Thursday, April 14, 2011

Series Preview: Ten Questions (and Answers) about Grizzlies-Spurs

Posted by on Thu, Apr 14, 2011 at 11:41 PM

The Grizzlies begin their first playoff series since 2006 this weekend, meeting the San Antonio Spurs at noon Sunday, with Game 2 on Wednesday night. The series travels north to FedExForum for Games 3 and 4 next Saturday (the 23rd) and the following Monday (the 25th). Can the Grizzlies snap the franchise's record 0-12 playoff losing streak and extend the series further? Can they pull off a big upset?

The Grizzlies hope to shock the NBA and upend the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs. Or at least not get swept.
  • LARY KUZNIEWSKI
  • The Grizzlies hope to shock the NBA and upend the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs. Or at least not get swept.


Let's break it down. In detail:

1. Haven't we seen this before?
Longtime Grizzlies fans — and one current Grizzlies player — might be experiencing a little déjà vu with this series. The last time a Grizzlies team began a playoff run, back in 2004, it debuted against a Gregg Popovich-coached San Antonio Spurs team built around the core trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili, who were supplemented by a good group of defender/shooter role players (Bruce Bowen, Robert Horry, Hedo Turkoglu, etc.).

Seven years later, this Spurs team looks essentially the same, just with a different group of role players. But this edition of the Spurs actually plays much, much differently. The 03-04 Spurs were a middle-of-the-road offensive team (14th in offensive efficiency) but a defensive juggernaut (first in defensive efficiency, ahead of even the Larry Brown Pistons) built around Duncan's interior presence and Bowen's nasty, physical perimeter defense.

This year's Spurs model is more of an offensive-oriented finesse team by contrast. They're only decent defensively — 11th overall — and haven't been great at defending the paint. They've been a scoring juggernaut instead — second in offensive efficiency, first in effective field-goal percentage, and first in three-point percentage.

Unlike the Spurs' title teams, this version hasn't been built around Tim Duncan's post game but rather around its quick, penetrating guards (Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, George Hill), who break down defenses and find the team's phalanx of good three-point shooters.


2. How significant is Manu Ginobili's injury?
Potentially major. Potentially overblown. Ginobili — a lefty — departed from the Spurs' final regular-season game Wednesday night clutching his right elbow. An MRI Thursday revealed a sprain and the official pronouncement from the Spurs is that Ginobili is "doubtful" for Game 1 on Sunday.

Before Grizzlies fans throw a party, let's remember: "Doubtful" is not the same as "out." There are still three days until these teams play their first game, so I'll be certain Ginobili isn't playing when the game starts and he isn't there. (Indeed, Ginobili later tweeted that the pain was almost gone.)

Whenever Manu Ginobili gets into this series, hell have Tony Allen to contend with.
  • LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Whenever Manu Ginobili gets into this series, he'll have Tony Allen to contend with.
The way the series is spread out — with two days between Games 1 and 2 and again between Games 2 and 3 — could help minimize Ginobili's absence (and should help the older Spurs generally).

But what if Ginobili does miss Game 1? It could definitely help the Grizzlies steal one in San Antonio. Ginobili is the Spurs' second leading scorer (a tenth of a point behind backcourt mate Tony Parker) and most dynamic all-around player. Ginobili played 80 games this season, the most of his career. But when he played 20 or fewer minutes, the Spurs were only 2-5. That's a small sample, and includes at least one "tank" game. But, on the season, Ginobili also had the widest on-court/off-court disparity on the team: The Spurs were about 11 points better than the opposition per 48 minutes with Ginobili and about two points worse without him. The Spurs will miss Ginobili if he can't go — especially given the lack of viable size on the wings coming from their bench, with the 6'2" George Hill and the 6'4" Gary Neal getting the bulk of the extra minutes.

If Ginobili somehow misses multiple games — which I doubt — the Spurs could be in trouble. But this is still a 61-win team. And the Grizzlies lost their most dynamic perimeter player two months ago.

3. What does the season series tell us?
The Grizzlies went 2-2 against the Spurs in the regular season. Both road games were close losses, one going into overtime and the other a one-possession game in the final two minutes. Both home games were convincing wins. Further, the Grizzlies were mostly able to play their preferred style against the Spurs, outscoring the Spurs in the paint and grabbing more offensive rebounds in all four games while winning the turnover battle in three of four. But how meaningful is this relative success?

On one hand, the Grizzlies played without Rudy Gay in all four games. And three of the four contests (with the Griz going 2-1) came after the trade deadline. So the Grizzlies' roster in those games is pretty close to the one that will be taking the court in this series. On the other hand, the Spurs played without Tony Parker in one loss and without Tim Duncan and with a limited Manu Ginobili in another.

I will draw some on what happened in the previous games between these teams in the rest of this preview, but given that the Spurs having been pacing themselves for the post-season (more on this in a bit) and were without some of their core trio in those losses, I would urge against putting too much faith in those four games.

