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Game Preview: San Antonio Spurs at Memphis Grizzlies

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Can the Silver and Black upset a familiar foe to keep their playoff hopes alive?

Memphis Grizzlies v San Antonio Spurs Photos by Logan Riely/NBAE via Getty Images

The Spurs finally reached the end of their brutal regular-season schedule on Sunday. Although they didn’t secure one of the six guaranteed playoff spots in the Western Conference, the NBA’s inaugural play-in tournament keeps their postseason dreams alive until at least the end of the night.

As the tenth seed, San Antonio is faced with a single-elimination scenario as they visit the FedExForum for a meeting with the ninth-place Grizzlies. Memphis may not intimidate the Silver and Black faithful, but they utterly dominated head coach Gregg Popovich and company earlier this season.

The good guys stumbled their way into the play-in with a 2-10 record over their last 12 games, barely surviving the draft lottery cutoff. Meanwhile, Ja Morant and the Grizzlies powered past the finish line, winning five of their final six contests, including a convincing 29-point blowout over the Mavs.

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San Antonio Spurs (33-39) at Memphis Grizzlies (38-34)

May 19, 2021 | 6:30 PM CST

Watch: ESPN | Listen: WOAI (1200 AM)

Spurs Injuries: Trey Lyles (Questionable — Ankle), Derrick White (Out — Ankle), Luka Samanic (Out — Hand), DaQuan Jeffries (Out — Not With Team)

Grizzlies Injuries: Grayson Allen (Questionable — Abdomen), Sean McDermott (Out — Foot)

What to Watch For

  • In several ways, the Grizzlies operate much like the Spurs. Both teams shoot a low volume of threes, share the ball well, and commit very few fouls or turnovers. These resemblances aren’t too shocking considering head coach Taylor Jenkins, assistant Blake Ahearn, and starting forward Kyle Anderson all spent plenty of time within San Antonio’s system in some capacity. Though he was never directly associated with Gregg Popovich’s bench staff, Jenkins studied under Mike Budenholzer, and of course, Bud spent 17 years on the sidelines for the Spurs. This familiarity may not provide a clear advantage for Memphis. But at the very least, it should ensure the Grizzlies won’t underestimate the players or play caller across the court from them on Wednesday.
  • San Antonio will undoubtedly come face to face with a plethora of pick-and-rolls from Ja Morant and the Grizzlies offense, which could pose a monumental problem. While the Spurs theoretically have the personnel to stymie this frequently used set, they often lack the proper execution. How could this be possible with Dejounte Murray and Jakob Poeltl often in the thick of things? If it was as simple as two defenders, the Silver and Black might be the best PNR stoppers in the league. Unfortunately, defense is a dance dependent on all five teammates out on the floor. And as my fellow Pounder Jesus Gomez explained flawlessly in his recent article, a late or improper rotation from any help defender can cost San Antonio a pair of points. And Ja Morant picked apart the Spurs in the PNR as a scorer and distributor this season. That said, LaMarcus Aldridge, one of the worst drop coverage big men in the NBA, started the previous three meetings between these South West Division foes. And while Spurs fans wish him the best in retirement, there’s little question Jakob owns superior lateral mobility, vertical pop, and quickness at this point in his career. Hopefully, this midseason substitution brings better results. But the rest of the roster must pay careful attention to detail if they want to avoid getting burned by Morant and his surplus of screeners.
  • A lot hinges on whether or not DeMar DeRozan gets going on Wednesday night. At 21.6 points and a career-high 6.9 assists per game, the four-time All-Star is responsible for generating nearly 35.3% of San Antonio’s points this season. As San Antonio’s only reliable go-to source of offense, he will undoubtedly draw plenty of attention. DeRozan has steadily become one of the best facilitators in the NBA, though that won’t matter much if Patty Mills, Lonnie Walker IV, Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell, and Rudy Gay can’t knock down the open looks he creates. And Dejounte Murray must show up in his role as the undisputed second option for the Spurs to have a chance at walking away victorious. A disappearing act from any of the previously mentioned players without a scoring outburst from someone else to make up for it could spell the end of San Antonio’s season.
  • Ja Morant is the heart and soul of the Grizzlies attack, but San Antonio can’t afford to overlook his supporting cast. Dillon Brooks has quietly emerged as one of the best two-way wings in the league, and he should see most of his defensive possessions matched up on DeMar DeRozan. Jonas Valunciunas is a threat to drop a 20-20 double-double on any given night, and the Spurs don’t have many answers for him if Jakob Poeltl gets into foul trouble. Kyle Anderson has put himself in the running for Most Improved Player of the Year. And a fully recovered Jaren Jackson Jr. is a game away from resuming his prematurely ended bubble breakout from a season ago. Memphis is also home to sharpshooters Desmond Bane and Grayson Allen, swiss army knife defenders Brandon Clarke and Xavier Tillman, second unit floor general Tyus Jones, and super sixth man De’Anthony Melton. The Grizzlies’ depth far exceeds San Antonio’s. However, if they can rediscover their early season form, there’s no reason the Spurs’ bench can’t match Memphis step for step.
  • Going 58-of-168 (34.5%) from the field since the beginning of April, Patty Mills is in the middle of a career-worst shooting slump. Despite his cold streak, the veteran point guard has remained aggressive, and Patty could be the X-Factor for San Antonio should his fearlessness pay off. Mills hasn’t had more than three days off since the All-Star Break, but with 96 hours of rest under his belt heading into this contest, the Australian marksman might finally have his legs under him. FIBA Patty made a timely appearance in San Antonio’s 20-point thrashing of the Bucks a little over a week ago. And the Spurs will need some heroics from their undersized sixth man if they want a shot at the Golden State Warriors or Los Angeles Lakers on Friday.

For the Grizzlies fans’ perspective, please visit Grizzly Bear Blues.

PtR’s Gamethread will be up this evening for those who want to chat through the game. You can also follow along with the action through PtR’s Twitter feed.