"It's not going to be pretty," Duncan said. "Sorry. It's just not going to be. It's going to be two teams trying to impose wills on each other. Two very well-coached, good executing, tough-minded, defensive teams. And that's just how the series is going to go."
The point guard matchup between the Spurs' Tony Parker and the Grizzlies' Mike Conley Jr. should be exciting, but the main reason for the expected grimy play is Memphis power forward Zach Randolph and center Marc Gasol. The Spurs earned the right to play the Grizzlies after knocking off the Golden State Warriors in the second round with a 94-82 victory in Game 6 on Thursday night.
There isn't a duo in the NBA more physical and who enjoys every hit more than Randolph and Gasol. The Los Angeles Clippers' Blake Griffin would certainly second that because he couldn't get up the floor without being bumped by Randolph. Gasol is this season's Defensive Player of the Year. Both have games more suited for the 1980s.
Duncan and his post mate Tiago Splitter have faced impressive size already in the postseason: Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol in the first round against the Los Angeles Lakers and the Warriors' frontline of Andrew Bogut, Carl Landy, Festus Ezeli, David Lee and Andris Biedrins. But all those guys were just primers for what's next.
"It's going to be a rough one," Duncan said. "If you thought this [series] was physical, it's going to turn up about 10 notches."
Memphis and San Antonio split four regular-season contests but the game film doesn't offer much to draw sweeping conclusions. Rudy Gay played in the first three games before Memphis dealt him in a deal that brought Tayshaun Prince in as his replacement. In the contest sans Gay, Conley's lay-in with 0.6 seconds remaining gave Memphis a 92-90 win on April 1. The Spurs, however, were without Duncan (rest), Manu Ginobili (hamstring) and Kawhi Leonard (knee).
But for what it's worth, Duncan averaged 19.7 points on 52.1 percent shooting from the field, 12.7 rebounds and three blocks per game against Memphis this season. Marc Gasol and Randolph both averaged less than 15 points per game against the Spurs.
The fifth-seeded Grizzlies' rise to the conference finals didn't surprise Duncan.
"I've seen them as a major threat for years now," Duncan said. "Obviously, they beat us in the first round when we were in the [top] seat a couple years back. They've been a very solid team, a very good team. They have always played us really tough. We respect them and their capabilities and we're not surprised we're here."
Duncan and Randolph were All-Stars this season while Gasol is regarded as one. And then there is Splitter, a wild card in the upcoming front-court slugfest. Splitter averaged a modest 10.3 points and 7.8 rebounds against Memphis during the regular season. He says his injured ankle, which he suffered in the first round against the Lakers, isn't 100 percent but is better now. He showed that Thursday night as he had a playoff career-high 14 points.
Spurs coach Gregg Popovich actually played Splitter over Duncan during the final stretch because he wasn't happy with Duncan's play.
"We're definitely a better team than when we faced them a couple years ago," Duncan said. "With Tiago and the size we have, it will be big for us. It will be a big man's series. We got to try to combat them that way."
Said Splitter: "They have a great frontcourt with Marc and Zach. It's not going to be easy. We've fought against them a lot of times."
Duncan is a three-time NBA Finals MVP with four championship rings. He is also 37 years old and hasn't been to the Finals since 2007. Now in the twilight of his Hall of Fame career, two heavyweights stand in front of what could be Duncan's last chance at glory.
"This run right here is truly special," Duncan said.
The road ahead isn't going to be pretty.
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