans still feel the lingering pain of the first round loss to the Grizzlies in 2011. That year, the Spurs had hoped to finesse their way to a championship, and the grit and grind of the Grizzlies thoroughly squashed those hopes. Now in 2013, the Spurs appear to possess the intensity to make a push for the Finals.

Spurs fans have every reason to feel confident right now. San Antonio swiftly dispatched the Lakers, a perennial powerhouse, and then quelled the uprising and youthful Warriors, a team which appears poised to contend in the West for years to come. The Spurs accomplished all of this through familiar means: systematic offense and suppressive defense, dropping only two games out of ten en route to a second straight Western Conference Finals showdown with a relatively familiar pseudo-rival.

The Spurs and the Grizzlies are not rivals in the purest sense of the word. Tim Duncan and Zach Randolph haven't, and never would, fasten their fingers around the each other's necks, a la Bird-Erving. The teams have only clashed in one playoff series with rosters remotely similar to what they are now (The Spurs swept the Grizz in the 2004 first round. Not a single player on that Memphis roster still plays in "The Bluff City"), but that 2011 series sure was a doozy.

While this matchup will never rival those Spurs-Mavericks/Suns tilts when each of those teams was in its prime, the sting from 2011 still lingers for many fans. That unceremonious first-round loss, only the fourth time in NBA history that an 8-seed defeated a 1-seed, was a serious gut-punch to the people of San Antonio. Most feel some combination of visceral dread and confident optimism, in varying degrees, heading in to a series with the physical Grizzlies. With a second straight chance to earn a spot in the Finals, however, those who wear Silver and Black would love nothing more than sweet, sweet revenge and a chance to dethrone King James.

What's Different Now?

Let's come back a minute to that sense of "visceral dread" we talked about earlier. Why are Spurs fans so scared of the Grizzlies? I'll tell you why. Because everybody remembers how Mike Conley subjugated Tony Parker, imposing his defensive will on the fulcrum of the Spurs offense. Everybody remembers that Zach Randolph never missed for the whole series. Everybody remembers that the Spurs shouldn't even have won two games, avoiding the Gentleman's sweep only through improbable heroics from Gary Neal and Manu Ginobili in Game 5. It was complete domination by the Grizzlies from start to finish, and it left most Spurs fans in a depressive offseason stupor.

Fortunately, the guys from SA who will step out on the court on Sunday afternoon have a selective memory, and they know things have changed. This is a new series in a new year, with tweaked rosters, reborn players and shifted mentalities. Neither coach is game-planning for the respective opposing teams from two years ago. The series may display the same brand of grinding drudgery with which the Spurs of the aughts were well acquainted, but after a few years "lost at D," the Spurs have righted the ship and are prepared to treat national audiences to a great defensive series.

Roster Changes: The Ins and Outs

Each team has made some noteworthy roster changes in the last two years. Below are the playoff rotation players who have left or joined each roster since 2011.

Spurs

Grizzlies

Out

In

Out

In

Richard Jefferson

Kawhi Leonard

O.J. Mayo

Tayshaun Prince

Antonio McDyess

Boris Diaw

Shane Battier

Jerryd Bayless

George Hill

Cory Joseph

Greivis Vasquez

Quincy Pondexter

There are some significant changes over the span of two years. While the core of each team remains intact, the surrounding cast is largely different. The Spurs ditched Richard Jefferson (who finally managed to help us win a playoff game via two wonderfully missed free throws), Antonio McDyess and George Hill. The loss of Hill certainly hurts the most, as the Pacers are now discovering following his concussion in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semis. Even two years ago, George Hill was a great defender who could create his own shots. When Manu joined the starting lineup in Game 2 of the 2011 first round, Hill was the only effective player in the second unit for most of the series. McDyess was a nice piece in the defensive post, and the Spurs got more from him that season than they probably anticipated. But while he could drain that midrange jumper, at his age he never had the stamina to knock bodies with the physical duo of Gasol and Randolph.

To replace Jefferson, McDyess and Hill, the Spurs have added Kawhi Leonard, Boris Diaw and Cory Joseph. I'd call that 2-1 on upgrades, with Joseph representing the downgrade. I shouldn't even have to say it, but Kawhi Leonard is just vastly superior to Richard Jefferson in nearly every way. He grabs loose balls and 50-50 rebounds, he makes corner threes when they matter, he stifles perimeter isolation scorers, and he actually appears to like playing basketball. He is nearly a complete package in only his second year, while Jefferson in his 10th year had lost nearly all the athleticism that had made him great during his time with the New Jersey Nets.

