Oh, the 2-0 lead in the Western Conference Finals, we meet again, old friend. There will be temptations galore to expect the worst for the Spurs from here on out, considering not only what happened to them last year from Game 3 on, but also the way the Grizzlies came back from down 0-2 to the Clippers in the first round, and finally the fact that the Spurs almost collapsed in the fourth quarter against the Grizzles in Game 2, leading the assorted television punditry to claim that Memphis figured things out.
So I snuck into the Lionel Hollins' office and stole the list of things he's "figured out."
1. The Spurs are worse when Tim Duncan doesn't play.
2. Tony Parker can only kick seven quarters' worth of our ass if there is only one off day between games.
3. Tiago Splitter is a big galoot.
4. What in the what is Kawhi Leonard? I don't even know.
5. This is not the Danny Green from last year's WCF.
6. We probably shouldn't leave Matt Bonner open.
7. Tayshaun Prince and Tony Allen shoot the ball like it's made of lead.
8. The Spurs don't seem to be frightened of Z-Bo eating them. ESPN LIED TO ME.
9. Teams with many good players are harder to defend than teams with one good player.
10. It's very hard to win games if you're never leading. We should look into doing that next time.
Memphis' main problem is that only play eight guys, and six of them are all offense or all defense, with only Marc Gasol and Mike Conley being versatile enough to be effective on both ends. The Spurs, by contrast, have a top seven that's good on both ends, then a couple of specialists in Bonner (offense) and Joseph (defense) before things fall off a cliff (Neal, Blair, etc.). Because of this, no matter what lineup the Grizzlies put out there, the Spurs have an advantage, unless Pop is being particularly annoying by fielding the entire five-man second unit. You're not gonna believe this, but the Spurs went on a 13-0 run at the end of the second half right after Neal and Bonner checked out. I know, crazy.
Conventional wisdom has it that a desperate Grizzlies team with a strong home court advantage will certainly capture Game 3, and they very well might. However, there is no better scenario than the one the Spurs have right in front of them: to cast out the demons of the past two postseasons.
Unlike last year, they'll be going into Game 3 fresh, with three days of rest behind them, the perfect time allotment for recharging their batteries without collecting rust. They'll be playing with appropriate fear, since they almost lost Game 2, and were saved in overtime by the perfect guy, Duncan, since he was the one most struggling from the field up to that point. Now, maybe he'll have some confidence going into the next game. They'll also be playing a team that's much worse than them, which helps.
To me, Game 3 sets up a 85/80 situation for Game 4. If the Spurs win it, they have an 85 percent chance of sweeping the Grizz. If Memphis wins it, there's an 80 percent chance that the series returns to San Antonio deadlocked at two apiece. In fact, just do yourself a favor and avoid television, the internet, radio and newspapers completely until if the Spurs lose Game 3.
Like I predicted here, Grizzlies insiders are now predicting that Hollins will play the Gasol-Randolph-Pondexter-Bayless-Conley quintet a ton since it's the only way they can score. I've got no problem with it. The Spurs can match that lineup point for point and it'll be a treat for all the fans watching to see both these teams scorch the nets and get in the upper 90's or, dare I say, the low 100's.
HAHAHA JUST KIDDING, NOBODY'S WATCHING.
Anyway, I don't have too much more to add on this front, as I think this column sums it up nicely. Good job, Rob Mahoney.
I've had some time to think about it, and I guess, all things considered, it was dumb of Manu to commit that foul on Allen. Because according to the written language of the rule, I can see how it could be ruled a flagrant. Of course this rule's only been changed recently and it wouldn't have been a flagrant for most of NBA history, and I'm positive that Ginobili didn't think he was committing anything other than a regular hard foul as he was in the process of doing it. I think, overall, on the list of boneheaded Ginobili plays, it wasn't quite up there (unlike, for example, that 30-footer with 11 seconds on the shot clock and like 44 seconds to go up 3 in Game 1 against the Warriors), and even Pop didn't seem as upset by it as he was by the call.
