The Spurs and Grizzlies tip off on Sunday afternoon (Getty Images)
The minds behind Ball Don’t Lie are going to preview each of the parings in the third round, with Kelly Dwyer going against character for a more genial take, Dan Devine bringing his inimitable mixture of both order and bedlam, along with Eric Freeman’s legendary look inside the reputations of some of the series’ key fixtures.
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Kelly Dwyer’s Guide Vocal
For the last 11 games, the span of the team’s run through the 2013 postseason, the Memphis Grizzlies have defended their turf against stars. Now, against the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference finals, the team will be asked to defend against a system. The problem for Memphis is that they don’t even know what system they’re up against.
The Grizzlies boast their conference’s best defense, but that hardly matters to a coach like Spurs head man Gregg Popovich. Though he’s been able to boast the luxury of fielding a rotation that includes Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili since 2002-03, the Spurs have taken on dozens of permutations since that year, in ways that go far beyond roster turnover. The Spurs adapt, effortlessly, and react with execution that pushes the limits of their ability. Even if capitulation is the result — the Spurs haven’t made the NBA Finals since 2007 — this doesn’t mean the team was caught off guard.
It just means there wasn’t enough time between games. As you may have seen last season, when the Spurs dropped four straight against an Oklahoma City Thunder team that was scarily gaining in confidence from contest to contest.
The Grizzlies just topped a version of that Thunder team that didn’t resemble last year’s conference-winning crew in the slightest, as the 2013 version was sadly missing both Russell Westbrook to injury and James Harden to a tax-saving trade. Prior to that, Memphis worked past a Los Angeles Clippers team that strangely decided not to feature Eric Bledsoe as much as expected, while fielding an injured and limited Blake Griffin toward the latter stages of the series. Grit and grind has paired with timing and opportunity, we should remind.
This doesn’t mean the Grizzlies are ready for their comeuppance.
The Spurs faced a Los Angeles Lakers team that didn’t have the talent to pull off a win at the playoff level and was looking forward to the end of the season by the time Game 2 began. Game 3 of the Western Conference semis saw Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry’s ankle go kablooie once again, and the Warriors star was left to scramble around like a real hamster huey for the next few games — barely able to lift while shooting long, loping jumpers that rarely hit. So apparently the sainted Spurs have backed into things a bit, as well.
Backing into things is Memphis’ advantage, as we know. Zach Randolph has not been the same since the lockout and an early season 2011-12 knee injury limited his all-world abilities, but his iffy shooting percentages from the teams’ regular-season matchups cannot be trusted. Marc Gasol’s chances at overwhelming Tiago Splitter should be in place, but nobody knows what sort of Splitter will show up, or how much Gasol will address the team’s need for fourth-quarter scoring in the actual first and second quarters of the game.
Memphis’ style, super-slow ball with an emphasis on interior play, is well-known. What is less programmable is the team’s pangs and fits since a midseason trade involving Rudy Gay shook up the franchise. The easy out is to assume that the Grizzlies take back to their 2011 ways, upsetting the Spurs in a playoff series without Gay in uniform, grabbing the momentum and home-court advantage while the league’s eyes were turned elsewhere.
The problem with that is that the Spurs are fully focused, this time around, and the team knows it can’t combat these Grizzlies with the same ancient attack it sent out in 2011, and Duncan also knows that he’s in far better shape to handle the Memphis group this time around. In many ways, this late-season version of the Grizzlies resembles the 2011 Spurs, squads that only need a wrench in the works to disrupt much-discussed plans about low post play and high efficiency shots. Perhaps these Spurs — with that depth and that group of youngsters that knows little else beyond executing as Coach Pop asks — are the underdog.
Perhaps that’s how it should be.
PREDICTION: Grizzlies in 6.
Contribute to the Chaos with Dan Devine
For as much as we try to study and analyze every aspect of NBA life these days, in every playoff series, there are unpredictable elements — a player, a tendency, a set, a decision, etc. — that can tilt a moment on its ear, change the complexion of a game or even determine the outcome of a series. For each matchup during this postseason, Dan Devine will look for those X-factors most likely to wreak havoc over the next seven games.
(The phrase "Contribute to the chaos” comes from the song “Twin Size Mattress” by the band The Front Bottoms, which Dan likes a lot.)
San Antonio Spurs: Tiago Splitter being better than Serge Ibaka, at least in context.
Throughout Memphis’ five-game win over the Oklahoma City Thunder, Ibaka struggled to sustain any offensive rhythm without injured point guard Russell Westbrook feeding him a steady diet of open looks. The power forward’s inability to provide scoring helped create a clear matchup win for the Grizzlies despite Ibaka’s sound work on the other end. When Ibaka was on the court in Round 2, Zach Randolph shot 42.9 percent and produced an average of 96 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com’s stat tool; when Ibaka sat, Z-Bo’s field-goal percentage rose nearly 11 percent and his individual offensive rating soared to 109.3-per-100.