Z-Bo on the block will be Option #1 for the Grizzlies in this series.
  • LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Z-Bo on the block will be Option #1 for the Grizzlies in this series.
4. What do the Grizzlies need to do offensively?
Simply: Control the paint.

Future Hall-of-Famer Duncan is the interior centerpiece for the Spurs. Next to and behind Duncan, Popovich will mix and match among four very different role-player options: Wide-bodied banger Dejuan Blair (19.6 minutes post All-Star break) has spent the most time next to Duncan this season, but down the stretch the Spurs have switched to mid-range-shooting veteran Antonio McDyess (21.1) as Duncan's starting-lineup sidekick. The Spurs will also use sniper Matt Bonner (21.2) as a "stretch four" and will have 6'11" rookie Tiago Splitter (14.6) as an option if they want to go big.

But outside of Duncan — who is in at least some form of decline and whose blocks and defensive rebounds were down sharply in Spurs losses — none of these options is a defensive force. And Duncan can't guard both Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol.

The Spurs have been an above-average defensive team, but have done their best work against three-point shooters, struggling most in the paint. And the Grizzlies have the most interior-weighted offense in the NBA. The Grizzlies lead the league in points in the paint and are sixth in offensive rebounding. The Spurs are 17th in paint points allowed and 25th in points allowed inside the three-point arc.

Zach Randolph has gone large against the Spurs this season, averaging 23 and 15. His shooting percentage against the Spurs is only 43%, but that's the result of going 7-25 in one game. Gasol, on the other hand, has mysteriously struggled against the Spurs despite generally having good match-ups. He's averaged only 8 points on 35% shooting. That can't stand.

But the Grizzlies don't just need Randolph and Gasol to get their points. They need them to score efficiently — Randolph's (55% to 44%) and Gasol's (55% to 50%) field-goal percentage disparities in wins and losses are glaring — and be effective triggermen for the offense, reacting well to what are sure to be plenty of Spurs double-teams. The good news here is that Gasol has always been an effective passer and Randolph's improvement in that area over the past couple of months has been astounding.

Mike Conley was effective against the Spurs in the regular season. For the Grizzlies to have a shot, theyll need similar production in the playoffs.
  • LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Mike Conley was effective against the Spurs in the regular season. For the Grizzlies to have a shot, they'll need similar production in the playoffs.
On the perimeter, the key for the Grizzlies will be to get at least respectable play at point guard, which is a Spurs strength. Mike Conley has averaged 34 minutes a game since the break. Expect that number to be closer to 40 in this series, as Lionel Hollins hasn't generally been comfortable with rookie back-ups Greivis Vasquez or Ish Smith for extended periods. As for which rookie gets the most run: Vasquez is the superior shooter and playmaker, but Hollins has shown a propensity for favoring the speedy Smith against smaller, quicker guards for defensive purposes, and the Spurs fit that bill. In the last game between these teams, on March 27th, Smith played 9 minutes to Vasquez' 6. For 8-10 minutes a game, this will be an interesting call for Hollins.

The Grizzlies need Conley (16 points per game on 54% shooting vs. the Spurs this season) to have a good series, but how much he's able to play will be almost as important as how well he plays. Given the other options, it will be imperative for Conley to avoid foul trouble.

5. And defensively?
If the Grizzlies' offensive strength matches the Spurs' defensive weakness, that dynamic shifts at the other end of the floor, where the Grizzlies have been hurt the most this season by guards and by three-point shooting generally — the core elements of the Spurs' elite offense this season.

Grizzlies fans should be very concerned about the Spurs' three-point shooting in this series. The Grizzlies rank 24th in both opponent three-point attempts and percentage allowed. Meanwhile, the Spurs lead in the league in three-point percentage (40%) and are seventh in attempts. And they bring shooters from all over the place.

Its not just about Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili: Spurs reserve George Hill is another dynamic guard who could give the Grizzlies problems.
  • LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • It's not just about Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili: Spurs reserve George Hill is another dynamic guard who could give the Grizzlies problems.
In the starting lineup, Ginobili is the most prolific three-point shooter (35% on 5.5 attempts per game, post All-Star break) while small forward Richard Jefferson, once a slasher, has morphed into a more deadly marksman (44% on 3.8, fifth in the league on the season).

But it's San Antonio's bench that really hurts you from long-range: George Hill (37% on 2.7), Gary Neal (42% on 3.9), and league-wide percentage leader Matt Bonner (46% on 3.5). Even deep bench options (Daniel Green, James Anderson, and especially Steve Novak) can burn you from outside the arc.

And the Spurs have had a lot of success against the Grizzlies, hitting 43% or better in three of the four contests. Bonner and Neal have both bested their regular percentages, while Jefferson has hit 54% of threes against the Grizzlies.