Boris Diaw isn't as tall and never had near the level of post defense as Antonio McDyess in his prime, but what he adds outweighs what we lost when McDyess retired. He can hit the midrange jumper and more, has quick post moves especially against smaller defenders, shows excellent vision and passing ability, and can effectively defend guards on perimeter switches. Diaw is somewhat of a jack of all trades, and his girth actually enables him to play passable post defense despite his 6' 8" listed height.

At this point in his career, Cory Joseph doesn't quite have the ability that George Hill had in his third year with the Spurs. He is shorter, less athletic and still not quite up to speed with the pace and physicality of NBA playoffs basketball. That being said, he hasn't yet approached his ceiling, and has shown considerable aplomb as Parker's backup in the last two series. His knack for shadowing quick isolation guards was on display against Jarrett Jack, and he never takes a bad shot, judiciously choosing only comfortable spots. He isn't George Hill, both in style and talent level, but he has no doubt been a pleasant surprise this year for Spurs fans.

All in all, the Spurs own a better roster now than in 2011. Enough cannot be said for what Leonard has consistently provided in his team-high 37.7 playoff minutes per game. Diaw's versatility places more pressure on opposing defenses compared to McDyess's predictable mid-range game, and Joseph has played some very tidy minutes with the second unit.

The Grizzlies lost some significant perimeter firepower in O.J. Mayo, Shane Battier, and Greivis Vasquez. Mayo was a solid perimeter scorer and defender, and a very capable distributor for the second unit. Battier had, and still has, a penchant for hitting timely triples in the same manner as he-who-shall-not-be-named-and-isn't-in-the-playoffs-anymore-thank-god. He is the gold standard for "three and D" role players, and the Grizzlies certainly miss his abilities. Vasquez has blossomed as a point guard in the last two years, despite playing for the maligned New Orleans Hornets Pelicans. Even two years ago, though, he showed signs of excellence as a scorer and distributer for the Grizzlies' second team in limited minutes.

The Grizzlies have sized up since 2011, trading two shooting guards (though Vasquez now plays PG) and a small forward for a point guard and two small forwards, one of which can defend smaller power forwards. Though he is far past his championship prime, Tayshaun Prince is a good defender with a very high basketball IQ who can create scoring opportunities for himself and others. He is certainly an upgrade over Rudy Gay and is probably a more impactful player than Battier of two years ago. He can defend bigger players than Battier due to his length, scores more points per 36 minutes, and shoots a higher three point percentage than 2011 Battier (which was very hard for me to believe). His playoff experience certainly boosts a Grizzlies team which is largely unfamiliar with postseason success.

Jerryd Bayless is an interesting addition for the Grizzlies The closest thing they have to instant offense, Bayless draws parallels to Gary Neal, both for his ability to score and his liability as a defender. He is a better distributor and ball handler than Neal, though, and has to be checked on the perimeter to prevent him from involving his teammates or jacking up uncontested isolation threes. If you asked me, I would take Mayo or Vasquez over Bayless, but on a team with restricted offensive firepower, he adds a nice scoring boost.

Quincy Pondexter has been great for the Grizzlies in this year's playoffs. He is shooting 43% from deep and has exceeded his season averages in almost every per minute statistical category during the playoffs. He hasn't been the focus of opposing teams' defensive game plans, and has taken advantage of open looks to provide a good lift for Memphis.

As far as I see it, the Grizzlies have neither improved nor worsened via roster changes in the past two years. While the Spurs actually seem to have upgraded their talent, the Grizzlies have merely swapped certain skillsets for others with comparable talent. Ditching Gay for Prince was a fantastic move which has paid off richly, but Rudy Gay never set foot on the court in the 2011 playoffs. What they have done, similarly to the Spurs, is alter their approach to scoring and defending, even if only slightly.

Changes in the System

Both teams' roster changes reflect shifts in mentality and system. The tables below charts the advanced statistics of each team and their rank (in parentheses) in the last two years, with significant improvements highlighted in green and significant regressions in red.