Allen's delayed reaction was worse acting than RZA as the Blind Master in G.I. Joe: Retaliation (for the sake of all that is holy do not watch this movie), but in a way I'm happy that it happened because it confirmed, again, that flopping is not something solely reserved for foreign players. Foreign players just do it better. Allen was fined $5,000 on Thursday and got some nice karma his way in overtime. Nice airball, champ.
Speaking of general jackassery, I'm growing awfully tired of seeing Lionel Hollins talking to our players, particularly Tony Parker. Yes, I know he played in the league. I'm guessing this makes him feel entitled as a permanent member of the player fraternity. The problem is he's not a player any longer, he's now a coach, and not only a coach but a head coach. Show some decorum and class and quit talking to our team.
And speaking of Manu, 12 field goal attempts in two games? Really? REALLY? He looks healthy enough to me. Spry on the boards and running the court okay. Even had a dunk the other night. He is way too content to blend into the scenery unless Parker is out of the game and it's bothering me. Also, he's looking to pass 95 percent of the time unless he's absolutely wide open or has a wide open lane. Is he saving himself for the Heat, suffering from a lack of confidence, or just unable to provide anything more? I'm getting grumpy just thinking about it. Hopefully he can have one of those classic playoff "road villain" games to snuff out the Grizz for good. Maybe the Allen play can inspire him?
There was this funny moment, and you see it if you link to the clips from that SI.com article, where with like 3:35 to go in the third quarter, Gasol found himself switched onto Parker and he just dejectedly shrugs his shoulders and slaps his arms at his hips in this entire body is just screaming "Oh, crap." Gasol, who won the Defensive Player of the Year award a couple of weeks ago, is renowned for being able to anticipate what opposing offenses will do before they do it, and it was just so, here. He knew there was absolutely nothing, outside of running up to bearhug Parker, that was going to prevent Parker from getting an open step-back jumper on him and that he was at the mercy of Parker's shooting form.
It reminded me of the end of this WWII movie about snipers, Enemy at the Gates, where Ed Harris' Major König knew that Jude Law's Vassili Zaitsev had gotten the better of him and just composed himself for the end. [Warning: Very violent.]
Yeah, that last Youtube clip was kind of gross, so I'll make it up to you with this, the most awesome jump ball in NBA history. Frankly, I don't know where the Spurs' un-athletic reputation comes from.
The only good thing that came out of the end of Game 1 of the ECF is that hopefully it was a teaching moment for Pop. Should the Spurs ever find themselves in a similar position, one would think he'll remember this game and not be so foolish to take Duncan out in favor of Boris or somebody like that. Always keep your best shot-blocker in the lane. What was Frank Vogel thinking?
Alright, we'll end on this. Lets revisit the 15 reasons I gave before the series started for why the Spurs would win and grade, on a scale of 1-10, how well or poorly those predictions have gone.
1. 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.
3/10... Okay, so it turns out that Gasol is getting up in Duncan's grill more than I figured he would. For whatever reason Duncan isn't getting that many open 15-footers so far, but I think that's partly because the Grizzlies have decided that they'd rather give Parker the jumper or the pass to the corners instead. Duncan's scoring binge in the overtime was a good sign though.
2: 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.
9/10... Parker is getting whatever he wants, basically, and the Grizzlies really have no answer for him. So far the best answer for stopping him seems to be "play the Spurs twice in three days and wait for the second half."
3: 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.
6/10... Meh, I haven't really seen anything in Allen's defense (or Memphis') that has made life all that miserable for Manu, but for whatever reason he's just not being aggressive. He's in full point guard mode when he plays without Parker and full wallflower mode when he's in there with Tony, which has been the case for like a decade when Parker has it going. Maybe if the starters struggle early on in Game 3 he'll take it upon himself to make things happen, but otherwise he won't look to fix what isn't broken.
4: 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.
8/10... I think halftime of Game 2 was the first time in Splitter's career where the national TV studio guys ever mentioned him as an asset, as it finally became apparent to even the casual observer that his length and quickness were causing Gasol and Randolph a lot of problems. Splitter was outstanding in Game 2, by the way. Imagine if the refs gave him any respect.
5: 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.
10/10... Not to toot my own horn too much, but yeah, pretty much nailed this, and it has absolutely been the difference in the series. It's kind of appalling how the Grizzlies could be so poor at the 2 and 3 spots and still be in the Western Conference Finals.
