NBA West Finals Preview 2013: (2) San Antonio Spurs vs. (5) Memphis Grizzlies

What follows is a preview of the Spurs-Grizzlies West Finals series by one of our good friends here at Hoop Nut, Mr. Jay Santiago. Jay is, quite possibly, one of the most die-hard Spurs fans you'll ever meet.

This year’s Western Conference championship was supposed to be a toss-up between two teams and two teams only: the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Lakers. Instead, both teams have now entered the offseason, and in their places are the teams that knocked them out of the playoffs – the Memphis Grizzlies and the San Antonio Spurs.

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San Antonio’s path was through the state of California, where they swept a clearly outmatched Los Angeles Lakers squad (whose mid-season ambitions were reduced to simply making the playoffs), and outworked a gutsy Golden State Warriors team that threatened early in the series and just refused to quit until the final buzzer of Game 6. There has been a steady increase in competition for the Spurs after each series, but it has been their superior offense, managing to produce a whopping 102.8 ppg during these playoffs, that has seen them through to the next round. This is the 8th time San Antonio has reached the West Finals during the Tim Duncan era.

The Memphis Grizzlies arguably have met the toughest competition so far in the playoffs. The bracket had them going against 2 of the 3 best players in the NBA right now in Chris Paul and Kevin Durant (both runners-up to LeBron James). Against the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder, Memphis lost the first 1-2 games of the series before buckling down and containing these offensive juggernauts to win four straight games and advance where no Grizzlies team has gone before. All the Memphis victories have been won through defense and grit while overcoming a 43% average field goal rate, and all these close wins seemed to have toughened up “The Grindhouse” even more. (Man, don’t they have the coolest team alias in NBA history?)

This sets up an intriguing matchup in the West Finals. (I wanted to say exciting, but I know many NBA fans today surely will not appreciate this “snoozefest” of a series.) These teams are the anti-thesis of each other. While the Spurs have long been known for their grind-it-out defensive approach that has won them 4 titles in a span of 9 years, they now rely so much on a highly efficient offense to earn wins. Memphis, on the other hand, has steadily established one of the best defenses in the league, one that is heavily anchored on their big men imposing their will on the low block, on the boards, on both ends of the floor – interestingly, much like the Spurs of old. The fight will be won or lost based on which team can impose its strength on the other. The teams’ regular season stats below crystalize their contrasting styles:

SAS Season Ave
MEM Season Ave
103.0 (4th)
PTS against
89.3 (1st)
48% (2nd)
FG% against
44% (3rd)
38% (5th)
3P% against
34% (2nd)
25.1 (1st)
Forced TO
14.7 (6th)

These two teams are no strangers in the playoffs, and there’s nothing much to hide in terms of game plans. Their most recent postseason matchup was in 2011, when the 8th seeded Grizzlies constantly went down low and confidently bullied the top-seeded banged up Spurs in 6 games (it should have been just five if not for Gary Neal’s crazy 30-foot game-tying buzzer-beating three to force overtime and steal the game).

The strategies may not be different from the last time. Memphis would likely use its own Big 3 to focus the attack on two fronts: (1) running lots of high-lows and post-up plays for Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, and (2) calling for Mike Conley’s dribble penetration down the middle, both of which could make minced meat of the Spurs’ front line. These 3 guys have been so effective in scoring this postseason, netting a combined 55.6 ppg mostly through these 2 tactics. One stark difference from 2011, though, would be the defense of a healthier Tim Duncan, who seems to have an extra pep in his step, and a more evolved Tiago Splitter, who has emerged as the No. 2 big man in San Antonio. Whether or not the duo of Duncan and Splitter can be effective enough in keeping Randolph and Gasol from running wild inside, boxing out the Memphis big boys off the offensive glass, and keeping a roof over Conley’s drives is a huge factor in the outcome of this series.