One of the reasons the Spurs get so many looks for their shooters is because Parker, Ginobili, and Hill are so good at penetrating and drawing defenders, and each of the three has had a monster game against the Grizzlies this year. In the first meeting, Parker scored 37 points on 15-21 shooting while notching 9 assists. In the second game, Ginobili exploded for 35 points and 8 assists. And in the final meeting, Hill came off the bench for 30 points (9-12 shooting) — this while Parker was also putting up 20.

Even with Ginobili, the Spurs will spend a lot of time with Parker and Hill both on the floor, making for perhaps the quickest backcourt in the league. If Ginobili is out, this could be the Spurs staring lineup. Conley can't guard both — often, he can't guard either — and too much Ish Smith could kill the Grizzlies offense. This will demand that Tony Allen (who can probably handle it) and O.J. Mayo (yikes!) could be asked to spend a lot of time guarding smaller, quicker ball-handlers. It could also be an opening for Darrell Arthur — easily the best pick-and-roll defender in the team's frontcourt — to steal more minutes from Gasol and/or Randolph. Especially if his recently shaky mid-range jumper returns.

Of course, the Grizzlies — who lead the league in steals (9.4) and opponent turnovers (16.7) — do their best work defensively not contesting shots but preventing them. And even though the Spurs are a low turnover team (sixth in the league), the Grizzlies have come in just under their season averages (8.8 and 16.5) in both categories against San Antonio. And there's potentially a pattern here. Even though the Spurs were one win away from having the NBA's best overall record, they're an offensive-oriented team that has looked pretty beatable against good defenses: Going only 15-13 against top-ten defenses this season, including a .500 record against two other low-level playoff teams with good defenses, the Sixers and Hornets. (The Grizzlies finished tied for 8th — with those two teams — in defensive efficiency.)

6. Wait, the Spurs won 61 games and still have a championship-tested core. Why did the Grizzlies want to play them, again?
Good question. For the sake of clarity, it's not so much that the Grizzlies' wanted to play the Spurs as that they didn't want to play the Lakers — and decided the combination of certainty and resting core players trumped attempting to move up in pursuit of the Mavericks and risk finding the Lakers instead. Personally, I would have played straight up against Portland and then re-evaluated the situation heading into that final game against the Clippers. But what's done is done.

As far as the notion that the Spurs are a "good" match-up for the Grizzlies, fans indeed have to be careful with that. (Most, if not all, of the players and coaches know better.) And though the Ginobili injury complicates matters, there's a decent chance that the Spurs' fabulous regular-season actually undersells them a little bit.

This Spurs team is really good and, if Ginobili gets back up to speed, can get even better.
Gregg Popovich has probably done his finest coaching job this season. The Spurs have a history of holding back in the regular season and keeping a focus on the playoffs. You might think this season was different, given that the Spurs finished with the league's second-best record (61-21) and their most wins since 2005-2006, but it wasn't. Popovich managed to navigate his aging core to first place in the West despite continuing to limit his big three's regular-season minutes — including a six-game late March losing streak in which Duncan sat out four games.

Has Tim Duncan been laying low or is his modest regular season production all the Spurs will get?
  • LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Has Tim Duncan been laying low or is his modest regular season production all the Spurs will get?
The big change in the post-season is that Popovich will likely take the lid off Duncan's, Parker's, and Ginobili's minutes. Just look at the difference last year in those players' minutes per game from the regular season to the playoffs:

09-10:
Tim Duncan: 31.3 to 37.3
Tony Parker: 30.9 to 33.5
Ginobili: 28.7 to 35.2

On the way to 61 wins this season, this trio played similarly reduced minutes: 28.4 for Duncan, 32.4 for Parker, and 30.3 for Ginobili. Whenever Ginobili's ready to go, expect a similar increase in this series.

7. Does Tim Duncan still have an extra gear?
Duncan will play more in the post-season but how much better can he be? At this point, Duncan is 34 years old and has played 14 seasons, 1053 regular season games, and another 170 post-season games (the equivalent of more than two whole regular seasons). Does he have a history of ramping up in the post-season? Yes, but it didn't really happen last season.

In 09-10, Duncan averaged 18 points, 10 rebounds, 1.5 blocks, and 52% shooting in 31 minutes per game in the regular season. With six more minutes a game in the playoffs, his production barely changed: 19-10-1.7 on 52%. This regular season, Duncan averaged 13-9-2 on 50% shooting. Is it possible those numbers don't budge much in this series? Grizzlies fans can hope. But I wouldn't count on a repeat of Duncan's regular-season performance against the Griz: 11 and 9 on 42% shooting.

Duncan is still a good player, but he hasn't been dominant defensively and has drifted down a little in the Spurs' offensive pecking order. He's been especially creaky on pick-and-rolls. Can the Grizzlies exploit that with Gasol or Arthur? Can Gasol and/or Arthur single-cover Duncan on the block without getting killed? If the answer to both of those questions is yes, this could be a long series.

