Sunday's series-starter between the Grizzlies and Spurs was a good day for skilled big men — my favorite type of player.
Once the game started, Tim Duncan looked like he'd been playing rope-a-dope with us all season, scoring 8 first-quarter points on a series of bouncing, energetic dunks, drives, and post moves.
But then things settled down and the skilled-big headliners turned out to be the guys without Hall of Fame credentials.
Two Bigs Are Better Than One: The biggest factor in the Grizzlies' hanging with the Spurs long enough for a Shane Battier three-pointer to steal the game was the production the team got from Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, who combined for 49 points, 23 rebound, 6 assists, and 4 blocks on 19-25 shooting.
Randolph's game was not surprising: His 25/14 was in line with his averages on the season (20/12) and in the season series with the Spurs (23/14).
Gasol's game (24/9 on 9-10 shooting) was somewhat less expected. He'd averaged 12/7 on 52% shooting for the season (down from his 15/9 on 58% last year), and had struggled — to a rather bizarre, probably flukish degree — in the season series with the Spurs (8 points per game on 35% shooting). Gasol had topped 24 points only once in the regular season and scored 20 points only four times.
But people assuming Gasol's big game against the Spurs was some kind of freak occurrence should know this: While he's unlikely to go 9-10 again, nothing he did in Game 1 was out of character or beyond his normal abilities. Gasol is a career 55% shooter, and he hasn't put up that percentage on a diet of putback dunks. He's not Mark West or Brendan Haywood. Marc Gasol is slower than his more celebrated older brother, but has much the same shot repertoire: Sweeping hooks, jump hooks, spin moves, mid-range jumpers, pick-and-roll finishes, ambidextrous ability around the rim. And he combines that with a 7'1", 265-pound body and a mean streak that showed up when it mattered most. Spurs fans: Don't assume this problem is going away.
In my series preview, I wrote that the Spurs were going to struggle with Randolph and Gasol because Tim Duncan could only guard one of them. And, in Game 1, Duncan didn't have much luck with even that.
I have Gasol as scoring one bucket on Matt Bonner, who guarded him on a few possessions, but he was mostly single-covered by Duncan the whole game, and scored on him in a variety of ways. Gasol's only miss was on a mid-range jumper.
This match-up problem is going to be an issue for the Spurs the rest of the series, but there are adjustments they can potentially make. (More on that in a second.) And while Gasol should continue to be a factor, he can't possibly be as effective again (9-10 on Duncan? #CmonSon). Game 1 will probably end up being the series high-water mark for the Gasol/Randolph combo, but they can continue to provide a foundation with which the Grizzlies can find success.
No Manu: Given the reports that he was lifting weights on his injured right (non-shooting) arm and putting up shots in practice, I had assumed Spurs guard Manu Ginobili would play in Game 1 despite being described as "doubtful." And I was shocked when he ended up watching in street clothes. Given the situation now and given how ready he looks, I would expect to see him on the floor Wednesday night.
And if Ginobili is healthy enough to be effective, he should have a big impact for San Antonio. As I noted in the preview, Ginobili has been the team's most effective and important all-around player this season. Assuming he's back and assuming Tony Allen avoids early foul trouble, we should finally get our mano-a-Manu match-up on Wednesday, which will completely change the color and tone of this series.
Mike Conley Passes the Test: Given the up-and-down start to his career and his "clutch time" struggles early this season, Mike Conley was one of the team's biggest question marks heading into the playoffs.
Conley did a reasonable job against a tough match-up with Tony Parker, but probably laid off Parker a little more than he would normally to avoid foul trouble: Parker shot 4-16 from the floor, but got to the line 16 times (hitting 12). Despite this, Conley was able to play 44 minutes (picking up 4 fouls). The drop-off from Conley to rookie back-ups Greivis Vasquez and Ish Smith is so severe that the Grizzlies are going to be willing to give up a few drives to Parker to avoid having to sit Conley with foul trouble.
Wings and Things: If the Grizzlies got strong play at the point and in the paint, the play on the wing was sketchier. Sam Young was bad — bad shots, bad fouls, bad defense on Richard Jefferson. He never looked comfortable. Shane Battier was good, even before his big shot.
Tony Allen and O.J. Mayo started poorly: Allen picked up two quick fouls and then later injured his calf, making him a non-factor through three quarters; Mayo started 1-7, his first-quarter-ending three-pointer the only positive. But both finished strong: Allen finally got into a groove in the fourth quarter, getting 6 points, 3 assists, 2 boards, and a steal (but missing a pair of important free-throws), while Mayo hit two of his three long-range shots in the final quarter.
Mayo and Battier combining for 5-6 from long-range was a huge factor in the game, but the Grizzlies could certainly get better all-around play from their wing rotation in coming games.
A Different Game: The Grizzlies' advantage in the paint and the problems Spurs guards caused with dribble-penetration in Game 1 were predictable match-up issues likely to be hallmarks of the series.
