The Spurs and Grizzlies meet again in the playoffs; here’s what each needs to keep in mind.
With the 2017 NBA Playoffs about to begin, let’s take a look at what may end up being the most peculiar first round matchup: the second seed San Antonio Spurs versus the seventh seed Memphis Grizzlies.
The teams split the regular season series 2-2. They don’t shoot too many threes (league average) and they play at a snail’s pace (both are bottom five for pace). But that has been the identity of each as of late: control and defensive poise. The Spurs are the Spurs, as usual, while the “Grit ‘n Grind” Grizzlies are still here, if slightly different.
The Spurs and Grizzlies have played three playoff series against each other in recent memory — in 2011, 2013, and 2016 — with the Grizzlies only win coming in 2011. Last year’s series featured a Grizzlies team mired in injury, but they are (mostly) healthy now with a resurgent Marc Gasol and Mike Conley. The Spurs have maintained their almost eye-rollingly typical excellence despite overhauling half their roster. Let’s dive into each teams’ keys for success in what will hopefully be a good ol’ fashioned defensive slugfest.
San Antonio Spurs
1. Figure Out Frontcourt Rotations - Stay Strong In The Paint And On The Boards
When they lost to the younger, more athletic Oklahoma City Thunder in the 2016 Western Conference Semifinals, many thought the Spurs were finally too old. The Thunder frontcourt, plus Westbrook, absolutely smashed the glass, averaging eight more rebounds per game than the Spurs. Tim Duncan averaged only 3.8 the entire series! While the Grizzlies cannot match that Thunder team’s rebounding, they did win the rebounding battle in three of their four regular season games against the Spurs.
2. Don’t Rely On Kawhi Leonard Too Much
Leonard has been, as much as it’s possible for a Spurs player to be, the team’s offensive focal point. The Spurs are definitely worse offensively when he’s off the floor but overall the team stays afloat without him — likely due to bench depth. But bench depth matters a lot less in the playoffs when it’s common for a rotation of around eight players to monopolize a series’ minutes.
If Leonard sputters, the Spurs could be in trouble. They’ll need LaMarcus Aldridge, who’s taken a small step back, to start strong. Last year against the Thunder, he went nuclear in Games 1 and 2 (scoring 38 and 41) and the Spurs still lost Game 2.
The Spurs can’t afford to let up. They swept the injured Grizzlies 4-0 last year but it won’t be nearly as easy this time. The Grizzlies are now a top seven defensive team and have star talent in Gasol and Conley this time around.
3. What To Do With Tony Parker?
Speaking of which, the Spurs have to decide what to do with Parker. The now 34-year-old was in an almost full-time timeshare with Mills for point guard minutes (25 vs 22 min per game). Defensively, he will get exposed.
Thankfully the Spurs have the “Wingstop” duo of Leonard and Green to guard perimeter players in Parker’s stead. In the starting lineup Green will likely get the duty of checking the Grizzlies’ Mike Conley. But where does this leave Parker? Tony Allen is out with an injury so they cannot hide Parker on him. Even on offense, how much can he still be consistently relied on ahead of a very good player in Mills?
4. X - Factor: LaMarcus Aldridge
I know, I know, he’s the second best player on the Spurs. Even I’d rather have an X-factor be some kind of role player or a sixth man. But it’s hard to deny Aldridge’s importance in light of his dwindling statistical volume. He has to be their primary paint presence. He’s their most dependable big. He was their best rebounder in the fateful 2016 series against the Thunder. He’s a great defender. And again, he’s the second best player on the team. If all the attention is on Leonard, which it may very well be, Aldridge will have to step up. He has a slight tendency to disappear at times, acting almost deferentially, but the Spurs may need him at his most assertive.
1. Dominate Inside
While the Spurs have some permutations to run through with their front court, the Grizzlies know exactly what their lineup is. Gasol, Green, and Randolph (now coming off the bench) will have to do work inside. They outrebounded the Spurs in three of their four regular season meetings.
