It's getting to be that time. We're back in the conference finals. The season has officially reached the point where a loss in the playoffs won't be met with a "meh, it wasn't meant to be, they weren't that good" shrug and more like a "why oh why do you continue to forsake us you big stupid noodly jerk?" cry of anguish and despair.
If you're anything like me, now is when the crazy in you will really come to the fore, scaring --or just annoying-- your friends, family and loved ones. You'll be on edge and emotional, saying and doing stupid things in the heat of the moment, like perhaps getting blocked on Twitter from Zach Lowe for example. (He's even more thin-skinned than his boss, apparently.) Literally anything you hear or read that is remotely anti-Spurs will set you off. Compliments will seem like backhanded compliments. Nothing short of victory will make you happy, and even then all you'll get for the triumph is like three seconds of euphoria before reality kicks in that the Heat await in the ultimate heart-breaker death scenario.
Why not a long-as-all-get-out preview before Game 1 to get you in the mood?
But first, some grades for the Warriors series!
Tim Duncan: B
35.7 mpg, 19.5 pts, 10.3 rebs, 1.8 asts, 1.3 blks, 0.5 stls, 1.8 TOs, .423/.853, -11
It was far from Duncan's best series to be sure, and he didn't always look very spry or healthy. His jumper was wonky and flat and he needs to shoot it a heckuva lot better against the Grizzlies. Even his board work left something to be desired. Where Timmy deserves credit though is for his defensive work after the first two games, the mobility and versatility he showed in hedging out high to disrupt the Warriors' screen-and-roll, and the way he seamlessly adjusted from playing in big lineups to small ones as the hub.
The Grizzlies series will be far more physical and Memphis will look to wear Duncan down, but in some ways he'll get a break in that he'll have to roam around a lot less around the court on defense and he'll get to stay at home in the paint. The long breaks between the games and the shorter travel should help him as well. Obviously, Tim's gonna have to be a monster for us to beat Memphis, but I think he's going to be supremely motivated to take them on after the disaster of 2011.
Tiago Splitter: C+
20.8 mpg, 6.4 pts, 4.0 rebs, 1.0 asts, 0.4 blks, 1.4 stls, 1.0 TOs, .632/.800, +6
Tiago's grade would've been worse if not for the fact that he was recovering from a sprained ankle during the series. He missed Game 1 and then gradually got better and better as the games wore on, to the point where he was one of our most important players in the closeout game. The softness with which Splitter went up with for his shot attempts, those lame floaters and such, is most disconcerting, as his relative lack of rebounding. To his credit, Splitter still shot a high percentage and his free throw stroke held up as well. His mobility was a key to the defense (especially the last couple of games) and he even managed to survive as the lone big down the stretch in Game 6.
Still, there's no question that Splitter will have to play with a lot more toughness against the Grizzlies. They will try to test him and shove him around and he's going to have to respond to their challenge. He can't be fresh meat like Bonner or the Spurs are toast. In many ways Tiago will be the key to the series. If he can play like the guy he was during the regular season, the Spurs will win. It's as simple as that.
Kawhi Leonard: A-
40.2 mpg, 14.7 pts, 9.5 rebs, 1.5 asts, 0.3 blks, 1.5 stls, 1.5 TOs, .557/.375./.538, +30
For my money Kawhi was the MVP of the Warriors series, and really it wasn't that close. His board work (on both ends) was huge, obviously, as was his incredibly efficient shooting (save for the wonky free throws, where Whi somehow shot worse from the charity stripe than the field), but where Leonard truly turned the series on its head was when he singlehandedly snuffed out Klay Thompson's flame after Game 2, holding his fellow sophomore to 10.3 points on 18-of-53 (34%) shooting. To put it another way, Thompson scored 34 points in Game 2, on eight three pointers, and then scored 41 points and made just five threes the rest of the way. And, in case you'd forgotten, it was Leonard who found Ginobili for the game-winning shot in Game 1.
Leonard won't have any prolific perimeter man to hound against the Grizzlies, and we'll have to see if that's a good thing or not. In the past, he's floated and kind of gotten lost in games like that, but I'm hopeful that against Memphis he'll have the freedom to roam around the court and freelance a bit, come up with some backdoor steals and blocks while helping out his bigs on the boards. If the match-ups aren't quite working out in the Spurs' favor, Pop can also switch things up and go small, giving Leonard a mismatch against Randolph out on the floor. Of all the Spurs, he figures to have the best looks from downtown, so hopefully he can keep up his shooting stroke. Any turnovers he can created will also be huge, because the Spurs will need all the easy points against the Grizz that they can get.
