Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Anatomy of a Knockout (and other notes on Game 4 and in advance of Game 5)

Posted By on Wed, Apr 27, 2011 at 12:05 PM

Even two days later, it's hard to get your head around what happened at FedExForum Monday night. A win is one thing, but what fans almost immediately dubbed a "Beale Street Beatdown?" Didn't see that coming.

Having re-watched the second half a couple of times via the TNT, let's pay respect to what occurred before moving onto tonight's Game 5 in San Antonio.

The Prizefight Narrative: Watching Game 4 again, I was struck how much the arc of the game felt like a boxing match:

The Feeling Out: The first half. The Spurs came out aggressive, throwing punches via point guard Tony Parker, who scored 19 first-half points on perfect shooting. But the Grizzlies absorbed the contact, countered, and held their ground, going into the half down 50-48.

The Knockdown: The Grizzlies open the second half on a 14-0 run, doing it with the kind of defensive activity and intimidation that had been a regular-season staple — steals, deflections, forced turnovers, transition baskets.

The Recovery: The Spurs take the punch but get back on their feet, responding to the Grizzlies 14-0 run with an 11-4 run of their own, one featuring trademark contributions from each of their big three: A Manu Ginobili three, a driving Tim Duncan dunk, and Parker lay-up.

The Set Up: A flurry of Darrell Arthur jumpers across the third and fourth quarters function like jabs, setting the Spurs up for the big punch.

The Haymaker: At the 5:43 mark, up 91-74, Mike Conley finds Shane Battier standing in the corner. The pass is a little low, but Battier catches and takes a second to reset, then floats in a three-pointer. Ginobili, on Battier, had been sagging into the lane. He turns toward Battier with the pass and starts to come out on him, then just stops. Gives up, really, and just watches the shot. The Griz go up 20. The Spurs call a timeout and clear the bench. Knockout.

Amazing Arthur: Those four mid-range jumpers from Arthur were sandwiched around the Sequence of the Season. Watch it again and notice all the details: Where Arthur starts before the block (at the free-throw line), where he lands afterward (out of bounds), and how he begins three paces behind the next closest player and still beats everyone down the floor for the dunk:

The Grizzlies should play this sequence on a slow-motion loop as a FedExForum lobby installation.

But as great as Arthur's offensive was, I think his defense was even more impressive. Arthur's first possession in the third quarter was a full-court press where he bottled up Spurs guard George Hill along the baseline, forcing a turnover. Repeatedly, the Spurs ran pick-and-rolls and Arthur switched onto small guards — Ginobili and Hill — and not once did he let guards get off a good shot against him. You won't find a power forward defending guards on the perimeter better than Arthur did Monday night.

Check out this one possession. And notice Arthur reach out at Greivis Vasquez, who was trying to recover back to Hill, and shove him out of the way: "Get back over there. I got this":

The Mike and Marc Show: The Grizzlies players who have gotten the most attention in this playoff run have been Zach Randolph and Tony Allen. And for good reason: Randolph has been the team's best all-around player this season and a legit all-NBA candidate. Allen's energy and defensive intensity turned the season around and captured the imagination of a now-swelling fan base.

But in this series, I would argue that it's been the less colorful duo of point guard Mike Conley and center Marc Gasol who have emerged as the team's steadiest, steeliest players, both playing big minutes (41 and 40 per game, respectively, tops in the series by far) and winning match-ups with a pair of former NBA Finals MVPs.

Conley hasn't been perfect: His shooting percentage is down (39%) and there have been times when the offensive hasn't gotten going quick enough, often leading to Conley having to launch mid-range jumpers because nothing better has materialized.

But he's done a great job of avoiding foul-trouble in a whistle-happy series and has arguably been the best point guard in a series where many thought he would get beaten badly: Parker has scored a little more (18 to 14), but Conley has been more dynamic (topping Parker in assists and rebounds) and more efficient (a 2.6 assist-to-turnover ratio to Parker's dreadful 1.1). And for a player whose mental toughness has long been questioned and who is in his first playoff series, Conley has never been rattled. He sat coolly before the press after Game 4 and said, matter-of-factly, without a hint of bluster: "I think we all smelled blood. We knew, a couple more punches and we'd have them."

Meanwhile, Gasol has merely outplayed Tim Duncan: 16 points, 11 rebounds, 3 assists, and 1.5 blocks on 57% shooting for Gasol; 13 points, 10 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2.8 blocks on 53% shooting.

And there were moments in the second half on Monday night that had to feel painfully symbolic for Spurs fans. Gasol ripping an offensive rebound away from Duncan and laying it in the basket was memorable. But I was more struck by Gasol's lumberjack defensive rebounding down the stretch. On at least a couple of occasion, Gasol actually boxed Duncan out with one arm while securing the rebound with the other.

And after it was over, it was Gasol leading the team huddle and turning to acknowledge the home crowd with firm, undemonstrative applause. And in the locker room afterward, Gasol was entirely unimpressed with the accomplishment. "We haven't won anything yet," he said to everyone.

The Allen/Manu Match-up: Manu Ginobili had been a tough match-up for Tony Allen in games 2 and 3, but after calling Ginobili out between games and aborting a showy Griz-centric haircut, Allen settled down and neutralized Ginobili in Game 4. Allen's game is not about shooting and dribbling, it's about defending, deflecting, cutting, and passing, and he did all those things well Monday night.

Introducing Tiago Splitter: Given how ineffective the under-sized and under-athletic trio of Dejuan Blair, Matt Bonner, and Antonio McDyess had been against the Grizzlies frontline, I was surprised it took three games for Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to turn to 6'11" rookie center Tiago Splitter. The results were mixed: Splitter's size was a factor, as he had 6 offensive rebounds in his 22 minutes. But he wasn't as effective defensively and was -14 while on the floor. I would still use him tonight if I were Popovich — nothing else is working — but we'll see.

Free-Throws and Three-Pointers: If the Spurs rally to win tonight, I suspect their victory will be built on free-throws and three-pointers. In games at San Antonio in this series, the Spurs have averaged 40 free-throw attempts. In Memphis, it's been 23. At home, the Spurs have shot 41% on three (though the Grizzlies were able to keep their attempts below their regular-season averages). On the road, they've hit only 21%

The Grizzlies have generally done a good job playing passing lanes and closing out on shooters and working hard to limit the Spurs three-point looks from the corner, specifically. Great stuff on this here, via NBA Playbook.

Are the Spurs Done?: They sure looked defeated Monday night. But I wouldn't count them out, not with two of three games at home and not against a team that — however impressive they've been — still haven’t won anything together. As Tony Allen tweeted last night in reference to the Orlando Magic's blowout Game 5 win — also down 3-1, also playing at home: wow see the score in the orl vs atl )) its not easy 2 close (teams out!! We got 2 be focused) m -town stand up

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