To borrow a metaphor from another sport, every once in a great while, life throws you a hanging slider. Going into the Western Conference Finals, 98 percent of the conversation seemed to be the ferocious Grizzlies defense and how the old, worn-down, unathletic Spurs would be powerless to score against it. If you listened to guys like Zach Lowe, Magic Johnson, Bill Simmons and Jalen Rose, it would've have been a big surprise if the Spurs got outscored, not just the Grizzlies on Sunday afternoon, but quite possibly the Boston Bruins as well.
And then the game began and the first seven Spurs possessions went like this:
11:17 Kawhi Leonard makes three point jumper (Tony Parker assists) [a running theme, we'd soon find out]
10:57 Tony Parker makes layup (after stripping Mike Conley)
10:15 Danny Green two point shot (Tim Duncan assists) [Duncan found Green on a backdoor cut after outreaching Marc Gasol for an offensive rebound. I thought Memphis were supposed to be the kings of the backdoor cut?]
9:52 Tony Parker makes free throw 1 of 2 (after faking Conley out of his jock)
9:52 Tony Parker makes free throw 2 of 2
9:00 Tim Duncan makes 19-foot jumper (Tiago Splitter assists)
8:22 Danny Green makes 24-foot three point jumper (Tony Parker assists)
7:54 Tony Parker makes 18-foot jumper
At this point it was 16-6 Spurs and even cynical ol' me was thinking "We got this one." Actually, it was specifically on the play where Duncan scored, on a possession where the passing went Parker-Green-Parker-Green-Parker-Splitter-Duncan, in which the Spurs took 23.5 seconds off the shot clock before The Golden God let fly, where my confidence soared. I'm not sure how many possessions the Grizzlies faced against the Clippers or Thunder where their defense was scattered to-and-fro by six passes in the half court, culminating with the center finding the power forward on a 19-footer, but I'm guessing it wasn't many.
Also, I liked the first turnover of the game after those 7 straight Spurs scores. Danny Green starts to cut, thinks TP can't see him over Grizz bigs and stops cutting, right when TP was making a perfect pass. You could read TP's lips as he hilariously semi-griped Green out: "I'm a point guard, I see you."
It was fully obvious from the onset that we were getting Good Tony Parker, and Good Tony Parker is pretty much the third best player in the league. Yeah, Durant is one notch above him, but I don't think I'm being a homer for suggesting that the Spurs' roster 2-12 is just a wee bit better than a OKC squad missing Russell Westbrook (and James Harden to be honest). There is no way the Grizzlies are ever gonna beat Good Tony Parker, especially one who is good and pissed about how Mike Conley thoroughly undressed him two seasons ago.
It's always fun to make the mediots wrong out loud. My verdict is I liked that game.
Anyway, I know my preview was optimistic, but so many pundits were so emphatic in throwing their support behind the Grizzlies, citing the 2011 series and Memphis' backdoor sweep of the Thunder as the main reasons, that I kind of suspected that karma would be behind the good guys in this one. If these playoffs have taught us anything, it's to avoid underestimating the teams that the media ignores in a Game 1.
Going into the first round, lots of folks who should've known better picked the Kobe-less Lakers to upset the Spurs. San Antonio won Game 1 fairly easily and never looked back. In round two, the Bulls gave a rusty Heat squad (one surely caught up in the "Maybe they'll sweep through the playoffs" stories) a nice little uppercut before Miami refocused and dispatched the wounded Bulls in five. That same night the Spurs didn't have the appropriate fear against the Warriors and needed a furious rally in the last few minutes of regulation to get to an overtime in Game 1, ultimately pulling the game out on a Manu tres. Of course, that led to a Game 2 loss, because none of these teams ever truly learn to respect underdogs, no matter how tough a game is, until they suffer a loss. Only then do they pay attention in the film room.
In that vein, and I know this sounds like the conspiratorial rantings of a lunatic, I kind of think that maybe subconsciously Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins punted that game.
Before you think I'm crazy, hear me out...
The Grizzlies were very hot, having won eight of nine, including two road games at OKC, in making their first conference finals in franchise history. Media entities like ESPN were pretty much declaring them a Finals lock and already looking forward to their match-ups with the Miami Heat. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph were being written about like the second-coming of the Twin Towers, an unstoppable big man tandem impossible for 87-year-old Tim Duncan and his supporting cast of soft, undersized, unathletic nobodies.
Look at how the game played out. The Grizzlies played the Spurs as though they got their scouting report directly from Bristol, CT. All their defensive "focus" for lack of a better word, was on Duncan, Parker and Ginobili. It was as though they were operating based on the 2011 film. Who's Kawhi Leonard? We've never heard of Danny Green. Isn't Matt Bonner a choker?
The wings sucked in so far to cut off Parker's (and to a lesser extent Ginobili's) penetration that I'm having a hard time believing it was an accident. Their backup bigs (Darrell Arthur in particular) so badly misplayed the pick-and-pops with Bonner that I grew suspicious. Guys screw up assignments now and then, but no team this far into the playoffs so wantonly ignores the basic principles of their scouting report that many times in one game. Not 20-something times in 48 minutes. That just doesn't happen.