But beyond that, much of Game 1 went against the script. After leading the league with 9.4 steals per game on the season and averaging 8.8 against the Spurs, the Grizzlies had only two steals in Game 1. After leading the NBA in turnover differential and winning that battle in three of four games in the season series, the Grizzlies turned it over six more times (16 to 10) on Sunday. After beating the Spurs on the offensive boards in all four regular-season match-ups, the Grizzlies were down by six on the offensive boards in Game 1. Zach Randolph played 41 minutes without an offensive rebound. (The Grizzlies also left some points on the table with sub par free-throw shooting, hitting 64% in Game 1 after 75% in the regular season, which was especially damaging given how many fouls were called.)
For the Spurs, obviously the biggest difference was that they were without their most dynamic playmaker in Ginobili. And while they matched their regular-season-best 40% three-point shooting, their attempts were down substantially (from 21 to 15), a result, perhaps, of putting more emphasis early on Duncan and having the Grizzlies run them off the line more aggressively.
Game Two Adjustments: What might change in Game 2? A few possibilities:
For the Grizzlies:
I think Young will settle down and play better, but, on the defensive end, Battier's length matches up better with Richard Jefferson. More important is Battier's experience, smarts, and composure in relation to team defense. On the offensive end, the Grizzlies could use more three-point shooting given how much attention the Spurs are likely to be giving Gasol and Randolph. Battier provides that. Young doesn't. Obviously, the team can still give Battier more minutes and use him as a closer off the bench. That happened in Game 1, where Young played 15 foul-plagued minutes as a starter. Battier played 25 off the bench, finishing the game.
But, if Battier and Mayo are both making shots in this series, then Young becomes your fourth best option on the wing. And I think it's hard to manage your rotation well if your fourth best wing player is in the starting line-up.
Settling down/Responding to officiating style: The Spurs went to the line 47 times on Sunday, nearly double their regular-season average of 24.2. There are a lot of reasons for this: The Grizzlies committed some bad fouls on both ends (especially a couple of unbearable bailout fouls on Matt Bonner). The Spurs did some flopping (Bonner bumped into Arthur and launched himself 10 feet, as if he'd been shot from a cannon). Parker and Hill got into the lane and drew contact. There seemed to be a few "star treatment" calls. But the big thing was that the Grizzlies play aggressive, physical, gambling perimeter defense as a rule and this game was called closely. It would benefit the Grizzlies if officiating would loosen up a little bit. But, if not, team needs to adjust to the whistles and settle down a little bit.
Deep bench options: Predictably, Lionel Hollins played Mike Conley nearly the entire game — 44 minutes. When he did go to the bench, Hollins played Greivis Vasquez four minutes and Ish Smith one minute. And even though the team was +4 with Vasquez on the court, given the Spurs guards success at getting into the paint, I wonder if we won't see more Smith in Game 2. In the frontcourt, Hollins kept it to a three-man post rotation for the most part, giving Hamed Haddadi a one-minute taste. Given the match-ups and his post-season experience, I was surprised Leon Powe didn't get the call instead. I'm betting we see Powe in Game 2 if the Grizzlies decide to go to a fourth big.
For the Spurs:
Getting Ginobili back/Returning to their regular-season game plan: With Manu Ginobili out, the Spurs went to Tim Duncan more in pursuit of points, and Duncan responded early a first-quarter scoring burst. But, in doing so, did the Spurs get too far away from their normal game plan? One suspects we'll see more pick and roll and more three-point attempts from the Spurs in Game 2.
Defending the paint/Changing frontcourt match-ups: Will the Spurs do anything differently to combat the Randolph/Gasol pairing? Based on Tim Duncan's post-game comments, it sounds like they'll keep Duncan on Gasol and it sounds like Duncan plans to focus more on containing Gasol and less on trying to help with Randolph.
As for Randolph, the two main defenders the Spurs used on him in Game 1 — Antonio McDyess and DeJuan Blair — can't match-up defensively and don't really pressure Randolph much offensively. Blair's ability to get physical with Randolph on the boards (Blair beat him on the offensive glass 5-0 in Game 1) makes him a better option. He at least gives the Spurs something. But the thought here is that the Spurs will would be better off using their two other options — Matt Bonner and Tiago Splitter.
Bonner is an even worse defensive option than Blair or McDyess, but he lead the league in three-point percentage and — as we saw in the last game's closing minutes — Randolph is not comfortable guarding him that far away from the basket. Playing Bonner on Randolph would basically be conceding a certain level of scoring, but the hope would be that you would make much of it back at the other end, while also luring Randolph away from the defensive glass. This would also fit in with the idea of the Spurs going all-in on the perimeter-based, three-point-heavy style that got them to 61 wins.
As for Splitter, the 6'11" rookie is the only other big defensive option the team has after Duncan. And, while Spurs coach Popovich is seemingly less comfortable with him — Splitter didn't see the floor in Game 1 — he's played well in limited minutes this season. It would seem to me that Splitter could be a much better option against the Grizzlies than McDyess or Blair.