Danny Green: B+
35.7 mpg, 12.0 pts, 4.2 rebs, 1.7 asts, 1.0 blks, 1.5 stls, 0.8 TOs, .456/.444/.667, -30
Oh, the dangers of the plus/minus stat. Somehow, despite Green's dead-eye shooting from deep (Spurs have no chance in Game 1 without him) and his superlative work on Stephen Curry, he was a net minus for the series because the offense ground to a halt with him in there. Proof positive that he really is the evolutionary Bruce Bowen. The long-limbed Green forced just as many turnovers as Leonard and was every bit the key to our defensive success, but he wasn't quite as efficient from afield overall and had a couple of down games in that regard. Overall I wouldn't hold the scoring numbers against him, rather they were the product of some uncharacteristically poor shooting from Tim and Tony.
Unlike Leonard, it's likely that Green will have another tough defensive match-up against the Grizz, as he's the likely candidate to slow down Mike Conley, throw some size and physicality at him and give Parker a breather. When he's not on Conley it will be imperative for Green to dig in on the bigs and to also help out on the boards. On the other side of the ball Memphis will look to run him off the three point line, so Green will have to finish at the rim and hopefully not dribble or shoot layups like a spaz. Dunks would be good, those lame finger rolls not so much.
Tony Parker: B
39.0 mpg, 22.5 pts, 4.7 rebs, 6.2 asts, 0.2 blks, 0.7 stls, 2.5 TOs, .426/.455/.762, +2
Though Parker alternated good games with bad ones against the Warriors, he had at least one sustained hot streak in each, which proved vital in the Game 1 comeback and the Game 6 closeout. I'm sure we all thought we'd never see the day where Parker shot better from three in a series than from the field overall, but that might not be the worst thing in the world if he can keep it up (spoiler alert: he won't). It wasn't Parker's best series either, but he deserves high marks for not only playing through injury, but for being more game defensively than his counterpart, Curry. Parker wasn't always effective when backed down into the post by Harrison Barnes, but he fought him best as he could. He also abused Curry on offense whenever the Warriors were forced to go to that match-up. Parker's effort on the boards was another point in his favor.
The Grizzlies series will be interesting for Parker not only because he's still not fully healthy but also because Conley is sort of a personal Moby Dick for him. It will be difficult for Parker to finish at the rim, so his floaters will have to be dead on, but more important will be his mid-range jumper and his ability to drive and dish without turning it over. Memphis will be preying on him to be sloppy with the ball, so Parker will have to show some veteran wares here.
Manu Ginobili: C
29.7 mpg, 12.7 pts, 5.0 rebs, 6.3 asts, 0.3 blks, 1.7 stls, 2.5 TOs, .342/.275/.650, +46
Ginobili was positively brilliant in every aspect of his game save one: He couldn't shoot the ball to save his life. For some players, this wouldn't be the end of the world, but when your position literally has the word "shooting" right in it, that's kind of bad. Manu had the one huge three to win Game 1 and a nice hot streak in Game 4, but outside of that, it was pretty ghastly whenever he launched a ball at the general vicinity (and that's being kind) of the rim, even from the free throw line, which was very disturbing.
Still, the +46 tells a story of its own. This might well have been the best passing series of Ginobili's career, he wasn't burned too bad on defense and he even helped out on the boards. Unlike the first two rounds of the playoffs last season where the starters raced out to big leads and the bench did its best to cough them up, the story of the 2013 postseason for the Spurs has been the starters treading water and the bench pushing them over the top, meaning that for two straight seasons it's been a complete flip-flop of the regular season that directly preceded it. In other words: We know nothing, Jon Snows.
I'm gonna step out on a limb and predict that .342 from the field from Manu won't quite cut it against the Grizzlies, but hopefully he's due to snap out of his funk. The bigger stat for him is the assist/turnover ratio. If he can keep it at a 2:1 clip, the Spurs are in good shape. If he has more giveaways than assists, like he did in the Western Conference Finals last year, that'd be bad. Ginobili was the one Spur who played well against the Grizzlies in the playoffs two year ago -- with a broken arm no less -- but he doesn't seem like the same player anymore. Can he surprise us once more?
Boris Diaw: B+
17.8 mpg, 4.0 pts, 3.0 rebs, 2.0 asts, 0.2 blks, 0.7 stls, 1.2 TOs, .474./.500/1.000, +48
What's not to like about Boris' play aside from the fact that, as usual, his teammates and coaches had to beg him to shoot the damn ball? I suppose the rebounding numbers could've been better, but Diaw showed more chemistry playing with Duncan or Tiago than the two starters did playing together for the most part, and he even held up well as the hub in small ball lineups. All in all, it was a bit of a surprise that Diaw didn't play more, given his relative success.
