NBA Playoff Preview: San Antonio Spurs vs. Memphis Grizzlies

Gregg “Playoffs” Popovich. (Getty)
Gregg “Playoffs” Popovich. (Getty)

How They Got Here

Here … again? Bloody hell, these two.

Spurs: San Antonio did not deliver its typical season, not by a long shot, though you wouldn’t know as much just by watching a season that, until its tanked-out final week, featured nothing worse than a two-game losing streak. The team has been consistently great throughout the season, even if coach Gregg Popovich’s bemused smile isn’t as beatific as it once was, even though the attendance sheet looks a little different.

That sheet lost Tim Duncan to retirement last summer, as we all know, bringing the 39-year old Manu Ginobili back for a song none of us (save for the Spurs, probably) saw anyone let alone the Spurs singing and returning Tony Parker in time for The Year Where Tony Turned Into Sherman Douglas.

The 61-21 Spurs still run 11-deep, taking advantage of bounceback years from David Lee off the pine and the somewhat-expected ascension of Dewayne Dedmon into an ostensible Duncan replacement at center – the former Magic big man stepped in when Pau Gasol (now one of the league’s top sixth men) paused a bit to work through a bum hand midseason. Patty Mills also stirs the drink off the bench (noticing a trend, ‘ere?), and Aldridge chimed in with sparkling 17-point, seven-rebound (in just 32 minutes) numbers in his age-31 season.

San Antonio, though, is in the 60s yet again due to the work of MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard. Mixing a Jordan-like style of precision offensively with his typical all-world work on the opposite end (when teams dare to drive at him), Leonard has turned in one of the more unassuming MVP-like seasons in recent memory.

• Grizzlies: This team’s style changed slightly, to the eye-test, during longtime celebrated former assistant David Fizdale’s first year as coach, but far too little has changed in the right places for the still-lacking Grizz. That won’t deter Fizdale, though.

The former Heat assistant began the year with two obvious, notice-worthy quirks in sending longtime low post bulwark Zach Randolph to the bench (in a move that would no doubt help encourage Popovich when he made the same decision with Pau Gasol), while encouraging Marc Gasol to capitalize on his long-range touch to the tune of 268 three-point attempts in 2016-17 – 202 more than the 2014 Defensive Player of the Year attempted in his six previous NBA seasons.

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JaMychal Green did as best he could as Randolph’s slithery, low-usage replacement, Gasol turned in another top of the line year in the pivot, while Zach contributed 14 points and eight rebounds in only 25 minutes off of the Memphis bench. Mike Conley was unfettered as expected in the first year of his new, major, free agent contract; yet timing, luck and boundless backcourt options left Conley out of the All-Star Game yet again.

The squad’s year could only move so far due to the limiting influence of Chandler Parsons, the sort of do-everything forward with range that came straight out of central casting. That package came with missing parts, though, as yet another knee injury knocked Parsons out of his second consecutive season, and only after a miserable 34 games spent shooting 34 percent, hamstringing Memphis’ abilities on both ends of the ball.

Despite a late-season swoon the Grizzlies managed to remain a top-ten team defensively while holding serve (that is to say, “once again ranking as the worst offensive team in the Western bracket”) on the other end of the court.

It would be unfair to try to sell you on the idea of this series as a direct continuation of what started in 2011, when a Grizzlies team led by Conley, Randolph and Gasol upset the top-seeded Spurs in the first round. Only four Grizzlies and three Spurs remain from that year (hell, ANTONIO MCDYESS played in that series), and the Spurs have topped the Grizzlies in two postseason series since, including last year.

There’s a “DeWayne” where a “Tim” used to be and a “JaMychal” where a “Zach” used to be, for a little while in the game at least, but for the sake of ideal (if not familiarity) we’d be lying to you if we tried to tell you that the Spurs and Grizzlies aren’t where you last left them.

These men own cassette players. (Getty)
These men own cassette players. (Getty)

Head-to-Head

This was fun, sometimes, on a Grizzlies/Spurs-level. You definitely flipped around a few times, as these two battled out to a 2-2 series tie. Strangely, for longtime rivals, the Spurs and Grizzlies didn’t meet until just a week before the All-Star break, long after the season’s midpoint, when both clubs had already just about figured themselves out.

The Grizzlies figured sending loads of Zach Randolph (15 points in 23 minutes) in San Antonio’s direction on Feb. 6 would suffice, and it did during an 89-74 win that saw the Spurs manage just nine fourth quarter points – Kawhi Leonard, you’ll be unsurprised to note, did not play in that contest due to rest. The pace stayed stiflingly slow on March 18 when the Grizzlies won yet again behind Zach’s tasty touch, The 35-year-old gave the Spurs 18 points and seven rebounds in only 26 bench minutes.

Things changed a few days later in Memphis when Randolph was held to 2-7 shooting in the Spurs’ lone win of the season over the Grizzlies, the pace dipped even slower as San Antonio turned the ball over just six times in the 97-90 win.

Leonard and the Spurs looked to just about be at their peak on April 4, with Kawhi offering 32 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and a pair of steals in nearly 40 minutes, while Memphis worked without Tony Allen in a 95-89 loss that saw Randolph need 21 shots to score 18 points.

Likely Starting Lineups

It’s never easy to pin the Spurs, this was the team that was giving us nearly 29 minutes (to the tune of 27 points) worth of Bryn Forbes as recently as last week, but one can be assured that in spite of his struggles Tony Parker will share the backcourt with shooter Danny Green, while Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and DeWayne Dedmon line up in the frontcourt.

