NBA Western Conference Finals: Can Grizzlies Recover From Opening Spurs Blowout?
So are the fifth-seeded Grizzlies hopeless? Are the second-seeded Spurs finally in position to cruise to the NBA Finals for the first time in six years?
Slow down. It's the NBA playoffs, but it was still only one game.
The Spurs, winners of the Southwest Division for a third straight season, essentially got a bye week in their first round sweep of the seventh-seeded Los Angeles Lakers (essentially an uncompetitive team even with center Dwight Howard and power forward Pau Gasol). They followed that up with a very entertaining series against the sixth-seeded Golden State Warriors, surviving the Splash Brothers' (point guard Stephen Curry and shooting guard Klay Thompson) onslaught of threes to win four games to two.
But one only has to look at their playoff runs last season and the year before to know that the Spurs won't be out of the woods until they win on the road. The Spurs ended the 2011-2012 regular season on a 10-game winning streak, then opened the playoffs on a 10-game winning streak, including going up 2-0 against the Oklahoma City Thunder. But the Thunder wound up winning the next four games to win the Western Conference. The year before, the Spurs won 61 games in the regular season, but that only set them up to be upset in six games in the first round by the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies.
It should be noted that in the 2011 Eastern Conference Finals, the Chicago Bulls blew out the Miami Heat by 21 points in Game 1. The Bulls didn't win another game that series.
The Grizzlies lost the first two games of their first round matchup against the fourth-seeded Los Angeles Clippers, including a 21-point thrashing in Game 1 and a buzzer-beater game-winner by Clippers point guard Chris Paul in Game 2. The Grizzlies won the last four games of that series by at least 10 points in each game to eliminate the Pacific Division champions. The Grizzlies went on to lose Game 1 in their series against the Northwest Division champion and top-seeded Oklahoma City Thunder, courtesy of a go-ahead jumper by small forward Kevin Durant. But the Grizzlies proceeded to stress the Thunder offense the rest of the series, winning the remaining four games while keeping the Thunder under 100 points in every game.
The Spurs and Grizzlies, Southwest Division rivals, tied the season series with two wins apiece, with the home team winning each time. Three of the games were played before the Grizzlies traded small forward Rudy Gay for small forward Tayshaun Prince; the only regular season meeting post-trade was a 92-90 win Grizzlies win after point guard Mike Conley made a game-winning layup. The Spurs blew the Grizzlies out once before, but the other two games went into overtime. Game 1 is expected to be an exception, not the rule, in this series. Now let's look at some of the matchups, with Game 1 taken into account:
Grizzlies Offense vs. Spurs Defense
Perimeter: The Spurs had to chase around the Splash Brothers for a series, and they survived. It is much less stressful to worry about a team in Memphis that finished dead last in three-pointers both made and attempted for the second time in three seasons. The Spurs were a top-five team all season in limiting three-point makes and attempts, so don't expect the Grizzlies to all of a sudden start shooting a bunch of threes, even though Grizzlies small forward Qunicy Pondexter made five threes in Game 1. He does have a green light off the bench, as does backup guard Jerryd Bayless. Conley and shooting guard and NBA All-Defensive first-teamer Tony Allen have both increased their scoring output in the playoffs, but Spurs shooting guard Danny Green and small forward Kawhi Leonard have shown to be versatile and effective defenders, which won't provide any relief for Memphis. Advantage: Spurs
Paint: This was the reason for the blowout in Game 1. Grizzlies All-Star power forward Zach Randolph has changed his game in the postseason. After only 13 games in the regular season of at least 20+ points, Z-Bo has put up 20+ points in six games in the playoffs, all Grizzlies victories. In the series opener, however, Randolph was completely shut down by the Spurs thanks to one of the best defenders in NBA history, power forward Tim Duncan. Duncan's defensive dominance this season was record-breaking: At age 36 (he turned 37 last month), he blocked 183 shots and committed only 117 personal fouls, the fewest fouls for any player with at least 140 blocked shots in NBA history. The Grizzlies also need center Marc Gasol to take advantage of his matchup against Spurs center Tiago Splitter, who is much lighter and not a shot-blocker. The Grizzlies' offensive rebounding prowess is also a major factor in this matchup, as they have the ability to stress the Spurs in that department. The Spurs didn't allow Randolph to shoot a free throw as he went 1-of-8 from the field, and the Grizzlies won't survive with Randolph and Gasol being less than dominant like they were in 2011. Advantage: Draw/Grizzlies
Control: Conley is finally starting to gain appreciation for his steady play for the Grizzlies. He has increased his scoring and assists significantly in the playoffs, while cutting his turnovers (and he already had a very healthy turnover rate in the regular season). Conley did have four turnovers in Game 1, but he also had 14 points and eight assists. Spurs point guard Tony Parker isn't an All-Star for his defensive abilities, but Conley has a lot on his plate as the most consistent playmaker the Grizzlies have. Advantage: Draw/Spurs
Grizzlies Defense vs. Spurs Offense
