2) San Antonio Spurs vs. 5) Memphis Grizzlies
Why do the Memphis Grizzlies take the series in 6 games?
KOBEsh: Like a phantom deep out of the nightmares of children all over Southwestern Texas, the red-hot Memphis Grizzlies have come back to haunt the San Antonio Spurs. Again. And everyone knows it.
In a strange turn of events, the blogosphere has pejoratively completely ruled out the 58-win Spurs from having any chance of winning this series. In an informal poll of all the hoophead nerds at MAMBINO, only one writer even suggested San Antonio could win this series … and that it would take 7 games to do so.
How can the Grizz be favored like this?
1) In a tightly contested Western Conference, the Grizz won 56 games—just two back of the 58-win Spurs
Their first round opponents, the fourth-seeded Clippers, finished the season with the exact same win total, but won home court advantage on a conference record tie-breaker. The third-seeded team, the Denver Nuggets, won 57 games—just one game ahead. The Spurs meanwhile, took home a 58-24 record. Though this is a 2-5 matchup, the difference between the two teams isn’t nearly as lopsided as the deceiving seeding positions would suggest.
2) 8 wins in 9 games
Just for a second, forget the opponents. The Grizzlies have taken 8 of their last 9 against playoff opponents, including 3 road games (2 of which were in an deafening Oklahoma City gym). That’s incredible. Almost as incredible as Keyon Dooling and Derek Fisher guarding each other in a meaningful postseason game last week. Memphis, it seems, doesn’t care at all where they play, who their opponents are and how much they’re “supposed” to lose by. Their regular season road record wasn’t spectacular, but in a rare NBA postseason feat, it seems that the team that’s most hot is able to defy all regular season preconceptions.
3) For the Spurs, a worst-case scenario matchup
Let’s look at how the Spurs were able to exploit the second-round matchup with the Golden State Warriors (but we’ll ignore their first round opponent Lakers. We don’t discuss the D-League on this blog. That joke made my heart hurt). San Antonio’s offense is predicated on a sophisticated system of back cuts, double screens and deft passing to get their deadly perimeter shooters wide open looks—see Manu Ginobili’s wide-open three-point dagger in Game 1 against the Dubs, and Tony Parker’s three-point barrage at the end of Game 6. The Spurs were able to feast on the Warriors’ relative inexperience and continually get fantastic looks from the beyond the arc. Inside, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker have been able to wreak havoc on continually in foul troubled Andrew Bogut and an overmatched crew of MAMBINO favorite Andris Biedrins and Festus Ezeli.
In a best of 7 game series with the Memphis Grizzlies, it looks like the best parts of San Antonio’s offense is going to be neutralized. Tony Allen, Quincy Pondexter, Tayshaun Prince and Mike Conley aren’t going to get lost on the perimeter, nor is Tony Parker going to be able to maraud them one-on-one like he did to Jarrett Jack or Stephen Curry. Even if he gets past their elite wing defenders, newly coronated Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol awaits his arrival…eagerly. The Spaniard 2.0 is just one component of a stout interior D, with Zach Randolph and Darrell Arthur intelligently suffocating any scorer who comes close to the rack.
3) A history lesson
We’ve seen this flick before—a higher seeded Spurs team with a high-octane offense against the grit and grind Grizzlies. The personnel for both teams is largely the same, specifically the main event players like Gasol, Randolph, Conley, Allen, Parker, Duncan, Ginobili and Green. Kawhi Leonard is the only major addition on San Antonio’s side, though one could argue that the vast improvements in Gasol and Conley’s games serve as an addition of their own.
No need to get too far into it—the Grizzlies won a 1-8 matchup two seasons ago in a 6-game series that was more dominating than it sounds. Memphis is bigger, stronger and better. San Antonio, for the moment, is largely unchanged. Maybe the NBA’s best coach can conjure up adjustments from one of his biggest career disappointments.
But maybe he can’t.
The caveats for a seemingly inevitable Grizzlies series W? Two huge ones.
This Grizzlies team has beaten two very mortal opponents thus far. The Clippers were an imperfect team to begin with, seeping with obvious, gaping holes that eventually put an end to their season. An already rudimentary offense was put to waste by a tenacious Grizz D, reducing the Clips to a bunch of contested jumpers and Chris Paul hoping that he’d be able to go 3 on 1 in the lane against Tony Allen, Mike Conley and Marc Gasol—three members of the All-NBA Defensive teams. It didn’t help that Blake Griffin was seriously injured halfway through the series, hobbling around on a high ankle sprain that reduced his mobility and athleticism significantly. For Oklahoma City, the equation was simple: Russell Westbrook’s absence left several aspects of the Thunder extremely exposed, including Serge Ibaka’s inability to step up offensively, Kendrick Perkins’ inability to contribute in any way on the NBA level anymore, Kevin Martin’s streakiness when put in a position of serious offensive responsibility, and of course, Scott Brooks’ spotty rotations and lack of offensive complexity. Yes, the Grizzlies looked like physical, tough world beaters the past 11 games, but they were also facing two teams adjusting on the fly after vital players went down with injury.
Another potential pitfall for Memphis has to be a sometimes sluggish offense. Mike Conley should be able to take advantage of Gary Neal, Tony Parker and Cory Joseph, but if (and when, presumably) Gregg Popovich places Kawhi Leonard or Danny Green on him, it’s going to be a real struggle scoring-wise. Neither Allen, Jerryd Bayless nor Prince has hit over 33% of their threes thus far this postseason, leaving Pondexter (43%) as the only reliable option as an outside shooter. The Grizz might have to resort to putting Gasol and Z-Bo out at the elbows to stretch the floor instead if a few of their perimeter players can’t step up over the series.
Even with these two very significant—but seldom talked about—weaknesses, I have to go with the better defense over the weaker offense. Memphis is pushing all the right buttons right now, making it extremely difficult on two superstars in CP3 and Kevin Durant in the past 11 games. If they can corral Tony Parker, fortify the interior and get some offensive production out of any wing player not named Mike Conley, Jr., the Grizzlies should take this in 6…if not 5.