Against the Grizzles he'll have to play tougher, for sure, and chip out on the boards, and he'll really have to start shooting more. Open shots against Memphis come few and far between, so when you get one, you better let fly. Defensively I'm not as worried about him for some reason. I think he's got more than enough foot speed to contend with their bigs, I'm more concerned about what he does once the shots are up in the air.
Cory Joseph: B
9.3 mpg, 3.5 pts, 0.8 rebs, 1.0 asts, 0.0 blks, 0.0 stls, 0.0 TOs, .529/.333/.333, +9
After a wobbly Game 1 in which he was torched by Curry (though Duncan contributed mightily by not being anywhere near on those high screens), Joseph got better and better as the series went on, saving his best two games for the final two. Perhaps most impressive was the fact that he didn't commit a single turnover in 56 minutes on the floor during the series, though to be fair he wasn't the primary ball handler hardly ever. He did knock down a pair of corner threes in the final two games, which was nice to see and had a couple other long jumpers as well. Teams are gonna keep leaving him open, so hopefully he can keep making them pay.
Joseph's role will probably stay the same against Memphis, playing in the 8-10 minute range to give Parker a breather. His ball pressure should wear down Conley a bit and every bit of that will help in the long run. Whatever he gives us on offense is a bonus.
Gary Neal: D
15.3 mpg, 4.7 pts, 2.5 rebs, 0.5 asts, 0.2 blks, 0.2 stls, 0.3 TOs, .345/.250/1.000, +24
More proof that +/- isn't the end all and be all, I give you exhibit B: Gary Neal. His shooting was poor, his shot selection was horrid and his defense was even worse. About the only positives for Neal is that he took relatively good care of the ball and that he boarded competently. Still, he didn't do much of anything to deserve 15 minutes a night in the next round and probably got leap-frogged by Joseph in the rotation. At this point I really want McGrady to get a shot, just because it'd be someone --anyone-- different.
Neal did have some big moments against the Grizzlies, of course, and he'll get chances early on in this series I suspect, but I'm just not a believer anymore and I don't see how anyone could be. You can just see somebody like Jerryd Bayless or even Keyon Dooling torching him.
Matt Bonner: D-
9.7 mpg, 2.0 pts, 1.2 rebs, 0.3 asts, 0.0 blks, 0.0 stls, 0.0 TOs, .455/.333/NA, -3
After receiving 35 minutes of playing time in the first two games of this series (remember, Splitter missed the first game), Bonner only got 23 minutes the rest of the way, thankfully. No, his shooting stroke didn't desert him once more, as it had in playoffs past, but virtually every other aspect of his game was back to his usual May levels. Softness on the glass, missed defensive assignments, dumb fouls, passing up shots, etc. Same old Bonner.
The less he plays in the Western Conference Finals, the better off we'll be. Yeah, he can hit a couple of open shots, but he takes so much off the table in every other aspect of the game, it's just not worth having him on the floor. The other teams go right at him with all the confidence of Achilles, and they either score, get foul calls on Bonner or just abuse him pitifully on the boards until they score. It's almost painful to watch.
With that business out of the way, let's get down to the previews, in a helpful Q&A format, where you, the reader, plays a paranoid worry wart, and I, play the part of an experienced, wise sage who condescendingly pats you on your head and tells you how stupid you are to doubt the Spurs.
(note, this is by and large excerpted from a post TimVP had on SpursTalk, where he played the part of the pessimist and I shot his points down one by one and then added several of my own).
Q: I'm concerned that Duncan isn't playing that well. He had trouble against Bogut and Marc Gasol is just a better version than Bogut. TD has had a great season but it's asking a ton for him to shine against the Defensive Player of the Year.
A: How well Duncan plays on offense really has nothing to do with who he's facing, which I realize is rare. Still, with all the pick-and-rolls the Spurs run, regardless of whether they face the best defensive team in the league or the worst, everybody gives Duncan that same 15-17 foot open shot. It's simply a matter of whether he knocks them down or not. If he hits enough of them, then people jump out at him and then he just pump fakes and gets to the rim. He's scored consistently on Gasol in the past and had a couple of big games against the Grizzlies this season, averaging 20 and 13 on nearly 53% shooting.
Q: I'm worried that Parker is hurting. He had trouble scoring against a Warriors team with iffy defensive guards and limited bigs. What's going to happen against Conley -- arguably the best Parker defender in the league -- and a team with legit bigmen and other players with agile length? On paper, this looks like it'll be a disastrous series for TP unless he miraculously returns to health, no?