Here's the thing... what does Hollins have to lose here? The Grizzlies lost Game 1 in each of the first two rounds (Games 1 AND 2 to the Clips in fact) and recovered relatively easily. Good coaches have the pulse of their teams. Maybe, just maybe, Hollins got the sense that his guys were reading their press clippings, that no amount of yelling and begging and imploring "Hey this isn't 2011 guys, that's a different team over there," or "You all better realize they have home court and they're the favorites and you better respect that team," wasn't going to work.
So maybe his game plan was bare bones and minimalist, like an exhibition game's. Just "go out and play hard and lets see what happens when you all do it your way." Maybe Hollins wanted his team to get rolled, by Leonard and Green and Bonner in particular, just to get his guys' attention that this isn't going to be easy.
Yes, I'm aware this sounds idiotic. But I'm guessing the Grizzlies don't make so many fundamental mistakes on defense again the rest of the way.
Yes, Bonner proved me wrong in Game 1. Not only did he play a bunch, but he was one of the standouts of the game. It could just be, ironically, that Bonner the Softie is actually better suited to play against teams with bigger lineups, where guys are unaccustomed to guarding him out to the three point line and against whom he can at least front the post, than against small-ball outfits who are too athletic for him to do against on either end of the floor.
What does that mean? It means enjoy Bonner's resurgence now, because it won't last against Miami.
Also, I'm not giving Rocket a pass for letting Tayshaun Prince grab an offensive rebound on him on a missed free throw. No sir. Drives me absolutely crazy.
So what adjustments do the Grizzlies make?
Well, for starters, they should probably just switch all pick-and-rolls, especially with Ginobili, and live and die with their bigs guarding our playmakers. They have to live with any contested long jumpers Tony and Manu hit over tall dudes. At least there won't be any assists on those plays. (The Spurs have 85 dimes in the past three games now, if you're counting. Can you say "Neo-ball"?)
If Parker and Ginobili decide to drive past the big, then only the other big at the rim may challenge and contest. The wings have to stay home, no matter what. The other big can either challenge those attempts at the rim or choose to foul the hell out of our guys, trying to discourage subsequent drives (plus, the way Manu's shooting free throws, why not?). Come hell or high water though, don't let the Spurs guards kick it out to open guys along the three point line. That's just suicide.
Also, if I'm Hollins I seriously consider switching the defensive assignment so that Randolph is guarding Duncan instead of Gasol. Yeah, Z-Bo will give up a couple of inches to Timmy and he isn't nearly the defender that Gasol is, but you want Gasol to be the one free to hedge high on the pick-and-rolls or to be the one to challenge rim attempts. Not having him on Duncan will free him to clog up the Spurs offense more.
Offensively, I'm not sure what they can do, outside of playing Quincy Pondexter and Jerryd Bayless way more and Tayshaun Prince and Tony Allen way less. They simply need Pondexter and Bayless to balance the floor on offense to give their bigs room to operate. Otherwise the Spurs will just double every time and the Grizzlies offense will be stuck in mud. Unlike San Antonio, there is a very clear distinction with Memphis' wings. Their guys are either good on offense or good on defense, but not both. Not close to both. Go with the offensive lineup, switch all the pick-and-rolls and rely on Gasol and Conley to save the other guys as best they can. Make the Spurs get their points two at a time, wear Timmy out by baiting Pop to use four-down repeatedly against the "mismatch" of Randolph on Duncan, and plant Parker and Ginobili on their keisters repeatedly on drives.
Hopefully Hollins isn't smart enough to figure any of this out.
Say that the Grizzlies make all those adjustments. What counter-adjustments does Pop make?
Simple... just have Tim and Manu be... um... good? The Grizzlies will pretty much dare them to be, I think.
I love, love, love the schedule of this series. Unlike the usual every-other-day setup of the NBA calendar, with the endless 7:00 pm starts giving teams about a 40-hour recovery time between games, the Spurs had the benefit in Game 1 of a 2:30 start, meaning that they're going to actually get about 53 hours of recovery time. An extra half day makes a big difference. Then, there's three off days between Games 2 and 3.
This is why I'm not going to be nearly as doom-and-gloom and fatalistic if the Spurs drop Game 2 tonight and head to Memphis 1-1. Not that I think they will, necessarily, but I won't be as upset as I was against the Warriors. To me, regardless of what happens in Game 2, Game 3 will be the key game of the series. It will be the "kitchen sink game," where both coaching staffs have had 72 hours to scrutinize every bit of video and come up with all sorts of adjustments and wrinkles, where all the players can truly re-energize their respective batteries and where the teams can absolutely go berserker on one another.
No matter what happens in Game 2, Pop and Hollins will pull out every stop in Game 3, pushing their key players to the limit knowing they've got extra fuel in their tanks. If it's a 1-1 series, it's a must-win for the Spurs, their best chance to regain home court advantage, just as it was in the previous round against the Warriors. If it's a 2-0 series, Memphis will absolutely be desperate, but the Spurs will have a golden opportunity to step on their necks, with all their stars fully rested (remember, there was just the usual one day off between Games 2 and 3 against the Thunder last year, so that was almost a scheduled loss for the Spurs up 2-0).