Memphis Grizzlies


Own


Opp


Year

ORtg


DRtg


Pace


eFG%


APG


RPG


TOPG


eFG%


APG


RPG


TOPG


2010-2011


107.6 (16)

105.1 (9)

91.9 (15)

49.3 (20)

20.6 (21)

41.0 (16)

14.0 (12)

50.2 (18)

21.0 (14)

40.1 (8)

16.7 (1)

2012-2013


104.9 (17)

100.3 (2)

88.4 (30)

47.2 (28)

20.9 (24)

42.7 (11)

14.0 (5)

47.5 (3)

19.5 (4)

39.1 (1)

15.5 (6)

Diff


-2.7 (-1)

-4.8 (+7)

-3.5 (-15)

-2.1 (-8)

+0.3 (-3)

+1.7 (+5)

--- (+7)


-2.7 (+15)

-1.5 (+10)

-1.0 (+7)

-1.2 (-5)

San Antonio Spurs


Own


Opp


Year

ORtg


DRtg


Pace


eFG%


APG


RPG


TOPG


eFG%


APG


RPG


TOPG


2010-2011


111.8 (2)

105.6 (11)

92.3 (14)

52.7 (1)

22.4 (8)

41.9 (12)

13.4 (6)

49.1 (10)

20.5 (9)

41.2 (17)

13.4 (26)

2012-2013


108.3 (7)

101.6 (3)

94.2 (6)

53.1 (2)

25.1 (1)

41.3 (21)

14.7 (17)

48.0 (5)

21.4 (9)

42.5 (18)

14.9 (12)

Diff


-3.5 (-5)

-4.0 (+8)

+1.9 (+8)

+0.4 (-1)

+2.7 (+7)

-0.6 (-9)

+1.3 (-11)

-1.1 (+5)

+0.9 (--)

+1.3 (-1)

+1.5 (+14)

Since 2011, both teams have improved defensively while declining offensively, and each has improved in net rating. The Grizzlies have actually gained some ground on the Spurs in this regard, holding a +4.6 this year as opposed to a +2.5 two years ago. Still, they do not approach the Spurs' differential of +6.7 this year, which is second behind only the Heat among teams remaining in the playoffs.

Perhaps most striking is that the two teams have diverged in terms of pace. Each was middling in 2011, but the Grizzlies have become one of the slowest teams in the league and the Spurs one of the fastest. The decrease in pace for the Grizzlies has significantly improved their opponent per game numbers in assists and rebounds, but they have also significantly improved in opponent effective field goal percentage, a pace-independent statistic. The Spurs, on the other hand, have not seen significant increases in opponent per game assists and rebounds despite a large increase in pace, a sign that they have regained some of their historic defensive prowess. This is corroborated by their much-improved opponent effective field-goal percentage.

Who can impose their style?

Because of the stark contrast in style between these two clubs, this series will likely favor the team who can impose their own pace on the game. This is considerably unfortunate for the Spurs, because playoff games almost always run slow. Nonetheless, the Spurs are better equipped defensively to handle a decrease in offensive touches. They have actually improved their own eFG% and are the best they have ever been at scoring assisted buckets. The average pace of Warriors-Spurs series was 90.7, and despite Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili underperforming for much of the series, the Spurs won in six.

San Antonio will need to keep the ball movement crisp and take advantage of a superior backcourt. Conley will be trouble, and Lionel Hollins may choose to matchup up Tony Allen on Parker, but Tony's dismantling of Klay Thompson in the first half of Game 3 of the semis shows that he is learning how to handle high quality perimeter defenders with length, a piece of his game which, up until this year, had eluded him.

Tim Duncan has improved vastly since 2011, a year in which he was hobbled by that left knee of his, but we cannot expect him to consistently contend with the best frontcourt in the league. Tiago Splitter will need to hunker down and prepare to play a tenacious, physical series, as his support of Duncan will be extremely valuable. Bonner and Diaw will likely be defensive liabilities in the post, and the possibility that Aron Baynes sees any court time remains doubtful.

The Grizzlies are a very dominant defensive team, especially in the post, but they are actually below average in defending the pick and roll ball handler. According to MySynergySports.com, they rank in the top 10 or top 5 in points per play in most defensive categories, but in P&R ball-handler situations they are 18th. Tony and Manu have to exploit this chink in their armor, and Manu's relative health as compared to 2011 may be a huge difference in this series.

Spurs fans, prepare for a tense couple of weeks. The Grizzlies are an excellent team that has won eight of its last nine games by routinely imposing their style of play. I believe that the Spurs now have the players, health and systematic approach to handle the dwellers of the Grindhouse, but it won't be pretty. The playoffs are all about intensity, physicality and focus. While they have retained some of the finesse so evident in their offense of the last two years, San Antonio has recovered the grinding mentality that they had missed since 2007. A couple of years ago, they would have lost against the Warriors. Now, with the requisite level of tenacity, they re-enter the Western Conference Finals with a chance to remind the Grizzlies that 2011 was nothing but a forgotten footnote in the history of one of the sport's great dynasties.

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and MySynergySports.com

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