Perimeter: The Spurs didn't hesitate to shoot the three-pointer against the Grizzlies in Game 1, and they embarrassed Memphis by making 14-of-29 from deep, 11 of those from Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard and Matt Bonner. More troubling for the Grizzlies than the fact that the Spurs were making threes were the poor rotations by the Grizzlies to the shooters, most notably by usual defensive stalwart Allen and reserve big Darrell Arthur. Spurs sixth man Manu Ginobili didn't have a major impact in Game 1, but he is always a threat to cause problems with his shooting, penetration, and playmaking abilities with or without Parker in the game. The Grizzlies were second in the league in three-point percentage defense and have more than enough length and activity with Allen, Prince, and Pondexter. But they need a new plan after Game 1, because they were thoroughly and shockingly unprepared to defend the perimeter. Advantage: Draw/Grizzlies
Paint: If there is one thing the Grizzlies can feel good about in Game 1, it's that Splitter missed his only shot attempt and that Duncan finished with only six points on 3-of-9 shooting from the field. Gasol is the Defensive Player of the Year, and he can neutralize Duncan while Randolph gets physical with Splitter. The Spurs' reserve bigs in Boris Diaw and Bonner offer more to the Spurs in terms of control and perimeter shooting, respectively. The Spurs do not actively crash the offensive boards, so the Grizzlies should be able to dominate the glass if the Spurs' shots stop falling. Advantage: Grizzlies
Control: Parker was the best player on the floor against the Grizzlies in Game 1, racking up a game-high 20 points and nine assists. Six of those assists led to three-point field goals. Conley is an outstanding defender, leading the NBA in total steals, but he needs to be far more disruptive so that the Grizzlies' wing defenders can stay home on the shooters. Parker has been outstanding in the playoffs, making many forget about his struggles to end the regular season. The Spurs are the best passing team in the league, while the Grizzlies are among the best teams in the league at forcing turnovers. This is a critical matchup for the rest of the series considering how the Grizzlies were shamed in Game 1. Advantage: Draw/Grizzlies
Grizzlies Depth vs. Spurs Depth
The Spurs' depth is legendary, and they go ten-deep with Splitter and Diaw now healthy (Parker, Green, Leonard, Duncan and Splitter plus Cory Joseph, Gary Neal, Ginobili, Bonner, and Diaw). The Grizzlies bench has played well, but it still seems like a surprise when Bayless, Pondexter, and Arthur made a lasting impact over the course of an entire game. Grizzlies head coach Lionel Hollins seems like he would blow up his entire rotation if necessary, which doesn't seem like a ringing endorsement for anyone involved in the Grizzlies organization at this point of the season. Advantage: Spurs
Grizzlies Coaching vs. Spurs Coaching
I'll admit, I felt a lot better about Lionel Hollins going up against Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich before Game 1. The Grizzlies knocked off San Antonio two years ago and then showed they could beat the Spurs after the trade deadline. Popovich then went on to completely outclass the Grizzlies' strategy, and there was a general sense of panic throughout the game on the Memphis sideline in regards to rotations and adjustments. I respect Hollins and believe that the Grizzlies have one of the top coaches in the game (and should be retained once his contract expires after the season), but that had to have been one of the worst games Hollins has been a part of as a head coach this season, right down to forgetting Jerryd Bayless' name after it was over. Popovich is on top of his game as far as strategy, personnel, adjustments, and decision making (utilizing Tracy McGrady early as the ultimate victory cigar). Advantage: Spurs
Well, what can we say about this one? The Grizzlies are completely healthy, haven't lost at home in the playoffs, and have shown that they can win on the road. Their ability to bounce back after giving up 100 points has been incredible (the Grizzlies allowed over 100 points in consecutive games only three times this season). The Grizzlies haven't been to this point in the postseason before, but the Spurs haven't been past this point in six years. Plus, it seems like durability is always a major factor in how the Spurs get through the postseason. If Parker, Ginobili, and Duncan hold up physically, then the Spurs have an advantage. But I get the feeling that they're going to need Green, Leonard, and Splitter to be outstanding. Allen and Prince were also on championship teams in Boston and Detroit, respectively. The level of focus won't waver for either team, and Memphis just needs one win on the road to turn the tables on the perception of this series. Advantage: Draw/Grizzlies
You know the Grizzlies are the best defensive team in the West, but the Spurs are the second-best, third overall in the league (both are behind the Indiana Pacers), and still have a top-ten offense (the defending champion Heat also have a top-ten offense and defense). Looking at Game 1, I saw a Spurs team that looked like they were clearly better than the Grizzlies on every level. The Spurs can get into the paint, kick it out to the perimeter, and then suffocate the most notable scorer on the Grizzlies' roster with a combination of length and leverage. But I'm looking at those 14 3s made, and that is the first adjustment Memphis should make. They can let Parker try to finish consistently for an entire game, but Memphis needs to show more discipline than they did in terms of defending the perimeter shooters. It will be interesting to see how exactly Memphis makes up for their no-show in Game 1, but I will not change my initial prediction of Grizzlies in 6. Of course, you know how I roll: All guarantees wrong or your money back, so don't get comfortable.