With Tim Duncan likely to spend most of his time wrestling with Marc Gasol, it’ll be up to Splitter to match Ibaka’s work slowing Randolph while providing more efficient offensive contributions when required. The Brazilian big man actually did a good job on both counts in the teams’ four regular-season matchups. Randolph shot more accurately during Splitter’s minutes than when Tiago sat, but he shot less often, got to the line less often and scored about 3 1/2 fewer points per 36 minutes of court time against Splitter-featuring lineups. And while you can’t make apples-to-apples comparisons given Splitter’s significantly smaller role in the Spurs’ offensive machine, he was really effective in his opportunities against the Grizzlies, using his quickness and athleticism advantages to score 10.3 points in 26 minutes per game vs. Memphis this season and shoot a sterling 73.7 percent from the field when Randolph was on the court.
Another key factor: Z-Bo was way less active on the offensive glass with Splitter around. With Tiago on the bench, Randolph vacuumed 17.3 percent of available offensive rebounds against the Spurs, a rate that would’ve topped Brooklyn Nets glass-eater Reggie Evans’ league-leading season mark. When Splitter played, Randolph came up with teammates’ misses only half as often (8.6 percent), managing just two second-chance points in 81 minutes. When you go back and watch the tape, you begin to see why.
With Mike Conley orchestrating up top or Gasol working from the elbows, Randolph tends to hang down on the baseline. Splitter more often than not does a really good job of not only tagging Z-Bo early, but also maintaining contact with him throughout the possession without letting his attention drift too much toward the on-ball action, which prevents Randolph from getting the kind of openings he so frequently exploits with quick slide-step duck-ins to secure rebounding position. While Randolph’s obviously a bull in the paint, Splitter’s combination of length and strength makes him a better bet to effectively box Z-Bo out than the likes of DeJuan Blair, Boris Diaw and Matt Bonner.
If Splitter can continue to slow Randolph on the offensive glass, make him work for post position, bother him with length on midrange face-ups and maximize his chances to make Memphis pay on the other end, it’ll go a long way toward neutralizing one of the key advantages the Grizzlies hold over most opponents. He doesn’t have to silence Z-Bo; he just has to turn the volume down. If he can’t, Randolph could have the kind of loud series that leaves San Antonio with a splitting headache.
Memphis Grizzlies: Keep Danny Green quiet, because that probably means you’re doing all right defensively.
Most of the rave reviews the fourth-year guard from North Carolina drew in Round 2 focused on his lock-and-trail work on Stephen Curry. But Green was also an important source of secondary offense for the Spurs in the semifinals, averaging 12 points in just under 36 minutes per game, shooting 45.6 percent from the floor and 44.4 percent from 3-point range.
His two worst shooting performances — 4 for 12 in Game 2 and 4 for 13 in Game 4, a combined 4 for 15 from downtown — coincided with the Spurs’ two losses in the series. Green’s shooting has actually been kind of an interesting bellwether for San Antonio all year; he sizzled (48.7 percent from the field, 47.9 percent from deep) in Spurs wins and struggled (35.5 percent, 31.2 percent) in losses during the regular season. It’s continued in the playoffs — 49.2/48.5 in San Antonio’s eight wins, 32/26.7 in their two losses.
This is, of course, more effect than cause. San Antonio doesn’t win because Green shoots well, but Green shooting well indicates good health for the Spurs. Nearly 62 percent of Green’s offensive possessions this season came on spot-up shots or transition looks, according to Synergy Sports Technology. Just under half of Green’s field-goal attempts came as a result of one of those two scenarios; that includes 79.5 percent of his 3-point tries, which he buried at a 43.7 percent clip in such situations.
Generally speaking, Green’s offense stems from either sound Spurs defense that triggers fast-break opportunities, allowing him to leak out to the arc while the opposition worries first about stopping the ball, or from well-executed Spurs half-court offense driven by drive-and-kick work from Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. When those two things are working, Green gets fed and produces; when those two things are working, the Spurs are incredibly tough to beat.
The Grizzlies are better equipped than most teams to throw a wrench in San Antonio’s works, though, given their talents for disrupting execution (second in the league in defensive efficiency this year), closing off the arc (sixth-fewest long-ball attempts allowed, second-lowest 3-point percentage allowed), stymieing open-court opportunities (fourth-lowest points-per-possession allowed in transition) and locking up shooters (fourth-lowest points-per-possession allowed on spot-up tries). All that makes Memphis the kind of defense tailor-made to keep Green buttoned up; they did just that this season. The duo of Tony Allen and Mike Conley — with some early-season Rudy Gay and Quincy Pondexter mixed in — held Green to just five points in 22.5 minutes per game on 28 percent shooting from the field and 22.2 percent from 3 during their four meetings, his worst marks against any opponent during the regular season.