For the Spurs, it would surely be a heavy dose of pick-and-rolls and dribble-drives with lots of spacing and crisp ball movement to find the open shooters, and San Antonio has a lot of them. The time of Duncan closing out games on the block is history; it is now Tony Parker’s job to get the defense’s attention and set himself or his teammates up for high percentage shots. While Conley is a good defender in his own right, we may see Tony Allen a.k.a. “The Grindfather” (again, probably the coolest nickname for a player) covering Parker to neutralize the Frenchman’s scoring in crucial stages of the game. This Parker-Allen matchup is a double-edged sword – while it may give Parker a disruptor to his usual 22.4 ppg and 6.3 apg this postseason, he could slide over to cover Allen on defense for most of the game, which would allow Danny Green to take on Conley much like last matchup’s assignment on Steph Curry. This, in turn, would relieve Parker of the duties to expend energy on D. Parker’s lighter defensive workload and keeping him fresh throughout this matchup may be the most significant details to help San Antonio win the West.

The 6th man from each team would be the wildcards in this series. Both Jerryd Bayless and Manu Ginobili are capable shooters who essentially carry the scoring load for the second unit. However, both have struggled with their shots during these playoffs, with Bayless averaging 8.9 ppg on 36% field goal shooting (33% from beyond the arc) and Manu not much better with 12.1 ppg on 38% field goal shooting (33% from long distance, too).  Whoever gets out of his shooting funk first may become the hero in one or two wins in this series.

Overall, I think this series is for Memphis to win or lose. It is not so much about what the Spurs would do as what the Grizzlies could do. With San Antonio so structured and so methodical in running its system, can the Grizzlies impose their will on defense and limit this highly efficient Popovich offense? And if the Grizzlies do, can their offense generate enough scoring opportunities in the half court set as the Spurs take away fast breaks and limit opponents’ free throws much like how they have done throughout these playoffs?

My guess is no. This will be a hard-fought scrappy affair with physical play all around, much to the Grizzlies’ liking. But Memphis won’t be able to limit the Spurs enough and won’t be able to score enough to win the series. Spurs in 6. This should be best for all that is holy in basketball. I believe San Antonio has the best chance of righting the basketball world by ending the reign of the Evil Heat, at least for this year. Go Spurs Go!

Today’s Game Recap:

Final Score: Indiana 106, New York 99
Indianapolis, IN (Sports Network) - Unlike the New York Knicks, Lance Stephenson didn't want to go back home. The Indiana Pacers withstood Carmelo Anthony and a 3-point barrage by the Knicks in the second half to advance to their first Eastern Conference final in nine years. The Brooklyn- native Stephenson netted a career-high 25 points to go with 10 rebounds and Paul George added 23 points in the Pacers' 106-99 win over the Knicks in Game 6 of this Eastern Conference semifinal. Stephenson, who was 9-of-13 from the field, poured in nine of those points during a game-changing 11-2 run in the fourth quarter. Roy Hibbert tallied 21 points, 12 boards and five blocks for Indiana, which is off to its first conference finals since losing to the Detroit Pistons in 2004. The NBA's top rebounding team during the regular season held a 43-36 edge on the boards and outrebounded the Knicks by a 274-218 margin in the series. Indiana, which moved to 6-0 at home during the postseason, held a commanding 52-20 points in the paint advantage. The Miami Heat, who downed the Chicago Bulls in the other Eastern Conference semifinal and the Pacers in the semifinals last season, will host Game 1 of the East finals on Wednesday. Anthony scored 35 points through the first three quarters and finished with 39, but again struggled in the final frame. He missed his first five shots from the floor and committed three crucial turnovers in the quarter. J.R. Smith had a frustrating time offensively for the duration of the set. The NBA Sixth Man of the Year had 15 points and 10 rebounds, but was just 4-of-15 shooting and 26-of-90 from the floor during the series. Iman Shumpert recorded 19 points in defeat. New York, which lived and died by the 3-pointer during the regular season and set an NBA record with 10.9 makes per game, used the arc to get back into the contest late in the third.

Paul George and the Pacers now have a shot at
halting the Heat!
(image by Brian Spurlock/USAToday)

Game Highlights:

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