When problems are this vast, so are potential answers. Here are a few quick thoughts on some of the many issues the team has to try to sort out before tonight’s tip.
Scheme: We knew going in both of these teams were going to have to make big strategic and stylistic adjustments from the way they’d played the previous series, and the Spurs were miles ahead of the Grizzlies in terms of preparation and execution in Game 1.
I’m no coach, but clearly the Grizzlies’ pick-and-roll defense was a disaster, from the initial defense to the chain reactions that routinely left deadly Spurs three-point shooters open. This problem wasn’t just about the new buzzword “overhelping,” though I do think that applies in some instances.
Simply — and I know it’s not simple — the Grizzlies need to clean up how they’re defending the basic pick-and-roll plays, which will be especially tough when Tony Parker has the ball and Zach Randolph is the big being picked on. After that, the team needs to make decisions about what it’s willing to give up: A contested Manu Ginobili shot in the lane or a wide open Matt Bonner three? A contested Parker runner or Kawhi Leonard open in the corner? A tough pass for Tiago Splitter to a cutting Parker or an easier pass to an open Danny Green on the opposite wing? Against this Spurs team, I’d be willing to give up anything short of an uncontested lay-up before an open three from one of their good shooters.
Cleaning up pick-and-roll defense and staying home more on shooters is easier written than done, but one problem from Game 1 seems a little bit more correctable. The Grizzlies simply can’t let Bonner have another game like the one he had Sunday, when he was 4-6 from three-point range. Ed Davis lost track of Bonner on one play by helping deep in the paint, but most of Bonner’s damage was done with Darrell Arthur as his primary defender.
Rewatching these plays, I really don’t think Arthur is the culprit here. It’s more of a strategic issue. Two years ago, when Arthur was such a big factor against the Spurs, the team switched pick-and-rolls whenever Arthur was the defender, and he did an amazing job containing Spurs’ guards. Arthur’s not quite what he was then, but when Bonner’s in the game, this still seems like the right strategy. The Grizzlies didn’t do this in Game 1 and Bonner got most of his looks during the scramble of Grizzlies defenders trying to recover off picks and return to their man.
On the other end, the Spurs need to be punished for having Bonner in the game. The Spurs smartly avoid putting him in too many situations where he has to guard Randolph or Marc Gasol, and Arthur doesn’t really have a post game. But I still think Arthur could go at him. The one time he tried in Game 1, it was a face up that started outside the three-point line. Get Arthur the ball from 15 feet with Bonner on him and it would be more worth an attack.
Elsewhere on the other side of the floor, the Spurs did to the Grizzlies what the Grizzlies did to the Thunder — ganging up on the go-to guy. Where the Grizzlies got burned for helping when failed pick-and-roll coverage provoked it, the Spurs played off of Grizzlies wings by design and with impunity.
Creating better spacing around Randolph is partly about personnel (see the next entry), but also about execution. On every Spurs possession you can seen all five players involved. Too many times in Game 1, especially on rare Randolph touches, there were Griz perimeter players making themselves too easy to ignore. Either not spacing out enough or not clearing out fast enough or, in at least one case, turning away from the play.
One avenue for creating spacing could be to further emphasize Gasol’s mid-range shot, which is solid out to 20 feet. Gasol was able to do some damage from up top in spurts in Game 1.
The Grizzlies also have to do a better job of creating passing angles to get Randolph the ball when the Spurs front, something the team has typically been good at but which stymied them on Sunday.
But my hunch here is that the fix is less about systemic issues than who’s on the floor and how they’re playing.
Personnel: Sorting out the wing rotation will continue to be a complicated problem for Lionel Hollins. With the Spurs’ discipline and the way they defended in Game 1, playing Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince together could be a problem. I doubt we see a starting lineup change, but Quincy Pondexter played more minutes than either wing starter in Game 1 and that could continue to be the case.
One wrinkle I would endorse is playing Allen more on Parker, including from the outset. Essentially: Fewer minutes for Allen but leverage his on-ball defense more when he is out there. As we saw in the Thunder series, Allen can be more effective defensively on the ball than off, even if it means guarding a better player. Putting him on Parker from the outset could have a double benefit: Using your best on-ball defender at the point of initial concern and also having fewer lapses on the wing.
An added benefit here would be to use Conley on Parker more when Allen is out of the game. On Sunday, it went the other way.When Conley and Jerryd Bayless were in the backcourt together, the team often had Bayless guarding Parker. Part of the idea, presumably, was to keep Conley on the floor while conserving his energy. But Conley’s a much better defender than Bayless, particularly in the pick-and-roll. Having Allen guard Parker early could make it easier to have Conley on him when Allen’s on the bench.
The Grizzlies made their best run with a lineup of Bayless-Pondexter-Prince-Arthur-Gasol and I would imagine we’ll see this again, though I think it could also work as well with Conley in the Bayless spot. With this lineup, the team was able to run a high pick-and-roll with Prince and Arthur and spread Bayless and Pondexter out to the far corners. It also ran a side pick-and-roll with Bayless and Gasol, with Prince and Pondexter stationed on the weakside, beyond the three-point line. On possession after possession, this lineup created more spacing and cleaner looks, even in misses, than the Grizzlies got most of the game. And using Prince in the playmaking role with Bayless on the wing helped the team get through Conley’s rest without using Keyon Dooling. More please.
Performance: The macro problems the Grizzlies had on both sides of the ball on Sunday were compounded by lots of little miscues: Bayless stepping under Green for a bad and-one foul. Gasol getting beat on the offensive glass after the Grizzlies had forced a contested three miss. Allen getting caught on a Duncan pick and falling down, yielding an open Green three. Dooling botching a three-on-two break by not getting the ball ahead to a streaking Bayless. Back-up Spurs guard Cory Joseph getting a tip-in over Gasol and Randolph. And all those careless first quarter turnovers.
An awful lot of the answer is that lots of individual players have to be better. This starts with Randolph, whose poor play may have started with Spurs schemes, but didn’t end there. And Allen, who has been shaky in all three Game 1s now, needs to settle down. Those are just the leading bounce-back candidates. Other than perhaps with Pondexter, there’s considerable room for personal improvement all across the roster.