A: Neither Gasol nor Randolph are elite shot blockers. They have size, but Parker can still shoot his floater over them. Conley is good defensively, but Parker can still get to the hole and dish, even if he can't consistently finish. Like Duncan, for him it's all about whether he can hit that jumper. He'll get plenty of them.
Q: It sure looks like Ginobili is no longer at the stage of his career where he can carry a team. And besides, going up against Tony Allen would be a tall task no matter his age. I don't like that match-up.
A: Ginobili destroyed Allen two years ago playing with a broken arm. No, he's not the same player now, but, again, the initial defender doesn't matter all that much against Manu since he always relies on that screen anyway. With Manu it's about how well a defense plays as a team to cut off his penetration and how they play him on the pick-and-roll. I'm not saying he's going to have a big series vs. the Grizzlies or anything, but how well he plays will depend more on him (and his shot/decision making) and the Grizzlies bigs than Allen.
Q: Splitter played a bit better in Game 6, but he's still playing without physicality. He has trouble grabbing contested boards. He still has issues finishing in crowds. Those three faults play perfectly into the Grizzlies hands, right?
A: People haven't been very patient with Tiago even though he had a pretty bad sprained ankle. They wanted him to be 100% from the first game back. If you've been paying attention, he got better and better as the Warriors series went along and both his stats and the Warriors offensive stats reflected that. By the end, Pop relied on Tiago, not Tim down the stretch and we still won. No, Tiago is not physical, and he's not a great rebounder, but he's a very good defender as long as you don't pair him with Bonner. I think this series will be a great test for him, but it could be his coming out party.
Q: Leonard and Green just came off of a GREAT defensive series -- but Memphis does their damage on the inside. There really won't be anyone for those two to shut down. Thus, I think it'll be much more difficult for them to impact the series.
A: Not having to do as much on their guys will just allow them that much more opportunity to freelance and disrupt Memphis' offense. Leonard, in particular, could wreak a lot of havoc with his ridiculous wingspan. Leonard could be the key guy in the series because if Pop wants to switch things up to go small, there's nobody on the Grizz to handle him, really. If Green doesn't play well, then Pop could turn to Manu more and he'll have the freedom to play Ginobili since there's no perimeter guy to wear him out on defense. More Ginobili on offense is never a bad thing. The Spurs have the THREE best wings in this series. That's a ridiculous luxury and it'd be silly for anyone to dismiss that.
Q: Diaw, Bonner and Blair are all poor match-ups against a physical front-line, so shouldn't I be terrified?
A: Well, no, because two of them won't play, duh. This isn't 2011. We're not this soft, punk-ass team that has to rely on RJ, Bonner and a broken down, undersized Antonio McDyess. We've got a second legit big in Splitter and some girth at the very least (and pretty quick feet) in Diaw. Again, if the bigs falter, we can go small. You can call the 2013 Spurs a lot of things, but they're not soft.
Q: Neal's ballhandling and decision-making against that pressure defense? Yikes.
A: Pop has shown already Neal's leash will be very short. If he's not getting it done it'll either be a three-man rotation on the wings or possibly even McGrady, who's got size. We're not gonna depend on Neal to win or lose us games. Really, you're freaking out about the 9th and 10th men in the rotation.
Q: Does Joseph have the experience to play in what is going to be a glorified back alley dogfight?
A: Scrappiness is the biggest strength of his game. Frankly I'd be a lot more worried about playing him against an offensive juggernaut team we have to match hoop for hoop than a rugged defensive team. To paraphrase a former head coach of the 49ers, this is Joseph's kind of party.
Q: The Grizzlies are at the very least as good defensively as the Spurs. Most likely, they're better. San Antonio was superior offensively for the majority of this season -- but they've fallen off a cliff in the last couple months. That ball-movement that made this team special is mostly gone. They don't have much in terms of individual creators. The Grizzlies offense isn't awesome but their scoring, on paper at least, will be more reliable since it'll come on the inside. Add in the points they'll create by forcing turnovers and hitting the offensive glass -- and I can't make a strong case for the Spurs having a better offense or defense right now. Tell me where I'm wrong.
A: The Spurs starting five is the best defensive quintet in the league. It's kind of a secret because they only played 31 games together due to various injuries and only a 364 minute sample size, but their work together has been staggering. They allow 41% field goals, 32% from 3 and hardly ever foul. They're insane. In fact, when you focus on just the 8-man rotation and throw out Bonner and Neal, the Spurs are as good as any defense in the league and probably better.
