It started a few weeks ago as a revenge tour, with a first-round knockout of a Clippers team that had eliminated the Grizzlies in the first round a year prior. Next, the Grizzlies put down a Thunder team in the second round that had ended their own playoff dreams in the second round two years back.
Now, it comes back to where it started: On a weekend afternoon in San Antonio, where, two springs ago, Shane Battier hit a go-ahead three to kick off the Grizzlies' first ever true playoff run.
Ten riffs in rarefied air:
1. Past as Prelude: As with the Thunder series, this one pits two teams that have played a lot of games over the past three years with the same coaches and roughly the same cores and much of the same supporting casts. Over 18 games in this stretch, the Spurs own a 10-8 edge.
The Spurs team the Grizzlies beat in six games two springs ago was, contrary to caricature, an offensive juggernaut (2nd in offensive efficiency and first in three-point percentage), while merely good defensively (11th), with particular trouble defending the paint.
This season, the Spurs style has swung back to the defensive side a little, where they're up to third, while the offense has slipped slightly, to seventh.
It's not hard to see how this shift in performance has followed a shift in personnel. While Tony Parker and Tim Duncan are as good or (in Duncan's surprising case, especially) better than two years ago, sixth-man Manu Ginobili is in a decline phase. That and the loss of guard George Hill has made the Spurs less dynamic with the ball. But replacing Richard Jefferson at small forward with emerging star Kawhi Leonard (acquired for Hill) has given the Spurs a physical stopper on the wings again, while replacing Antonio McDyess, whom Zach Randolph escorted to retirement in 2011, with an evolved Tiago Splitter has made the Spurs bigger and stronger up front.
The Grizzlies have changed a little less than the Spurs. Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, and Darrell Arthur return from the rotation of 2011, and most other changes have roughly duplicated the quality and style of what existed then:
Tayshaun Prince for Shane Battier
Jerryd Bayless for O.J. Mayo
Quincy Pondexter for Sam Young
Keyon Dooling/Tony Wroten for Greivis Vasquez/Ish Smith
The one area where the Grizzlies have probably upgraded most is somewhere it's unlikely to matter, with now-little-used fourth big Ed Davis a significant upgrade over then-little-used Hamed Haddadi.
Overall, the Grizzlies entered this postseason with a similarly middle-of-the-pack offense and a defense that's morphed from good (8th in 2011) to great (2nd this year).
As for the season series, it went 2-2, with home teams prevailing in all. Two went to overtime and another ended with a Mike Conley game-winner. The Spurs blew out the Griz in the third game this season, but that was during a stretch of particular turmoil and poor play. All but the Conley game came before the Rudy Gay trade and even that one was played without Manu Ginobili or Tim Duncan. So, beyond asserting that these teams are fairly evenly matched, I wouldn't put too much stock in the details of the season series.
2. Shocks to the System: Each of these teams is going to have to make a radical adjustment from the way they played in the second round.
The Spurs just spent six games corralling an uptempo, small-ball-heavy team in Golden State that relies on three-point shooting. Now they have two days to reboot for a slow-down opponent that prefers to play big and pound the ball inside. Talk about whiplash.
Similarly, the Grizzlies just spent five games against Oklahoma City honing a defense geared around containing a single high-volume, superstar scorer tasked to produce in relative isolation. Now they face probably the best passing team in the NBA. The Spurs have stars in Parker and Duncan, but their Top 10 offense is predicated on moving the ball to open shooters, no matter who those shooters are.
Whichever team can make a quicker, stronger adjustment to their new challenge will have an advantage. This sense of transition will inform lots of what I touch on the rest of the way.
3. Are Two Bigs Still Better Than One?: The story of the Grizzlies' victory against the Spurs in 2011 was, in large part, the story of the Grizzlies' two great bigs — Randolph and Gasol — overwhelming the Spurs' one, Duncan.
Will history repeat?
