The Spurs will for the second straight season play in the Western Conference finals, this time against the Grizzlies. The temptation to draw the parallels between this season and 2010/11 is great but Cam already took care of that so for now let's focus on this year.
The Grizzlies beat the Clippers and the Thunder on their way here, using their physicality and defensive prowess to prevail. The Spurs swept the Lakers and toughed out six wins against the pesky Warriors. Both teams have faced solid but injured teams but have looked good in their victories and come into this series healthy and confident in their chances. Let's take a look at the season series.
Season series: tied at two
You might remember the first season meeting as the game that caused Rest-gate. Pop flew the Big Three and Danny Green to San Antonio instead of Miami and paid the prize with Stern. But the Spurs, missing Leonard and Jackson, ultimately got what they wanted and beat the Grizzlies coming from behind in the fourth and forcing overtime. The rested Parker and Duncan had great games while only Mike Conley scored efficiently for the Grizzlies and the Spurs ran their way into a win with 22 fastbreak points.
The second game of the series also went into overtime but this time the Grizzlies won. There was a lot of physical play that went uncalled, which caused Fred to suffer from split personality disorder for a while (seriously, check that recap because it is pretty hilarious). But ultimately what did the Spurs in was their turnovers -- which fueled the Grizzlies' fastbreak -- and the second chance points they allowed. Parker was great scoring-wise, as in the first game, but his four turnovers, combined with Duncan's six and Manu's three, were too many. Spurs killer Darrel Arthur scored 14 points on nine shots and pulled down five boards in 22 minutes for the Grizz.
Only five days later the two teams met again, this time in San Antonio. The Spurs were without Ginobili but the bigs had such a great game that it turned into a blowout. Splitter and Diaw combined for 24 points, 13 rebounds and four assists while Duncan scored 19, pulled down eight boards and blocked five shots. The Spurs' defense was phenomenal and they did exactly what you should do to beat the Grizzlies: move the ball (33 assists), run whenever possible (12 to zero on fastbreak points), rebound (+1 rebound differential) and take care of the ball (13 T0s). Of course, also going 9-18 from three helps when the opponent goes 1-9, especially when they shoot 28 free throws to your ten.
The final game was close but the depleted Spurs, missing Ginobili, Duncan and Leonard, couldn't pull out the win despite playing a great game. The bench was fantastic in this one, with De Colo, Blair, Bonner and Neal combining for 30 points on 20 shots and 14 rebounds. Splitter had yet another great game against the Grizzlies, notching a double-double before fouling out after some cheap calls, while Parker carried the scoring load late. But Conley and Bayless were too much to handle and sealed the win for the Grizzlies with a combined 19 fourth quarter points, including a three pointer and a game winning layup by Conley.
How will the Grizzlies try to hurt the Spurs?
From inside, obviously. At this point Spurs fans know the Grizzlies. They take by far the least amount of three pointers in the league, which is not a bad idea since they struggle making them. Memphis likes to slow the game down (29th in pace), pound teams inside and get offensive boards (2nd in the league in offensive rebound percentage). They get most of their offense within eight feet of the rim, where they are not particularly effective, ranking 27th in the league in field goal percentage. Simply put, they are not a good offensive team as evidenced by their 18th ranked offense during the season. They grind out just enough points to get the win, and let their stellar defense take care of the rest. You know, just like the Spurs used to do when they were winning championships ever odd-numbered year.
As far as plays go, they understandably rely heavily on post ups from Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol to score or force the defense to scramble. They are not that good on pick and roll sets so they opt instead to run some of their offense through the high post, with the wings and point guard cutting to the basket or using high-low plays with Gasol finding Randolph in deep post position.
Other than from the post, where they ranked 5th in the league in points per possession according to Synergy Sports, the Grizzlies only excel in one other area and that's in transition, where they ranked 6th. Led by notorious ball hound Mike Conley, they are extremely disruptive on defense and try to get out and run whenever possible to make up for their half court deficiencies. The Rudy Gay trade harmed them a bit in that regard, making them score a full point less on the break per 48 minutes and almost three points off turnovers less since Tayshaun Prince became a Grizzly, but they have a more efficient and potent offense, overall.