Center Marc Gasol and JaMychal Green will clutch and grab for Memphis, with 40-year old Vince Carter filling in at the slot that Chandler Parsons was supposed to perform in. Tony Allen is out for at least Game 1 of the series, and possibly the entire round, with a calf strain. Late-season Allen replacement James Ennis is also working through a right knee injury and is listed as “questionable” for Game 1, so little-used Wayne Selden (who played all of 25 minutes this year, including a start in Allen’s absence) may have to pair up as swingman alongside a player in Carter that was born the same month the legendary rock group Toto was formed Jimmy Carter was sworn into office.

Parsons’ ability to make life creative for teams when gifted entrance into the screen and roll game reminds, at times, of Carter’s best years during the start of his slow seasons in New Jersey and Orlando. Without Allen to cause turnovers, Carter will have to take chances on both ends of the court. The opposite will have to be in place for Dewayne Dedmon, though it should be noted that the Spurs are doing well to associate themselves with a spark like Dewayne.

Dedmon stood out during his short bursts of excitable play in Orlando, and though he was brought in to offer frontcourt insurance in the wake of Tim Duncan’s departure, the sturdy big has responded with 37 starts and a near-70 percent mark from the field in San Antonio wins.

Matchups to Watch

This series won’t be as simple as San Antonio constructing ways to stop Zach Randolph, because this isn’t 2011. Even when the Grizzlies (kind of) surprised the Spurs with Memphis’ opening round win over San Antonio that season, Randolph was more superb than outrageous: over 21 points and nine boards with three assists and a steal.

It is very possible, though, that this series will still come down to how San Antonio’s defense handles various Grizzlies when the feints work and Memphis is able to venture into the Spurs’ slipstream of a painted area. The Spurs, even within that slow pace and at that age, still work with darting eyes. The issue is that the acknowledgment may not matter when too-slow reactions from Pau Gasol and David Lee encourage a layup, or when Dedmon overreacts to an eyebrow raise from a pump-faking Randolph. Or if LaMarcus Aldridge fails to establish himself.

Truly, this is a career-or-cash out situation for a player like LaMarcus, as … ah, I can’t keep this up. Of course the “matchup to watch” will be Marc vs. Pau.

The two have never met in the postseason, missing out during the three years that both made the playoffs as members of the Grizzlies and Lakers. With Pau now in San Antonio, his role will remain significant even with his possible on-court pairing with Marc now potentially dulled.

The younger Gasol could be on the bench by the time Pau comes off the San Antonio pine, though the two did cross paths for small stretches during the three contests Pau was healthy enough to play in against Memphis this season, all bench appearances for the two-time champ. Still, brief appearances as pivotmen passing in the night is enough for us.

The Gasol brothers are two of the biggest reasons to be an NBA fan. To finally watch the two of them go at it, however briefly, with Marc in his prime and Pau having settled into the role of an offensive marvel off the bench, is worth the wait.

How the Grizzlies Can Win

The Grizz have to be able to swing. We know this crew can pack the paint, the stereotype holds up to scrutiny, but even if Tony Allen were available and at full strength there rarely stands an All-Defensive tonic for ball movement.

Memphis truly can find ways to extend this series into workable situations that would go beyond hounding poor Tony Parker defensively, or in obvious low-post setups for Randolph’s still-sprightly feet (still, try to do those things too). Memphis, the team with never enough offense, at least should have enough to make the Spurs think between contests.

Somehow, during the actual games, enough offensive movement from the Grizzlies could result enough lost quarters (and sideways glares, from coaching staff to player to teammate interactions) for this to remain a series until the bitter end. Especially when attacking what could be a porous San Antonio paint.

Sadly for the Grizzlies, this also came true in 2013 when San Antonio swept Memphis in what may have been the most entertaining four-game sweep in NBA postseason history.

All the Grizzlies ask is that the team’s movement, spacing (seriously!) and versatility leaves them with a chance from half-quarter to half-quarter, because this is how these teams think.

You’d only be left to consider a few possessions at a time, too, were you in an NBA contest that only featured 75 of them.

How the Spurs Can Win

The best thing the Spurs can do is absolutely look past the Memphis Grizzlies this spring. Consider life beyond the first or second round while taking chances in the face of a club that could have you packing for the offseason far earlier than anticipated.

It genuinely would be nice to see LMA slip around JaMychal Green and handle Zach Randolph in ways that have Spurs fans giddy for upcoming pairings against the plod-averse Rockets or maddening, Russell Westbrook-driven, Oklahoma City Thunder. It’s certainly not a championship prerequisite, but a career-defining step-up would have the Spurs working a cut above. A quick series means more time off. The knees need that.

The Memphis Grizzlies have earned San Antonio’s respect, but San Antonio’s season and championship hopes have also earned the attention needed to make short order of the valued Grizzlies. Start by attacking the still-blotty defensive communication among the starters and always refuse to confuse good for great offensively, and then get the heck out of Memphis with a sweep (or be on the way toward something close to it).

Kawhi Leonard works around the dearly departed Tony Allen. (Getty)
Kawhi Leonard works around the dearly departed Tony Allen. (Getty)

Best Reason to Watch

Kawhi Leonard will forever remain the reason, here. We can talk ourselves into the charm of the Grizzlies and Spurs settling old beefs, but the problem here is that neither side is interested in squaring away old beefs (they’d rather let them age a few years further), and despite the good times this rivalry never really served as a tipping point for San Antonio. Despite the 2011 loss, they don’t appear to be shook too much by the rustling in the woods.

Fearing the end of the fights between the two franchises, one shouldn’t take your eyes off Kawhi Leonard. His style of contribution is so direct, presented to us in such astonishing spurts, that it’s easy to let our gaze glaze long enough to ignore the entire 90 percent of a possession, the highlight-less reels, that he dictates in ways we’ll never be able to understand.

Maybe this series will help.

Prediction: San Antonio in five.

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Kelly Dwyer is an editor for Ball Don’t Lie on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at KDonhoops@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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