I'm excited for Game 2, just to see the adjustments Hollins makes and whether the Spurs can overcome them and truly plant the seeds of doubt in the Grizzlies' heads, but honestly I'm even more looking forward to Game 3 already. That's going to be the big one.
Leonard's knee really has me worried. I didn't like how he was moving or jumping in Game 1 one bit. This really has the chance to derail our title hopes. I would not at all be opposed to sitting him in Game 2 and giving him five full days off before Game 3.
The Grizzlies don't have a huge perimeter threat and I bet we could get away with playing Tracy McGrady 20-25 against Memphis without him killing us, with the rest of the minutes split up between Green, Ginobili and Neal. The fanboy in me is kind of curious what McGrady would do playing extended minutes with our good players. It'd probably be a disaster, but still you want to see it, right?
All I know is I want Leonard as close to 100 percent as possible for LeBron James and if you think that's me putting the cart before the horse, then you watched a different Leonard than I did on Sunday. Yes, he shot the ball fabulously, but he was never able to run faster than a quick jog, he pulled down but two boards in 30 minutes and he couldn't even jump to dunk the ball in two attempts at the rim. Frankly, I'm terrified.
Pop signed McGrady to play in case of an emergency and as far as I'm concerned this darn near qualifies. Small forward is the least important position on the floor against the Grizzlies and will be the most important against the Heat. They need to err on the side of caution with Leonard, at least until Memphis beats them once or twice and changes the priorities.
I wish I had something profound to say about the Eastern Conference Finals, but while I think the Pacers will take a couple of games, their horrific bench will ultimately doom them against Miami. Really, Indiana might have the worst crew of reserves in the league. They truly are a five-man team. If Paul George, George Hill, David West, Lance Stephenson and Roy Hibbert all have the series of their lives, then maybe they have a puncher's chance, and only then if Dwyane Wade's knee is bad enough for him to be a non-factor.
I don't like that LeBron is doing that Michael Jordan thing where he's inventing billboard quotes to be upset and motivated about. That can't be good news for the Pacers at all. If the Spurs get past Memphis, I'm praying that they put about 20 rolls of duct tape around DeJuan Blair's mouth and take all his cell phones away so he can't tweet. And keep Tony away from French radio too while we're at it.
A bit off-topic, but I think Thunder GM Sam Presti has taken way too much heat from second-guessing know-nothing pundits for the team's decision to trade away James Harden, and a lot of people are either ignoring the chronological order of events or don't understand the financial realities of their situation.
1. They've got an owner who refuses to pay the luxury tax. That's not Presti's fault, it's the owner's decision.
2. Their mistake wasn't signing Serge Ibaka to a long-term deal, it was not amnestying Kendrick Perkins last year when they had the chance.
3. It's not Presti's fault that Harden, unlike other guys on "big threes" (the ones on the Heat and the Spurs, basically) didn't want to take less and sacrifice to keep the team intact and that he was pretty much demanding to be a max player. It's on Harden for being selfish.
4. It's selective hindsight to say that James Harden was going to develop into JAMES HARDEN had he stayed on OKC. As we've seen with the Spurs and the Heat, there's only so many shots to go around and somebody has to sacrifice. For the Spurs, it's mostly been Manu, the guy to whom Harden is most often compared. For the Heat it's mostly been Chris Bosh. As a sixth man with the Thunder playing behind two high-volume, high-usage rate guys in Westbrook and Kevin Durant though, it was ridiculous to ever expect Harden to turn into a 20-point scorer, much less 25. There just weren't enough shots out there for him.
5. The Thunder needed someone to rebound and play defense, as unsexy as those things are. None of their big three are anything close to Duncan or LeBron (or even Manu, Parker and Bosh) defensively. Collison is not a guy who can play big minutes and Perkins is terrible. People confuse the statement of claiming that the Thunder were worse without Harden and no threat to Miami with the notion that they'd be in a better position with Harden and without Ibaka. That's ridiculous. They'd have to turn into the best offensive team in NBA history to make up for their defensive and rebounding shortcomings in that scenario.
Ultimately I think the Thunder math works like this:
KD + Russ + Beard +Ibaka - Perkins = Serious threat to Miami
KD + Russ + Ibaka + Perkins - Beard = Contender in West, but no real threat to Miami
KD + Russ + Beard + Perkins - Ibaka = Entertaining as all hell, but WCF is their limit
KD + Perkins + Ibaka - Beard + Russ = LOL, Grizzlies must be awesome.
Perhaps Presti erred in overestimating Ibaka's potential and overpaying him. The Spaniard has extended his range to the fringes of the three point line, but he still doesn't have a post game to speak of, he's not the best on-the-ball defender, and his development has hit a plateau. It's hard to ever envision him being a true star.
What that doesn't mean, however, is that Harden was ever more valuable to the Thunder than Ibaka. Not on a team that already had Durant and Westbrook. They were not lacking for offense. You take the big guy over the small guy every time in that scenario, and it's a decision that Presti would make again a hundred times out of a hundred.
Ibaka wasn't the mistake, Perkins was.
Now, lets never speak of this again.