If Duncan rallies and emerges as something close to his vintage self, of course, the Grizzlies have no chance. I suspect it'll be something in between, in line with his good-not-great performance last post-season.

A lot of fans around the country are about to get their first look at the new Tony Allen.
  • LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • A lot of fans around the country are about to get their first look at the new Tony Allen.
8. Is the world ready for Tony Allen?
We all know that Tony Allen isn't scared of the playoffs, but can his magical, career-transforming play continue against the Spurs? Allen scored 17 points a game on 71% shooting versus San Antonio in the regular season. He can't be that good in this series, but in this David vs. Goliath match-up, Allen's swagger and toughness will be more important than his shooting percentage.

And if he does on this stage what he's done in Memphis over the past couple of months, the wider NBA world is in for a treat. Allen has already hinted at a couple of potential hairstyle experiments for the playoffs.

While Grizzlies fans may prefer an inactive Manu Ginobili, non-partisan fans who enjoy basketball as an arena of personal style won't want to be deprived of a whole series of Ginobili — one of the league's most effective, flamboyant, and idiosyncratic offensive players — being guarded by Allen — definitely the league's most flamboyant and idiosyncratic great defender. If you're looking for a game within the games in this series, this could be it.

9. Who are the 'X-factors' in this series?
For the Grizzlies, I think it's O.J. Mayo. Gregg Popovich will likely try to take away the Grizzlies' offensive strength by sending various double-teams at Zach Randolph. That Randolph has gotten so much better at passing out of doubles and that wing starters Tony Allen and Sam Young have proven to be good cutters and strong finishers gives hope that the Grizzlies can contend with this strategy well. But it would be very helpful if the Grizzlies can space the floor around their bigs and that's not Allen and Young.

O.J. Mayos shooting could turn the series — but only if his defense will let him stay on the floor.
  • LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • O.J. Mayo's shooting could turn the series — but only if his defense will let him stay on the floor.
Mayo — who came into this season as a potentially elite shooter — is the wild card here. He's been erratic all season, something mirrored in his performances against the Spurs: 27 at San Antonio in the overtime game, 0-3 in the next game, 17 off the bench back in Memphis, etc. But he's been showing flickers lately. If the old O.J. somehow shows up in this series, he could be a huge difference-maker for the Grizzlies.

Of course, to stay on the floor, Mayo's offense has to help more than his defense hurts, and against a Spurs team full of quick guards and deadly outside shooters, this is a shaky proposition. If the balance is out-of-whack with Mayo, Shane Battier could easily become a closer for the Grizzlies in this series. His size, smarts, and activity will certainly help the team defend the three-point line (perhaps especially against bigger shooters like Matt Bonner and Richard Jefferson) while potentially providing a floor-stretcher on the other end — at least if the Grizzlies don't forget to look for him in the corners.

For the Spurs, I think it's George Hill, who could be asked to start in the (unlikely, I think) event that Ginobili isn't available and will probably play 30 minutes a game even if Ginobili is in the lineup. With Mike Conley as the only small guard who should be in the rotation and with the Spurs' apparent match-up problems up front, going small could be the Spurs' best strategy. If the Grizzlies can't take advantage of a small, quick Spurs lineup, they could struggle to match up with it.

10. Do the Grizzlies have a decent chance to pull the upset?
Probably not. Playoff basketball is typically not a young man's game and the Spurs have an enormous edge in post-season experience, both on the court and on the bench. And a #8 seed has only upset a #1 seed once since first-round series expanded to seven games.

But it could be that the gap between these two teams is not as wide as the seeding indicates. There's that season-series split, for whatever it's worth. There's the fact that the Grizzlies won 46 games despite essentially tanking their last two — pretty good for a #8 seed. And there's the fact that the Grizzlies banked a bunch of losses early with what was a very different team — with Tony Allen in and out of the lineup and since-jettisoned (from the team or the rotation) marginal players such as Acie Law, Hasheem Thabeet, and Xavier Henry soaking up significant minutes. Since the calendar flipped to 2011, the Spurs have only been a game better: 33-17 to the Grizzlies' 32-18.

Look deeper and you see another example of potential parity: The two teams' most common lineups (Conley-Allen-Young-Randolph-Gasol for the Griz, Parker-Ginobili-Jefferson-Blair-Duncan for the Spurs) have been very similar, both scoring 1.11 points per possession (per 82Games.com) and being only a fraction apart defensively (1.01 for the Grizzlies, 1.00 for the Blazers).

I think there's a chance that this isn't your typical 1/8 match-up. That these teams are closer than that. But the Spurs' experience and home-court advantage is just too much to overcome:

Prediction: Spurs in 6

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