6: Well, no, because two of them (between Diaw, Bonner and Blair) 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.
3/10... I was dead wrong about Bonner not playing in the series. He's tallied 44 minutes through the first two games, though some of that had to do to foul trouble for Splitter in Game 1 and Duncan in Game 2. I won't completely kill myself for this though because the Spurs, in fact, have not played soft. Not even Bonner. Mostly.
7: 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.
8/10... Mostly accurate. Neal played pretty well in Game 1 and got 19 minutes and very poorly in Game 2 (terrible shot selection, again) and got 13 minutes. However, by this point it seems like we need to wave the collective white flag about T-Mac. Unless there's a disastrous injury, he won't play outside of garbage time, no matter how bad Neal is.
8: 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.
9/10... Cory's still being aggressive (maybe a bit too shot-happy), and still being careful with the ball whenever he's not handing it off to Manu. His last turnover came in Game 3 against the Lakers, which was over 96 minutes -- two full games worth of playing time -- ago. He also has as many rebounds (8) in 22 minutes against the Grizzlies as Splitter and Bonner have combined for in 95 minutes, which is both a testament of his scrappiness and an indictment of the bigs. Add in Diaw, and that's 11 rebounds in 128 minutes for those three guys, by the way, which is probably the number one thing I'd cling to for hope if I was a Memphis fan.
9: 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.
10/10... What can I say? I'm a wizard. Or I can read stats. One of the two. The Spurs starting five are a combined +113 through the two games. They've made life a living hell for the Grizzlies offense. The combined length of Duncan and Splitter has been too much for Randolph to overcome, and Green and Leonard have done a good job of digging inside as well.
As for the Spurs' offense, even taking that ghastly fourth quarter into account (where fatigue stopped them more than the Grizzlies did), the ball movement has been extraordinary, with 57 assists on 76 field goals and plenty of wide open three point looks. The Grizzlies, like everyone else, have been forced into a game of "pick your poison."
10: 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.
10/10... It's true, you totally didn't account for them factors. I bet you feel so stupid now. (I, uh, miscounted and apparently only made 14 points about this series, not 15.)
11. 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.
7/10... Mostly true and then terribly wrong. Good lord is this team old. We've gotten to the point where they can't play two complete games in three days without hitting the wall in the fourth quarter. This is terrifying. Looking back on it,I'm amazed they won Games 3, 5 and 6 against the Warriors. It puts even more of an onus on not just wrapping up this series quickly but winning Games 1, 3 and 6 against the Heat. (Yup, I totally went there).
12. 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.
9/10... Huh. It turns out the Spurs are better than the Thunder without Russell Westbrook and James Harden.
13. 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.
10/10... Sometimes the inability of the pundits to put 2 + 2 together blows my mind. They all parrot the same bullet point about Pop being one of the best, if not the best, coaches in the league, yet it seems like none of them could string together the idea that a good coach probably knows what a double team is and would likely employ it against the opponents' bigs since their perimeter players can't shoot.
What it means is that they like to spout empty cliches about Pop without taking the time to really consider the meaning behind the words. Or that they think coaching makes no difference whatsoever. Or, maybe, that the Grizzlies have such an enormous talent advantage on the Spurs that even Pop's coaching won't make a difference. Yeah, I guess that must be it.
14. 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.
6/10... Well, the Spurs have won their two home games, and the crowd was uncharacteristically loud, but it's tough to say this point has come into play so far because the Spurs haven't really trailed at all and haven't needed to make any catch-up runs. They have had runs though, to extend leads.
15. 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.
7/10... A mixed gaggle of proclamations and predictions that were right on or way off. Yes, Parker looks good and pissed. Yes, Leonard, Green and Splitter all look way more composed and effective this postseason. No, Bonner, Neal and Blair will not combine for just 25 minutes a game. It turns out that was not, indeed, a liberal estimate at all, as they've already accounted for 88 minutes between them. Still, at that pace our personal "Axis of Evil" would play 264 minutes in a six game series, which is a far cry from 605.
Spurs in six.
Or four. Could be four*
*If Pop dials it back a couple of notches with Bonner and Neal.