So, We Meet Again

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Then and Now

Two seasons ago the 8th-seed Memphis Grizzlies shocked the NBA world by defeating the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs had won 61-games that season—15 more than the Grizzlies—but were beaten in 6 by a rough, rugged, and low-post oriented Memphis team. Two years on and the Spurs and Grizzlies will meet again, this time in the Western Conference Finals. Gregg Popovich’s side will be looking for a measure of revenge (although he’d never articulate it as such) while the Grizzlies will want to exploit the same advantages that won them the series in 2011, in order to reach their first NBA Finals.

Those advantages were, of course, their ability to score down low and dominate the glass. Two years ago Zach Randolph averaged 20 points and 10 rebounds per game against the Spurs, while Marc Gasol averaged 14 and 12. Randolph remains just as much of a threat today as he did in that series—his dominance of the Clippers and Thunder attest to that—but Gasol might be more of a threat today than he was in 2011. The recently crowned Defensive Player of the Year has a more varied offensive game at this point in his career and, as evidenced by that aforementioned award, has developed into the best post defender in the league.
 
While Gasol and Randolph remain a major threat to the Spurs—and the focal points of the team’s offense—the emergence of point-guard Mike Conley is an area of major encouragement for the Grizzlies. During the course of the playoffs Conley has blossomed into one of the better point-guards in the NBA—he went toe-to-toe with Chris Paul in the Clippers series and didn’t look out of his depth. With Rudy Gay traded during the regular season, the responsibility to score from the perimeter and create shots when plays break down has fallen squarely on Conley’s shoulders. It’s a responsibility that he’s more than embraced.
 
 

For the Spurs much has changed from two years ago. In 2011 Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess were starters (Every Spurs fan just shuddered), Thiago Splitter and Danny Green were, at best, bit-part players, and Manu Ginobli and Tim Duncan were far from healthy. The 2013 Spurs are a healthier, more athletic team with better overall balance. Manu Ginobli has gone through his customary ups and downs with injury this season, and although he hasn’t shot well in the playoffs thus far, he seems to be moving fine and has affected games with his brilliant passing. Tim Duncan is in far better shape and is coming of one of his best statistical seasons ever—phenomenal given that he’s 37! And just as importantly, the Spurs have two young, athletic perimeter defenders, Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard, who can hit shots from the outside and lock down the opponent’s best perimeter guys.

The Match-up
 

Against the Warriors, the Spurs had trouble dealing with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson early in the series—Curry, in particular, was having his way with Tony Parker. But Popovich, as you’d expect from the best coach in the game, made adjustments, putting Green on Curry and Leonard on Thompson—forcing the Warriors interior players to score—and stifling the Warriors’ perimeter offense.

The Grizzlies aren’t the same threat from the perimeter as the Warriors. Mike Conley is their best outside shooter and penetrator, and the Spurs are likely to guard him with Green or Leonard—much bigger players with awkward length. If Conley is shut down the way Curry and Thompson were, it will put a lot of pressure on the likes of Quincy Pondexter and the erratic Jerryd Bayless to score from the outside. And while Pondexter can hit the corner 3, the Spurs are particularly adept at defending that shot.

Of course, the Grizzlies offense is centered around the one-two punch of Z-Bo and Gasol, and this is where Memphis will have a major advantage over the Spurs. Tim Duncan had a really hard time two years ago against Randolph and he’ll have his hands full once again in this series. Randolph is such an expert at posting up deep—posting up so that he’s almost under the basket—that it’s practically a lay-up once he catches the ball. And although Splitter is getting better all the time, and played well towards the end of the Warriors series, he’ll be giving up a lot of size against Gasol and will be tested when the big Spaniard posts up.

But while the Spurs will be severely tested down low, overall they’re the better offensive team. Tony Parker will have a tough time against Tony Allen, but the Spurs move the ball so well, and have so many guys who can knock down shots—3-pointers especially—that they’re going to generate open looks regardless of the Grizzlies defense.

Memphis hasn’t faced an offense like the Spurs’ so far in these playoffs. In-fact, they haven’t faced an offense with an actual system. The Clippers were a mess offensively (Hey Chris Paul, get us a basket) and the Thunder’s offense consisted of Durant picking the ball up at half-court and the rest of his teammates clearing out—easy to defend over the course of a series. The Spurs, on the other hand, are a well-oiled machine. They have players who can get to the line (Parker and Ginobli), a post-up game, and the ability to hit outside shots.

And while Memphis are a fantastic defensive team, they struggle on offense. Even in games that they appear to dominate, they’re unable to garner enough separation to win comfortably. So many of their games—the Thunder series being a good example—come down to the wire because their offense becomes stagnant in the latter stages. When the first play breaks down they’re often left with an 18-foot Marc Gasol jumper, and while he’s more than capable of hitting that shot, it’s far from ideal. The Spurs are a solid defensive team that can make adjustments on the fly—they showed that against Golden State—and they’ll make life very difficult for Memphis.

Prediction

Ultimately the Spurs possess the experience and personnel required to win the series. Memphis has a clear advantage down low, but the Spurs will look to double-team Randolph and force the Grizzlies’ perimeter players to make shots from the outside—which is no sure thing. And Conley, who so much is relied upon as a playmaker, is going to be hounded at every turn by Leonard or Green. The Spurs have more options offensively and are just better at generating easy buckets—they can hit corner 3s and have the ability to get to the line. If they can hit the 90-95 point range it might be enough to win games in what’s going to be a tight series. It’ll be a war, but the Spurs will triumph in 7. 

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