So the Grizzlies will try to post up Gasol and Randolph and try to hit pick and pop jumpers to get the Spurs' bigs to go further out to contest, thus opening some cutting lanes. If they steal the ball they will try to run, and if not they will try to pound the ball inside. Memphis is clearly inferior to the Warriors offensively so after doing a good job on the Dubs, the Spurs' defense should be fine. But the difference in styles is so great that it might take some getting used to after altering the game plan to contest outside jumpers and playing small for a whole series. The work the Spurs did on the Gasol-Howard tandem in round one, though, is reason for optimism.
How can the Spurs hurt the Grizzlies?
The Grizzlies arguably have the best defense out there. They have great individual defenders in pretty much every position and have exactly the kind of length and physicality that often neutralizes the Spurs' strengths. Some of their subs are clearly flawed defensive players but they play a short rotation and rely heavily on their starters so the Spurs' depth won't likely be a huge advantage.
Marc Gasol was named Defensive Player of the Year and does a good job, as does the rest of the team, of anticipating plays before they happen and forcing opponents to change their plan on the fly. They are extremely disruptive on defense which is a huge asset for them, but leaves them a little susceptible to cuts, especially if Gasol has to step outside to guard a jump shooter. The Spurs are great at finding the crevices that over-aggressive defenses leave, and they will pretty much need to excel at it to force the Grizzlies to ease up on the pressure.
Controlling the amount of turnovers will be very difficult but it will be key. The Spurs must not hold on to the ball for a second too long because the Grizzlies will swipe at it and immediately close the passing angle that might have been there. Crisp, precise, decisive passing will be a must for the Spurs who have had success in the past by making Memphis have to rotate a lot instead of settling for a mediocre look. As stout as the Grizzlies defense is on the perimeter with Allen, Conley and Prince and on the post with Z-Bo and especially Gasol, they don't have a great shot blocker and are a bit prone to fouling, so attacking the rim when one of the guards breaks past the first line of defense might be a good idea.
To do that, the Spurs should use a steady diet of pick and rolls. Gasol is a great defender, especially off the ball, but Z-Bo is a bit too slow to help in time, which explains why they ranked 18th on points per possession allowed to the P&R ball handler. If Duncan is guarded by Gasol, running some pick and pops for him could prove beneficial. And when Gasol rests, expect San Antonio to attack their back up bigs relentlessly on pick and rolls to get easy shots inside or a path to the basket for the ball handler. If they overload the strong side, that's when the Spurs' passing will be put to the test. The Grizzlies have gone a mediocre 15-13 when they allow more than 40% from distance, on at least ten attempts, which is not surprising considering their often anemic offense would have trouble keeping up. So moving the ball when they over-help in order to find an open shooter might not be easy but will definitely make a positive impact if the Spurs' take advantage of those open looks.
Running is also a great weapon against the suffocating Memphis half court D. In their two wins in the regular season, the Spurs averaged 17.5 fastbreak points to only 3.5 from the Grizzlies. In their two losses they averaged 14 to the Grizzlies' 13. Mistake free basketball will be paramount for the Spurs' chances as it will take advantage of the few chinks in the Grizzlies' armor.
Final thoughts and prediction
These two teams know each other and the regular season games were mostly close except for an occasion in which the Spurs played close to perfect and the Grizzlies struggled. I expect all the games to be close and for every bucket by both teams to be a struggle. But I think the Spurs can beat the Grizzlies if Tiago Splitter keeps doing a good job on Randolph and Parker takes advantage of their iffy team defense on pick and rolls.
I'm going out on a limb here but I'm calling Spurs in five close, hard-fought games. A more realistic scenario, however, would be the series going the distance. But even then, I still trust the Spurs to pull out the win.