The Spurs won at Memphis Friday night, breaking the Grizzlies' 22-game home winning streak that went back to last February. Well, that was kind of a fake stat anyway since the Thunder got them a couple times at "The Grindhouse" in the first round last April. Still, the result was considered something of a minor upset given the Grizzles' scorching 15-3 start to the season. After all, the Spurs were not only missing two of their top eight players in Patty Mills and Tiago Splitter, but the latter absence figured to be of particular significance considering that Memphis is one of those teams where Splitter especially looks valuable, the way he's been able to smother Zach Randolph the past few seasons.
They still won, despite not Splitter and Mills, despite Tony Parker straining his left hamstring midway through the third quarter, despite this, that or the other. It was the Spurs 15th win in 17 games against the Grizzlies since their upset loss in the first round of the playoffs in 2011. The average score in those games has been 99.5-90.5, though five have gone to overtime (the Spurs are 4-1 in those).
Few would've predicted an era of San Antonio dominance back then, as the 61-win Spurs trudged off the floor, shocked that their season had come to an end so much earlier than they imagined. Tim Duncan looked old, slow, and finished. Manu Ginobili had suffered an ill-timed injury for the fourth straight postseason. How many of us would've guessed that the Spurs would pick themselves off the mat and blitz the league the way that they have since that series ended? Who could've foreseen that their match-up with Memphis would be so one-sided in the Spurs favor, after the Grizzlies had exposed San Antonio's soft underbelly for all the world to see that April?
So what happened to turn it all around? The short answer is lots and lots of things, big and small. Some were planned. Some were plain old dumb luck. But here are the five main reasons the Spurs own the Grizzlies:
1) They got bigger, longer and meaner.
The 2010-11 Spurs were an offensive club that was ridiculously undersized up front. Besides Duncan, they relied on 6'9" Antonio McDyess, who was 36 years old in his final season; 6'6" DeJuan Blair, who'd have trouble stoping a pick-and-roll if you and I ran it; and Matt Bonner, who is Matt Bonner. Tiago Splitter was a rookie on that team and Gregg Popovich hardly used him at all that series. In retrospect, it probably would've been a good idea to try it.
But it wasn't just the front line that was small. The Spurs lacked size and length everywhere. Richard Jefferson didn't have the fortitude for playoff basketball and Pop relied heavily on three-guard lineups featuring George Hill, moving Ginobili -- who was playing with a broken right arm, by this point -- to small forward. Rounding out that rotation was Gary Neal, who is nobody's idea of a stopper, unless you mean as a ball-movement stopper. (I should be nicer to Neal. He had the game of his life to extend that series to a sixth game.) Danny Green was on the roster, Pop didn't trust him yet either.
After the upset, the Spurs flipped Hill to Indiana for the draft rights to Kawhi Leonard, and soon both he and Green and Splitter were in the starting lineup. All of a sudden they had size and length like a professional basketball team. The rest is history.
2) Tim Duncan got skinnier, sprier and power-forwardier.
One of my saddest memories as a Spurs fan was watching Duncan in that series. He looked D-U-N done, dragging that left leg behind him like a lead anchor. It made me wince just watching it and a part of me just wanted him to retire with a modicum of dignity instead of being some tarnished legend in denial.
What I should've realized is that Duncan is a Golden God and I am pond scum, unfit to even watch him play less write about him. He dropped 25 pounds and shed three years off his odometer. He came back the next season and beat people down the floor who were a dozen years his younger. Not only was he more lithe and fluid, but Duncan changed his game on the floor too, playing more on the high post and elbows like a real life power forward and spacing the floor for Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili to drive and kick. The spacing of the Spurs offense, and the way Duncan could operate interchangeably with Splitter and Boris Diaw, basically made them unguardable.
Defensively, Duncan didn't have to wear himself out against guys like Randolph or any other low-post bashers because he had Splitter for that. He was free to help out on the weak side for blocks or to just rebound. This change has allowed him to be more of a rim-protector than he was even in his mid-30's.
3) The Spurs got deeper, spacier and less predictable.
The main reason the Grizzlies give the Thunder such fits in the playoffs is because Oklahoma City's offense is so unbalanced. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook account for virtually all of their scoring and shot creation, allowing Memphis to shift their defensive focus to those two. They don't have to worry about pick-and-rolls with Serge Ibaka because he doesn't really do that. They don't have to worry about Nick Collison's playmaking. There's just not a lot to do besides get up into Durant, pack the lane against Westbrook and make sure to rebound the ball. It saves a lot of paper on those scouting reports.
Contrast that to the Spurs. You've got pick-and-rolls with Parker and the loop play they love to run for him. You've got the high screen-roll with Ginobili that he can do with Splitter or Aron Baynes. You've got pick-and-pops with Bonner. You've got the hammer set for Green. You've got the horns set. You've got PUJITs from Green or Mills. You've got post-ups with Diaw or Leonard against mismatches. You've got the hi-lo with Duncan/Diaw/Splitter. You've got Leonard just taking the ball from you and breaking away for a dunk. Oh, and every time there's a time out Pop just murders you with a sideline out-of-bounds play.
When they're going right, the Spurs don't get stopped. They just happen to miss shots or get careless with the ball sometimes. Even the best defenses in the league are just picking their poison and hoping for the best.
4) Zach Randolph got older, slower, and more familiar with gravity.
Z-Bo is a good player. He's one of the better players in the league. But he's not a great player and most of his positive reputation comes from that one series he had against McDyess, Bonner and "Fat Tim Duncan" and from the way he delightfully bullies Blake Griffin every time he plays the Clippers.
Randolph's career PER is 19.6. He had a career-year in 2010-11 at 22.6 and hasn't been in the 20's since. He put up a 23.5 PER in the first round against the Spurs and ever since then they've beaten him like he stole something from them, which when you think about it, he kind of did. Randolph buried the dagger in their side in Game 6 when he made a contested three late in the shot clock. When Z-Bo is hitting threes on you, it's just not meant to be.
Randolph shot 50 percent that series. For his career, he's shot 41.6 percent against the Spurs, his worst percentage against any team. The Bulls are second-best at 42.6. He averaged 21.5 points, and exceeded 25 in four of the six games. His career 15.1 points scoring average against the Spurs is the fourth-lowest of any team.
Wait, it gets better. In the 15 games Randolph has played against the Spurs since that series, he's made 64-of-188 shots, which works out to 34.0 percent. He made more than half of his shots precisely once in those 15 games. Also, he averaged 11.6 points. The most he's scored in any of those games is 18.
Last night Randolph got swatted by Duncan, Leonard, Ginobili, and I think Becky Hammon might have gotten him once from the bench.
5) The Spurs got better offensively, defensively, and they were already better anyway.
That's the part about that 2011 series that's often forgotten. The Spurs were the better team all along, finishing 15 games ahead of the standings against eighth-seeded Memphis and with a far better scoring differential. Over the long haul they were clearly superior, but in the short sample size of a single playoff series, upsets happen. It just looks more ignominious when it's a 1 vs. 8 and it's the Spurs because every basketball writer wants to write the easy "the Spurs are done," story.
The headline-grabbing narrative was that Lionel Hollins tanked to get the match-up vs. the Spurs because he sensed weakness. The facts of the matter is he was right to do it. The Spurs faded badly down the stretch and were leaking oil, losing 8 of their final 12 regular season games. They had a six-game losing streak in April, which is unheard of for this franchise. And let's not forget Ginobili breaking his arm in Game 82 didn't help matters any. He was only their best player that season.
I dare suggest that almost any Western team would've upset the Spurs that April. The Grizzlies happened to be matchup, and Pop has made them pay ever since.