With the regular season winding down and Spurs locked up with the best record in the NBA, the only thing left to monitor during these waning days is who the Spurs will face in the first round. It could be either the Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies or Phoenix Suns, with each providing a favorable match up for the Good Guys, albeit in different ways (the Grizzlies' lack of offense, the Mavs' lack of defense and the Suns' lack of experience).
That being said, there has been a rumor going around from many opposing fans (ironically not Memphis ones) and a few media pundits who say Spurs are (or should be) scared to face the Grizzlies in the first round. Just today on the Game Preview vs. the Rockets we welcomed civil Houston visitor akn224 with the following little nugget:
You said that you hoped that you play Memphis? Really? I would think with their physical play and their defense, I would rather the Suns get the 8th seed and play them instead? Even though that would still be a pretty tough series…. man, the Western conference is so tough.
While our friend here is correct that all series in this grueling Western Conference will be tough, it is interesting that so many outsiders seem to only remember the 2011 playoffs and forget what has transpired since then. They seem to forget that we swept Memphis in the Conference Finals last year. They apparently don't realize that we swept them again this season and own the series 14-2 overall (including the playoffs) since that fateful series three years ago. Let's look back at how all this came to be.
The Spurs' 2011 team was entirely different than the one we see today. Sure that team won the regular season (technically it tied Chicago for the best record), but in hindsight that lineup was not one that was ultimately going to win a championship because it did fit the "old" mold (no pun intended). While it was the first team to feature a quicker-paced offense under Pop, it was by far the worst defensive team of his regime. The offense was led by Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, but when those guys were injured or having off nights, there just wasn't much that could be done to stop the other team from outscoring us.
Matt Bonner was the only other current Spur who played any kind of role that season, and while he was in his prime and one of the top 3-pt shooters in the league, he wasn't much else. Tiago Splitter was a rookie who had yet to earn Pop's trust, and Danny Green was barely acquired before the playoffs and riding the end of the bench.
Most importantly, that Spurs team was reeling heading into the playoffs. They lost 12 of their final 18 games including losing-streaks of six, three and two in a row. Injuries had taken their toll on Parker, Antonio McDyess and George Hill, and that was only made worse when Ginobili (the best playing that year) broke his arm against Phoenix in the regular season finale. Memphis recognized all this and actually "tanked" to the eight seed specifically for this match up.
Tim Duncan had yet to discover the fountain of youth, was laboring on his knee by the playoffs and just didn't have the speed and agility to match up with Marc Gasol. Tony Parker couldn't get around anyone. DeJuan Blair was stuck guarding Zach Randolph: a match-up made in heaven for the undersized but versitle Z-Bo. Richard Jefferson, Gary Neal and a one-armed Ginobili weren't nearly enough to stop what was then a decent outside-shooting Memphis team led by Mike Conley, Shane Battier and OJ Mayo. Without a healthy roster, the Spurs stood no chance against Memphis' stifling defense that year.
Now let's move ahead to the present day. Once again the Spurs are tops in the league, and as mentioned above they have owned the Grizzlies since that fateful series to the tune of a 14-2 record. Unlike 2011, the 2014 roster features a much healthier (knock on wood), deeper and younger team. Sure the Big 3 are all three years older, but this team doesn't need them to do everything any more. Unlike then, the Spurs are now a match up nightmare for a Memphis team that has gone through injuries and a coaching change. They aren't nearly as deep as they once were, and their only outside scoring threats are Conley and oft-injured Mike Miller.
On the other hand, the Spurs have improved in every way. They have premier defenders on the perimeter (Green and Kawhi Leonard) and in the paint (Splitter and Duncan). Splitter is a match-up nightmare for Randolph with his length and ability to stay vertical and not commit silly fouls. Duncan is healthier and more versatile than 2011. Most importantly, the Spurs depth is out of this world, and Memphis just doesn't have what it takes to keep up with them on offense. The reality is even if Memphis is the most physical of the three teams that could land in the West's 8th spot, they're also the most likely to be swept once again by the Spurs because they just won't be able to score enough points.
This brings me to one more little tidbit I noticed and disagreed with today, and it comes from who else but Matt Moore and his CBS Power Rankings. While he still has the Spurs ranked 1st, he take it upon himself to note that he doesn't think this year's Spurs team is better then last year's, and I couldn't disagree more. I could write a whole new article about how wrong he is, but he doesn't deserve that much attention. Instead I'll just leave you with a quick list featuring all you, or actually Moore needs to know about why this team is better than the last:
Both the offense and defense are more efficient. They're deeper than ever. Marco Belinelli and Patty Mills are huge upgrades from Gary Neal and Cory Joseph. Manu has re-emerged as reliable and confident. Leonard has taken that next step towards stardom. Green and Boris Diaw are as reliable as ever. Jeff Ayers and Aron Baynes are upgrades from Blair (at least on defense, which is where they're needed). Timmy is still one of the best two-way players in the league. Splitter is much better than given credit for, especially on defense. The reality is Parker is the only one who hasn't taken a leap forward from last year (how could he?), but he's still the team's leading scorer and is more than capable of taking over games when called upon (he just hasn't needed to very often).
What more could you ask for from such a great group of guys? The playoffs are nearly here, so let's get ready to Pound that Rock!!!