On the Grizzlies' end, the Gasol & Randolph tandem has shifted from leading man & sidekick to full partnership, but the ultimate impact seems about the same. In two rounds of the 2011 playoffs, the duo combined for 37.2 points in 79.5 minutes a game, shooting 47% on 28 attempts a game, with 22 rebounds and 13.8 free-throw attempts.
This year, Randolph is a little less dominant and Gasol a little more assertive, but the results are similar: 38 points in 76.7 minutes on 49% shooting — 28.1 field-goal attempts and 13.4 free-throw attempts. The rebounding is down a little, to 17.2, though that seems to be due, in part, to improved board work from Mike Conley and Tony Allen, in particular, who have darted in to grab boards while the bigs have been locked in battle.
If the Gasol/Randolph duo are roughly equal to the 2011 version, Duncan, at age 37, may actually be better. In 2011, Duncan seemed to be in decline, averaging a 13/9 in only 28 minutes a game in the regular season, which carried over to 13/11 in 35 minutes in the playoffs. This season, though, Duncan has roared back to all-NBA levels, averaging 18/10 with elite defense in 30 minutes a night, which has translated to 19/9 (albeit on 46% shooting) so far this post-season.
A Gasol/Duncan match-up will be basketball heaven for post purists: The two best all-around centers in the game this season, likely going head to head for much of the series.
At the four, the Spurs will again throw a phalanx of defenders at Randolph, but may be a little better equipped than two years ago, when Randolph escorted starter Antonio McDyess into retirement while similarly feasting on reserves Matt Bonner and Dejuan Blair.
Bonner and Blair have seen their roles in decline, with starter Tiago Splitter and versatile reserve Boris Diaw likely to get most of the minutes beside Duncan. Splitter's size could give Randolph problems, while Diaw can stretch the floor at power forward, taking Randolph out of his comfort zone. And if Randolph gets hot, the Spurs can also put Duncan on him, with Splitter, in particular, able to check Gasol.
The match-ups for the Spurs here are less dire now, but I suspect the Gasol/Randolph duo can be as effective offensively as they were against the Thunder, who lacked a Duncan but who probably had more quality front court defenders at their disposal.
4. Better Offense Required?: Despite winning eight of their past nine playoff games, I suspect the Grizzlies will need a better offensive performance to get past these Spurs.
So far in the playoffs, the Grizzlies have scored 104.4 points per 100 possessions, fifth best in the postseason and slightly better than their regular-season performance despite facing two statistically solid defenses.
The problem with this is that so much of the Grizzlies' offensive effectiveness has been driven by lots of free throws and very few turnovers, and I'm not sure how sustainable those two things will continue to be.
The Grizzlies averaged 22.2 free-throw attempts per game in the regular season* (*from here on out, whenever I cite a "regular season" stat for the Grizzlies, assume I mean "post-trade") and made 75% of them. In the postseason so far, their attempts are up to 31.6 and, despite some memorable late-game misses in Games 1 and 5 against the Thunder, have made 77%.
That bump is a consequence, in part, of playing Conley, Randolph, and Gasol more minutes in the playoffs and those players performing more aggressively, but against the disciplined Spurs that free-throw rate is likely to come down. The Spurs were one of the least foul-prone teams in the NBA in the regular season, ranking second in opponent free-throw rate, and have been similarly stingy in that regard in the post-season.
As for turnovers, the Grizzlies' playoff-best 11.1 turnover rate isn't only significantly better than their above-average regular season mark, it would have lead the league by a healthy margin. Marc Gasol has averaged one — O-N-E — turnover in more than 40 minutes a game. Mike Conley, playing 38.5 high-stress minutes a night at point guard, has coughed it up only 1.9 times a game. This is astounding work, but just can't continue at this level.
The turnover thing is particularly important for the Grizzlies. On the offensive end, the Grizzlies are so good on the boards that just getting shots up gives them a decent chance of generating points. On the defensive end, turnovers can yield fast-break points and other easy baskets that teams need to survive against the Grizzlies' miserly halfcourt defense.
