Hey, remember the San Antonio Spurs? Owners of the NBA's best record for all but the final week of the regular season (when they slipped behind the Chicago Bulls while resting starters), the Spurs have been overshadowed by the Los Angeles Lakers and the East's trio of contenders.
Since the trade deadline, San Antonio's schedule-adjusted point differential of +3.3 points per game ranks just 11th in the NBA. Then again, the Spurs didn't have to push things down the stretch because they had built such a comfortable cushion over the season's first four months. As a result, San Antonio enters the postseason as well rested as any team in the league. Just one Spurs player--point guard Tony Parker--eclipsed 2,500 minutes this season. By comparison, the Lakers, Boston Celtics and Miami Heat all had three players cross that threshold. Chicago had just two, but both players (Derrick Rose and Luol Deng) surpassed 3,000 minutes.
Despite Gregg Popovich's conservative handling of his players, San Antonio still had the league's most significant injury in the final week of the regular season. Shooting guard Manu Ginobili, an All-NBA Second Team pick by Basketball Prospectus, sprained the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow during Wednesday's season-ending loss at Phoenix and has been listed as doubtful for Game One in this series.
While San Antonio is making its 14th consecutive trip to the playoffs, the Memphis Grizzlies are understandably thrilled just to be back in the postseason for the first time since 2006. The franchise is still searching for its first playoff victory, the Grizzlies having been swept away in all three series they played from 2004 through 2006. Since Memphis has been the better team after the trade deadline, there is every reason to believe the Grizzlies will win at least one game this time around and probably more.
WHEN SAN ANTONIO HAS THE BALL
Pace: 90.8 possessions per 48 minutes (14th NBA)
San Antonio Offensive Rating: 113.9 points per 100 possessions (2nd NBA)
Memphis Defensive Rating: 106.8 points per 100 possessions (8th NBA)
This is the best offense of the Tim Duncan era, during which the Spurs have primarily won with their defense. San Antonio managed to take the philosophy of surrounding Duncan and Parker with a fleet of perimeter shooters to its logical extreme. The Spurs shot a league-best 39.7 percent from downtown and had four players make at least 100 three-pointers. That presents an issue for Memphis, which did a poor job of defending the three-point line. The Grizzlies ranked fifth in the league in most triples allowed, with opponents making 36.9 percent of their attempts (seventh).
To keep San Antonio from bombing away, Memphis will have to do a good job of containing dribble penetration. The Spurs will likely attack with a steady dose of the high pick-and-roll with Duncan screening for Parker and shooters in the corners. The Grizzlies are ill-equipped to switch those pick-and-rolls, meaning big men Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph must be ready to move their feet and keep Parker from turning the corner. He's shot 54.5 percent against Memphis this season and averaged 10 shot attempts at the rim in two full games (he left the third early due to injury) as compared to his typical average of 5.9 rim attempts, per Hoopdata.com.
If Parker starts having his way in the paint, Lionel Hollins will be tempted to provide more help against the pick-and-roll. That could be dangerous. More than almost anyone else, San Antonio runs pick-and-rolls to set up three-point looks. If Memphis' wings have to step in as a third defender against the pick-and-roll, the Spurs will feast on the open looks.
The Grizzlies have been far more successful defending Duncan, who averaged just 11.9 points in three games against Memphis, shooting 41.9 percent from the field. The duo of Gasol and Randolph suffocated opposing big men with size and strength. Both players will get their cracks against Duncan depending on whether he's playing at power forward or center.
Ginobili's absence could also be a big break for the Grizzlies because it takes away one of the three players who create offense for San Antonio. The Spurs' typical starting lineup (Parker, Ginobili, Richard Jefferson, Duncan and Antonio McDyess) scores 117.9 points per 100 possessions, per BasketballValue.com. Replace Ginobili with George Hill or Gary Neal and that drops to 103.8. The bigger problem created by the loss of Ginobili, however, is it becomes impossible for Popovich to keep two creators on the floor at all times, forcing players like Hill and Neal to step slightly out of their comfort zone and make more plays with the basketball.
When Ginobili gets healthy (which could still be Game One), look for a fun clash between him and Memphis defensive stopper Tony Allen, our pick for First Team All-Defensive. Ginobili went off for 35 points and eight assists against Allen on Feb. 27, but in the last two meetings between the teams he shot just 4-of-11 from the field against Allen's physical defense. Ginobili's best bet might be drawing fouls to get to the free throw line and put Allen in foul trouble. Of course, Shane Battier is a pretty good backup plan for slowing Ginobili if that is the case.
WHEN MEMPHIS HAS THE BALL
Pace: 90.7 possessions per 48 minutes (15th NBA)
Memphis Offensive Rating: 108.8 points per 100 possessions (16th NBA)
San Antonio Defensive Rating: 107.0 points per 100 possessions (11th NBA)
Despite the fact that Rudy Gay was in the midst of a breakout campaign when he suffered a left shoulder subluxation in mid-February that eventually required season-ending surgery, the Grizzlies have not only survived his absence but thrived without him. With Gay, Memphis' offense was 1.9 points worse than league average per 100 possessions when adjusted for opposition. Since his injury, the Grizzlies have been 3.8 points better than their typical opponent.
Allen deserves a lot of credit for covering the missing possessions. Without warning, Allen turned into a competent scorer at age 29. Not only was his True Shooting Percentage (56.2 percent) the best in a full season in his career, he also slashed his turnover rate from around 18 percent of his plays to 13.1 percent, which is within shouting distance of league average for a wing. Despite lacking a reliable jumper to keep defenses honest, Allen is able to get to the rim on the regular basis. Still, the Spurs can feel good about matching up with Ginobili and Hill, two plus defenders in their own right.
Though Randolph and Gasol are bigger than their San Antonio counterparts, the Spurs did a terrific job of defending the post in head-to-head matchups. Randolph averaged 23.0 points against San Antonio, albeit on poor 42.7 percent shooting. Gasol was atypically inaccurate, making just 34.4 percent of his attempts, his worst percentage against any NBA team. Foul trouble is no worry for the Spurs, who can run a fleet of capable big men into the game. DeJuan Blair is a good match for Randolph on the glass, while Matt Bonner creates mismatches at the other end and Tiago Splitter has played well lately and has experience defending Gasol in the Spanish ACB.
In theory, the pick-and-roll should not be profitable for Memphis, As Synergy's scouting report shows, the Grizzlies are one of the league's worst teams at running the pick-and-roll (despite point guard Mike Conley enjoying his best season) while San Antonio excels stopping the two-man game. Nonetheless, Conley was successful against the Spurs, averaging 15.5 points on 54.2 percent shooting.
Memphis' offense could get a lift in this series from O.J. Mayo. Suspended for 10 games at midseason, then nearly dealt to Indiana, Mayo has been streaky late in the season. He's as likely to score fewer than five points as he is to go for 15 or more. Hollins has the luxury of riding Mayo on good nights and playing other wings when he struggles.
As well as Memphis has played late in the season, it's going to be difficult to win a series against an opponent as good and as experienced as the Spurs. The matchups are merely a bit too favorable for San Antonio on offense--as long as Ginobili is in the lineup. If Ginobili misses a game or two, the Grizzlies could steal one of the first two games in San Antonio. Memphis should have the advantage at home, having won both games between the teams at the FedExForum. That should translate into the longest series the Grizzlies have ever played, though it is unlikely to result in their first trip beyond the first round.
San Antonio in 7
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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