The last time the Grizzlies beat the Spurs in the playoffs was 2011, and Randolph feasted, averaging 22/9. While he’s now 35, he still put up 13/9 (albeit an inefficient 13/9 due to necessity) in their 2016 first round meeting.
The Spurs also don’t have an answer to Marc Gasol’s ability to play inside and out. While Marc has always thrived playing further away from the rim, often facilitating some high-low action with Randolph, he’s even better this year with a brand new, mint-condition, three-ball. It’s freed up Conley’s ability to work the court and penetrate the paint and both are having career years. However, this has always impacted his rebounding numbers. While last year’s Thunder gobbled up offensive rebounds, Gasol has never been that kind of hungry hippo in the paint. It may be time to change that.
2. Shoot The Three-Ball
The Grizzlies are not good on offense. They had the 19th best offense in the league and actually averaged the second fewest points per game due to their incredibly slow pace. But Coach Fizdale did make sure to change one thing this season: they’re now league average in terms of three-point shooting.
But average isn’t good enough against the Spurs. Defensively, the Spurs are the Shaolin monks of the NBA; they’re just plain disciplined. They don’t foul and they play excellent team defense — a development, thanks to the banishing of illegal defense, that has turned post up bigs into relics of antiquity.
If the Grizzlies are to overcome this and allow their bigs to go to work down low, they will need consistent shooting. Their best shooters are Conley, Troy Daniels, Carter, and Gasol, in that order. Both Conley and Carter will have their hands full, as I imagine the Wingstop duo will often be chasing them around the perimeter. Daniels only averaged 17.7 minutes per game, likely to increase with Allen out and I’d almost rather see Gasol play closer to the basket to try and gain a rebounding advantage. He’s always played further away, allowing him to shoot and facilitate while giving room for Randolph under the rim. But I can’t deny how good he’s been from afar — he’s been bombing three-balls with swagger.
3. Figure Out Who’s Going To Guard Kawhi
Tony Allen is unfortunately expected to be out for the series. Still a prime defender, the “Grindfather” seemed the preferred option for dealing with Leonard. I’d prefer Leonard try and beat a team himself then forcing some classic Spurs ball movement by double teaming him.
With Allen out, I’m not sure who the go-to is for a reliable 1-on-1 defender. James Ennis is the likely candidate but he’s questionable for Game 1. The Grizzlies wing rotation will be some mix of Ennis, when he returns, Carter, Andrew Harrison, sniper Troy Daniels, and newcomer Wayne Selden. I imagine the lion’s share will go to Ennis and Carter but neither are ideal options. Carter is 40 years old for goodness’ sakes! He was still arguably the Grizzlies’ most productive player in the 2016 series against the Spurs, however.
4. X-Factor: Zach Randolph
I would have put Tony Allen here if healthy, as he definitely fits the whole X-factor idea, but Randolph will likely be more important. In a series like this, with two defensive juggernauts that lack explosive three-point shooting, the battles will be fought on the inside. Randolph has relished facing bench units this year and I’m not sure how well David Lee will fare against someone like him. The veteran proved he can still punish smaller and weaker interior defenders against the Warriors when he dropped 27/11 simply by gaining deep post positioning on Kevin Durant and Draymond Green. Randolph will have to feast down low for the Grizzlies to have a good shot.
This series has a ton of potential for idiosyncratic intrigue. Two defensive stalwarts that play a meticulous, grinding game going against each in the first round sounds like a blast. Defensive slugfests may not be the rage in a league brimming with historic offenses night in and night out, but it’s a nice change of pace. The Grizzlies certainly have a chance and I can easily see them pulling two games away from the Spurs. But too much has to go right for them and the absence of Tony Allen and perhaps James Ennis only hurts their depth where they need it most.
Spurs in 5
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- Marc Gasol
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