But if free throws are likely to decline, if even just a little, and turnovers likely to tick up, the Grizzlies need to make up for that with better perimeter shooting. The team's already bad three-point shooting has gotten worse (31%) but perhaps more troubling has been the decline in mid-range shooting, down under 34% in the playoffs.
Conley, despite playing a terrific floor game, has struggled terribly from the perimeter, his percentages down sharply from both mid-range (45% down to 28%) and three-point range (36% down to 29%). Better shooting from Conley and Jerryd Bayless (36% in the playoffs) would help.
I also feel like, as well as Gasol is playing individually, the team might not be maximizing his impact on the overall offense by seemingly shifting more of his touches to the block instead of high-post. I've long maintained that the team's offense functions best with Gasol up high, where he can see the floor and make pass/drive/shoot decisions. In the last two games against the Thunder, Gasol somehow managed to play 89 minutes without an assist. The Grizzlies gutted those games out, but I take that as a symptom of an offense that's not functioning at top capacity.
5. A Different Kind of Defensive Challenge: As mentioned above, the Grizzlies' team defense will have to adapt to a very different style in this series, one geared more around ball movement and team-wide shooting than individual heroics.
Individual defensive match-ups — Gasol on Duncan, Conley/Allen on Parker/Ginobili, maybe Prince on Leonard — will matter, but maybe not as much as broader issues of controlling the pace and keeping track of shooters.
The Spurs had the league's best assist rate this season, were among the most dangerous three-point shooting teams, and played at the sixth-fastest pace. The Grizzlies were 29th in pace, and which team is able to get the game at their preferred tempo could be key. The Spurs are particularly adept at finding three-point shooters in transition, so slowing the game down should limit their long-range looks.
The Grizzlies carried only the 24th-ranked three-point defense into the post-season two years ago, but after the trade this season, the Grizzlies ranked first in opponent three-point percentage. They also held both the Clippers and the Thunder well below their season averages from outside. If any team can keep the Spurs' shooters under control, this is it, but the Spurs will have, at minimum, six viable three-point shooters — Green, Neal, Leonard, Ginobili, Parker, and Diaw — in their rotation, and potentially more with Bonner a stretch option.
Controlling secondary shooters — Green is the team's most prolific threat, at more than five attempts a game, and he shot 48% from deep in Spurs wins, 31% in losses — may end up being just as important as how the team defends Parker or Duncan.
6. Wing Rotation Reset? The Grizzlies are going to play Conley, Randolph, and Gasol as much as possible with Darrell Arthur (or, probably not, Ed Davis) and Keyon Dooling (or, probably not, Tony Wroten) spotting them for brief periods of rest.
The real decision for the Grizzlies game to game is on the wings. So far in the postseason, the minutes have shaken out like this:
Tayshaun Prince — 33.6
Tony Allen — 28.8
Quincy Pondexter — 20.7
Jerryd Bayless — 19.1
With fewer — or less commanding — one-on-one scoring threats to contend with this round, I wonder if these minutes might flatten out some, especially if Bayless and/or Pondexter are knocking down shots or if Prince, who shot under 30% against the Thunder, continues to struggle offensively.
Certainly Allen's role here is somewhat less clear. He'll no doubt match-up with Ginobili at times. My guess is that the team only puts him on Parker late in games, if Parker's hot. But this team doesn't depend as strongly on one perimeter creator as the Clippers or Thunder, so Allen's "designated stopper" skills may be somewhat less valuable.
7. Potential X-Factors: Though he's gradually claimed the entirety of the back-up power forward/center minutes this post-season, Darrell Arthur has had a modestly disappointing postseason and the Grizzlies have struggled when either Randolph or Gasol have gone to the bench. But there's something about Arthur and the Spurs. The best game of Arthur's career was in Game 4 against San Antonio two seasons ago. His best game this season was arguably in the home overtime win versus the Spurs, against whom he shot 55% on the season series. Perhaps this match-up affords Arthur some breakout potential.