As far as offense goes, it's kind of amusing to harp on lack of ball movement when the team had 57 assists the past two games. The Spurs have MUCH better three point shooting than the Grizzlies. Also, Memphis struggled to run away from a one-man Thunder team whose best passer was Kevin Durant. Both Parker and Ginobili are way better passers than him and Duncan is far more of a post threat than anyone the Thunder had. Memphis' offensive limitations will insure that no matter how well they play, they won't really run away from the Spurs and we'll always be in games against them. One good run (which the Spurs always have in them) and we'll be tied or ahead.
Q: We still really don't know how good the Spurs are at the moment, right? Should we take anything from sweeping the Lakers? Probably not. Is struggling with a Warriors team that was mediocre in the regular season a bad sign? Yeah, probably. Add in the poor way the Spurs ended the regular season -- and this team is still riddled with question marks. The Grizzlies, on the other hand, know exactly what they are and what they aren't. I want to believe -- but as I'm sitting here right now, I just can't do it by any logical means. I'm sorry.
A: You are making the mistake of judging them based on your most recent memories of the Spurs and the most recent play of the Grizzlies and are not taking into account a number of factors.
1. The Spurs, the big three in particular, were EXHAUSTED down the stretch of this series, because its schedule was obscene. Think about it, they played 6.3 games in 11 days, with four cross-country flights in between and a stupid Sunday afternoon tilt after a Friday night game. If Game 4 was played at night I have no doubt in my mind, none whatsoever, that the Spurs would've won it easily and taken the series in five, and everyone would've looked at them in a completely different light. The Grizzlies, on the other hand, had more rest within their series and less travel, with short flights between Memphis and OKC. In this series the Spurs will get more breaks between the games and again the travel won't be as much of an issue, so the Spurs will look fresher.
2. You're also discounting the opponents. We beat (dominated really) a good Warriors team in the last four games of that series, the same Dubs who beat a very good Denver squad. While I agree that the Warriors weren't much of a team for most of the regular season and that their coach Mark Jackson is mostly an overrated hype man, they dumb-lucked into their best team by having David Lee -- just an atrocious defender -- get injured vs. the Nuggets. If Lee had played big minutes vs. the Spurs our offense would've looked a lot better and really, in all likelihood we wouldn't have even faced the Warriors but rather the Nugs. The Grizz on the other hand, grinded out four wins against a one-man team. Durant is very good, but he was playing with a pretty shoddy supporting cast and those games still went down to the wire.
3. You're severely underestimating Pop. I rail on Pop sometimes too, but I at least give him enough credit that I strongly doubt he's going to just stand there and let Randolph and Gasol run roughshod over the Spurs inside, especially when that club doesn't have a legit perimeter threat. The doubles will be comin', boys and girls, oh they'll be a comin.' If the Grizzlies are going to beat us, it will have to be with the shooting of guys like Bayless, Pondexter, Allen and Prince. We're not going to just let them set up camp inside the paint. That's silly. Both these teams are so well-founded defensively that they're going to make each other go to plan C, D, or E for points. The further down the list it goes, the better off we are, because we have better depth in scoring than the Grizzlies do, better shooters and better passers. Good ball movement is the enemy of any top-tier defense and the Spurs don't lack for guys who are ready and willing to pass.
4. We'll have home court advantage. Not something I'd dismiss so easily. Yeah, the Thunder got us in Game 5 and the Warriors in Game 2, but it's still better to have it than not. At the least the Spurs are always good for one massive run behind their home crowd every game, and as I said before, with the Grizzlies unlikely to run away from us, one big run will be all it takes to catch up if we're behind.
5. Finally, we've got the ultimate motivator in revenge. The Grizzlies think they're the biggest and baddest team out there. We get to show them that the 2011 series was mostly a fluke. Ginobili had one arm and Leonard, Green and Splitter weren't significant contributors to the team back then.
Here's a number for you: 605.
You know what that is? That's how many minutes that Richard Jefferson (176), Antonio McDyess (145), Bonner (123!), Neal (111) and DeJuan Blair (50) played in the Grizzlies series two years ago. Think about it: Those five guys combined for a tick over 100 minutes per game, meaning that at any one time they comprised two-fifths of the lineups we had on the floor. Given that, the question shouldn't have been how we got upset in six by the Grizzlies but rather how we didn't get swept. (Conversely, Splitter and Green combined for 57 minutes that series.)
The team is radically different. Jefferson and McDyess are long gone and the three others won't combine for more than 25 minutes a game, at most, and that's probably a very liberal estimate. Again, I said it before, you can call these Spurs a lot of things, but they aren't soft. They're not going to be punked by some team that's "more physical." As we saw last season, if these Spurs lose, it will be to some club who flat out has more offensive talent and athleticism. That's not the Grizzlies.
Spurs in six.