If Green continues to produce at that level during this series, it will likely be a telltale symptom of a larger infection of the San Antonio offense. If he’s able to get loose like he did against Golden State, it might mean Gregg Popovich and company have found the cure for what’s ailed them against the Grizz these past couple of years, which could well result in a return to the NBA finals.
PREDICTION: Grizzlies in 6.
Tony Parker preps for the worst (Getty Images)
Eric Freeman’s Reputations Index
An NBA athlete can make great strides in the offseason, improve over the course of the 82-game schedule, and see his fortunes change due to a freak injury. Yet, even in a league where granular analysis reveals untold nuances in a single player’s game, the postseason still determines his legacy. A star can become a legend or be seen as lacking some necessary quality to win; a role player can lock down a lucrative local endorsement contract or search for a new home; a youngster can ascend to a new level of fame or fall into irrelevance. The Reputations Index is your guide to what’s at stake in each postseason series.
Tony Parker: The Spurs have been such a good regular season team in recent years that Parker has been mentioned as a potential NBA candidate (or at least someone who should be “in the conversation,” which usually means he has no chance of winning) at various points along the way. The argument is usually pretty simple: the Spurs are among the best teams in the league and Parker is their best offensive producer, so he should get some recognition.
There is no doubt that Parker is a deserving All-Star and future Hall of Famer, but there’s a sense that he’s not held to the same standards as other players at this supposed MVP level. As Ethan Sherwood Strauss argued in a piece at ESPN Insider during the first round, Parker has not played particularly well in the last three postseasons, seeing his PER drop at least 3.6 Hollingerians from his regular season level in each. This trend hasn’t continued in this postseason so far — he’s actually gone up from 23.0 to 23.3 — but Parker was not a continual force in the Warriors series and shot worse than 43 percent from the field in four of the six games.
Parker only deserves so much criticism for his play, because he’s still a highly effective player who the Spurs can’t leave out. Yet it’s also true that he plays a very different style from the players most widely acknowledged as the best in the league. Like anyone, Parker relies on a few go-to moves, but he also shows less of an ability to improvise when necessary. In his piece, Ethan incisively referred to his play (and, by extension, the entire Spurs offense) as a sort of choreography, a refined set of moves that can struggle in the face of disruption.
The Spurs have proven that it takes a pretty amazing effort to achieve that disruption, but the Grizzlies were very effective in doing so in 2011 (with a worse, or less established, defense than they now have). There’s a sense that, if Parker is to become a fixture in those MVP talks rather than just a casual participant, than he must respond to these difficult circumstances and transcend the disruption. Otherwise, he’s someone no one feels the need to argue about.
Manu Ginobili: Given the Spurs’ reputation as a no-nonsense outfit of restrained professionalism, it sometimes escapes mention that Ginobili is one of the most creative players of his era. If Parker sometimes struggles amid disruption, then Ginobili thrives in it, displaying his resourcefulness and in-the-moment creativity in countless postseason moments. San Antonio tends to depend on him more in the playoffs than in the regular season, and it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which they defeat the Grizzlies without Ginobili having at least a few stellar games.
Unfortunately, Ginobili was not close to his usual standard against the Warriors, shooting 34.2 percent from the floor for the series. At 35 years old, Ginobili is at a point in his career where he just might not be able to carry the same load he once could. If he can’t put up the performances that get the Spurs to the NBA finals, it’s possible he’ll be someone remembered for past exploits and not feared for the threat he poses at present.
Mike Conley: We’re in a pretty incredible era for young point guards, yet Conley is typically not mentioned among the best of that group. There are pretty clear reasons for that — he’s never averaged more than 14.6 points per game (this season) and 6.5 assists per game (both of the two previous seasons) and he’s not exactly an athletic marvel. Conley is best known as a solid point guard with the ability to score or make a play when needed.
That stance is beginning to change. With Conley serving as the Grizzlies’ top perimeter playmaker and making the All-Defensive Second Team this season, he’s building a greater reputation as one of the more effective leaders at his position. A winner doesn’t need to be the flashiest or most statistically impressive player to get attention. If the Grizzlies make the Finals, and particularly if Conley manages to outplay Parker in a few of those wins, he could join that group.
Tony Allen: Two straight All-Defensive selections have solidified Allen’s place among the best defenders in the league, to the point where it would take a full season of mediocre or downright bad play to remove him from that list. Yet there’s a difference between being one of the best defenders in the league for a few seasons and getting recognized as a generationally great specialist. Bruce Bowen isn’t just a helpful role player — he’ll go down as one of the key defenders of his era. It’s a difference in kind so big that it becomes categorical.
In this series, Allen will likely guard several players, primarily Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker but also Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, and anyone else on the perimeter who seems to be playing well. There’s enough variety there that he could make several different marks on several different games. He could have the kind of series that gets him closer to that lofty status. Then, he could have the chance to create even more of a name for himself against the Heat.
PREDICTION: Grizzlies in 6.
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