For the Spurs, Ginobili could be the mystery man. A banged-up 35, Ginobili certainly seems to be in an accelerating decline phase. His 43% shooting this season was his worst since his second NBA season and his 23.2 minutes was his lowest since his rookie year. It's generally been even worse in the playoffs, as Ginobili is shooting only 38%. But his passing has still been a weapon and he's capable of breaking out, as with a 21 points on 8-18 shooting performance against the Warriors. But other games in that series — the 5-12, the 3-9 — have been more typical.
Beyond individual X-factors, a few other unknowns could come into play:
Will the Spurs use small-ball to try to force one of the Grizzlies bigs off the floor? My guess is probably not. The Spurs have tended to use their depth to match up with their opponent. Against the Lakers, the Spurs used lots of stretch forward Matt Bonner, but played little if any actual small-ball. Against the Warriors, however, three of the Spurs' six most-used lineups were small, with the 6'7" Leonard shifting up to power forward. Leonard — 14/8 on 56% postseason shooting — rebounded well enough to make this work, but the Spurs also used little if any small-ball against the Grizzlies in the regular season. I'm not expecting this, but it's something to look for, especially if the Spurs start to lose ground in the series.
Injuries are something to keep an eye one: Leonard's knee, Parker's calf, Randolph's ankle, Prince's hip, Ginobili's very existence.
And, for the Grizzlies, foul trouble is always a potential killer if Conley or Gasol are limited.
8. Game One Questions: The Grizzlies are 8-3 in the playoffs. But they're 8-1 when playing a normal rotation: When Austin Daye hasn't gotten first-quarter run or Tony Allen's played more than 90 seconds in the fourth quarter. Will the Grizzlies throw us for another Game 1 loop or continue with what's been working?
But I'm starting to think Game 1 is particularly important for the Spurs. The Grizzlies have demonstrated the capacity to get stronger as series go on, especially on the defensive end, when they've had more time to prepare and adjust. And after what's happened in the past two rounds, losing Game 1 is not going to faze the Grizzlies. The Spurs need to take advantage of the stylistic whiplash each team will be confronting at the start of the series.
9. Are the Spurs Now a Regular-Season Team?: It's been six years since the Spurs swept the Cavs for the fourth title of the Duncan/Popovich era. Since then, here's how their seasons have ended:
08 — Lost 4-1 to Lakers in Conference Finals
09 — Lost 4-1 to Mavs in First Round
10 — Lost 4-0 to Suns in Semi-Finals
11 — Lost 4-2 to #8 seed Grizzlies in First Round
12 — Lost 4-2 to Thunder in Conference Finals after being up 2-0
The Spurs have been lower than a #3 seed only once in this stretch, so they have not been a team that's played its best ball in the postseason. Are they going to buck this trend in Duncan's age 37 season and with Ginobili no longer looking like a full partner in this title-tested core?
10. The Better Team: Two years go, the Spurs were a #1 seed and the Grizzlies were #8, but that was probably misleading. Over the regular season's final 40 games, the Spurs were only one game better. This time, with the seeds closer — #2 to #5, separated by only two games —- the same is true. After the completion of the Rudy Gay trade, the Grizzlies went 27-10 (.730 winning percentage). In the same time frame, the Spurs finished 21-13 (.618). The Griz also bested the Spurs in point differential, +5 to +3.6. Carrying over, the Grizzlies have performed better in the playoffs relative to stiffer competition.
Despite the seeding difference, the Grizzlies grade out as the slightly better team in a vacuum. In the Spurs' favor is homecourt. That 10-8 Spurs edge over three season obscures that Grizzlies-Spurs games, for whatever reason — or perhaps none at all — have had a particularly strong home-team correlation, with the home team going 15-3 in that stretch.
That adds up to a toss-up series, but I've become a believer in the brutal power of the Grizzlies' team defense as a monster that feeds and grows as a series deepens. With that as my tiebreaker: Griz in 6.