For as long as I can remember one of Gregg Popovich's most oft-stated mantras has been his desire to "not skip steps" and to build steadily during the regular season, with the goal always being to peak in the playoffs. Over the years, we've seen the Spurs reach that goal a few times and fall short of it in others. Sometimes, like in 2006, 2011 or 2015, they would peak too early and run out of gas by playoff time. On other occasions, such as 2009 or 2010, they wouldn't peak at all, never finding the form required to seriously threaten the league's best. In 2012 and 2013 they were on the cusp, but just couldn't hold on long enough.
The way the 2015-16 regular season ended wasn't particularly promising, though most of it was happenstance. There were injuries that hampered LaMarcus Aldridge and Boris Diaw, and the standings dictated a certain amount of apathy and inertia. Simply put, the Spurs have known that they were going to be the two seed for months now, and as much as they tried to fight off complacency, it leaked in through the cracks both individually and collectively.
The last complete 48-minute game the team played came on Mar. 23rd against the Heat. Since then there have been good quarters or halves here or there, solid defensive performances or offensive ones, but never one where they put everything together, though again it must be stressed that they've rarely had a #fullsquad to work with on the way to that 7-4 finish.
What better time then to face the decimated Memphis Grizzlies? It gives the squad a chance for a do-over to finish the exhibition season properly before the real tests begin. Let's face it, in terms of drama or intrigue this might be the least compelling first-round match-up the Spurs have ever faced. Frankly I'm a bit surprised that none of the games are scheduled for NBATV.
I struggle to think of even a close parallel to this series in Spurs lore. Maybe 2013? The Los Angeles Lakers without Kobe Bryant were pretty awful, but San Antonio stumbled to such an awkward finish that regular season that a few experts, including Magic Johnson, predicted an upset anyway. In a completely unrelated note, Magic hasn't worked as an analyst since that season ended. That series wound up being a sweep, notable only for the ignominious finish of Dwight Howard's one season in purple-and-gold and this rather awesome gif.
I could watch that for hours.
Anyway, nobody is picking against the Spurs this time around. not with the Grizzlies missing Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. Heck, Memphis lost Brandan Wright and Mario Chalmers for the season too. Their point guard rotation has been reduced to Jordan Farmar, Bryce Cotton and somebody named Xavier Munford. They're starting Chris "Birdman" Andersen at center, who looked washed up two years ago for Miami. Ex-Spurs summer leaguer JaMychal Green figures prominently in their rotation now, and he's actually been playing well! Their wing rotation is three nutters in Matt Barnes, Lance Stephenson and Tony Allen, a 59-year-old Vince Carter and literally P.J. Hairston.
The Spurs swept the regular season against the Grizzles 4-0, with a 96.0 defensive rating very close to their overall league-leading average of 96.6 and a slight uptick in their offensive rating, 110.7 compared to 108.4 overall. They shot 51.5 from the field against Memphis and hit 40.3 percent of their threes. LaMarcus Aldridge led the way, averaging 27 points and 9.7 boards in three appearances against the Grizz, while Kawhi Leonard and Manu Ginobili combined to make 17-of-25 of their triples against them and Tony Parker averaged 16.3 points on 57.6 percent shooting. On the other side of the spectrum Danny Green shot 1-of-13.
The Grizzlies, meanwhile, shot 43.4 percent against San Antonio, making just 25.8 percent of their three-point tries (4-of-15.5 on average) and their leading available scorer against the Spurs is JaMychal Green, at a whopping 11 points per game. Bizarrely, Zach Randolph has been healthy enough to play in just one of the four games, and he scored nine points on 4-of-10 shooting in that one.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but there are probably a half-dozen non-playoff teams if not more who'd give the Spurs more trouble than Memphis as they're currently (de)constructed. It's nobody's fault, really, they're just too beat up. It's unfortunate for both teams in a way. You want everyone to be at their absolute best in the postseason tournament, but you can't turn the injury setting to "off" in real life.
While we can safely predict what Pop's series postmortem will be like, praising counterpart Dave Joerger and his assistants and offering due sympathy and respect for their circumstances, we cannot deny that there is a silver lining to all this for the Spurs. They'll be afforded the opportunity to ease into the playoffs, without the usual implied risk or physical exertion demanded of them.
Aldridge, who's admitted that his dislocated pinky is still bothering him, can sit out a game or two if he aggravates it or experiment with different tape-jobs. "The Big Three," don't have to overdo it with their playing time, or Leonard for that matter. The spot guys in the rotation like Kyle Anderson, Boban Marjanovic, Kevin Martin and perhaps even Jonathon Simmons can get some reps and Popovich will have the freedom to keep on experimenting with different lineups and strategies to see what can be used down the road.
Just because a playoff series figures to be anti-climatic and short on frills, it doesn't mean it can't be used to get better. In a way, the Grizzlies are the perfect team (I suppose the Spurs would also fall into this category) to suffer an injury epidemic, because you know they'll still give you a full effort and make you earn it no matter who's playing.
And if it seems like I'm skipping steps by automatically assuming that the Spurs will win the series, too bad. I'd take every step if I had to, but I'm not on the team.
Spurs in four.