Friday, May 24, 2013

Griz-Spurs Game 3 Preview: Five Takes

Posted By on Fri, May 24, 2013 at 9:13 AM

Tonys.jpeg
  • Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE Getty Images

I expended most of my time and energy over the past day or so on The Griz Glossary, so this preview is going to be shorter than normal despite the momentous nature of the games in question. Oddly, that feels okay in a series where so much for the Grizzlies right now boils down simply to “play better” and where at least half of their problems come down to “defend the pick and roll better.”

Fave takes ahead of a big game Saturday night:

1. Promise or Mirage?: Here’s how the series has gone so far for the Grizzlies, quarter by quarter:

-17, +3, -2, -6, -2, -13, +3, +12, -4 (OT)

Was that 21-9 fourth quarter the Grizzlies played to force overtime in Game 2 a product of legitimate adjustments or an outlier, fool’s gold that masked ongoing problems?

There’s evidence for either argument but after re-watching it I feel a little bit less encouraged than I did watching it live.

The Grizzlies did plenty of good things.They put more effective lineups on the floor (Quincy Pondexter played the full quarter, Jerryd Bayless all but a couple of minutes), creating the space for Zach Randolph to get into a rhythm (3-5 with four rebounds in the quarter). The energy and, for lack of a better word, spirit was much stronger than it had been for most of the series at that point, with success allowing the team to play with rare confidence.

But even with a more conducive lineup on the floor, it’s easier to get your offense going when the other team’s best defender is on the bench, with Tim Duncan playing only 4.5 minutes of the quarter due to foul problems. On the other end, the Grizzlies' defense played hard, but that out-of-character nine-point quarter for the Spurs was partly the product of a lot of out-of-character missed shots. Matt Bonner missed a three with no-one within seven feet of him. Parker missed open threes. Duncan missed a tip-in. They were tired. Both teams were tired. The Grizzlies missed lots of open shots too, but that’s less unusual.

2. The Comforts of Home: If the fourth quarter of Game 2 presents false hope barring further improvements, so does a return home.

The Grizzlies are undefeated on the Grindhouse floor so far these playoffs and have run their home record up to 19-1 since Lionel Hollins’ post-trade/pre-game address back on February 8th. Hosting a West Finals game for the first time on a Saturday night, the arena will likely be bonkers. All of this should give the team a boost, but that alone isn’t enough. And Hollins knows this.

"We went on the road in every series and lost and have had to come back. We’re at home and we want to come out and play much more aggressive and confident, which teams normally do at home," Hollins said after practice on Thursday. “[But] as I’ve told our team, being at home isn’t going to win anything for us. We have to play much better.”

So far these playoffs, the Grizzlies have notched a -1 point differential on the road and a +9 at home. That 10-point swing is pretty strong, but in San Antonio the Grizzlies lost by 13 a game, so it won't be enough with some significant improvements.

3. A Quincy Pondexter Series: If the first round was a Zach Randolph series and the second round, prior to Game 6 at least, was largely a Mike Conley & Marc Gasol series, then is this round shaping up to be a Quincy Pondexter series? (And does that not bode well?)

Through two games, Pondexter has been perhaps the one true positive for the Grizzlies. Even coming off the bench, he’s led the team’s four wing players in minutes (33.5), is shooting 53% from the floor and 6-13 from three with the best plus/minus among Griz players getting significant minutes.

With starting small forward Tayshaun Prince struggling at both ends through two games and with the team’s offense starved for spacing to keep the Spurs from suffocating Randolph inside and clogging up driving lanes to limit the Grizzlies’ ability to penetrate off pick-and-roll plays, lots of people — myself certainly among them — have wondered if Hollins would contemplate a change.

“It’s something I’ve thought about,” Hollins allowed, perhaps surprisingly. “[But] it’s not something I’m ready to do.” That said, Hollins also made clear that he’s prepared to further shift minutes away from his struggling starting lineup and more in favor of bench floor spacers Pondexter and Bayless.

“I’m not hesitant to change the lineup early,” Hollins said. “Whatever we need to win is what we’re going to do.”

If a move were made, Pondexter for Prince is the obvious one (and it would perhaps allow Prince to play more point forward with Conley off the floor, limiting the need to use a true back-up point guard). Regardless, look for Pondexter to continue to play a major role in Game 3, and the more time he spends on the floor with other starters, the better. In a series in which the Grizzlies have been outscored by 12 points per 48 minutes, they’ve been +26 with Pondexter, Conley, and Gasol all on the floor together. And in a series in which the Grizzlies have struggled defensively, they’ve been terrific on that end when Pondexter and Gasol are paired.

4. The Two Tonys: The Grizzlies' starting lineup has been terrific defensively since coming together after the acquisition of Prince at the start of February, including into the postseason. But through two games against the Spurs, that lineup has yielded a shocking 121 points per 100 possessions. As much as the lack of offensive spacing with the starting lineup has been a problem, this unexpected defensive breakdown is perhaps a bigger one.

Asked about this on Thursday, Allen shook his head, then started talking about Tony Parker.

“He has the ball and his speed, speed, speed puts a lot of pressure on the defense,” Allen said.

How is this different from Chris Paul, whom the Grizzlies faced in the first round?

“It’s not,” Allen said, “and I don’t know why we haven’t caught ahold to it just yet. You’ve got to get to it fast. Instead of me watching film on [Manu] Ginobili and [Danny] Green, I think I should start watching more on Parker.”

Does that mean Allen will be on Parker earlier and more often from here on out? I suggested this before the series and believe it more now. As we’ve been reminded this postseason, Allen is most effective on the ball, where he’s perhaps the league’s most disruptive defender. Off the ball, despite his defensive skills, Allen can be prone to giving up backdoor cuts and catch-and-shoot opportunities, particular killers when guarding Spurs’ wing players.

“I haven’t been told that,” Allen said of guarding Parker more, “but I might have to take that initiative and just go out there and do it. If it’s wrong, I’ll take the risk of getting subbed. But he’s a pain in our butt right now. Him having the ball in his hands and making the play. To have 18 assists in a playoff game and take 20 shots just shows how much of an impact he has on the game.”

The conventional wisdom coming into the series — and one I echoed — was that the Spurs offered a much different defensive challenge than the Clippers or Thunder had, more about shutting down secondary shooters and combating a team-oriented approach than focusing on an individual star.

But I’m starting to second guess that idea. I do think the most damaging outcome of a Spurs possession is an open three-pointer for someone like Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, or Matt Bonner (collectively shooting 57% from three on 15 attempts a game). But those shots begin with Parker’s penetration.

“Where else [are they] coming from?,” Allen says. “[Parker] driving, beating someone off the dribble, splitting the pick and roll. He’s finding ways to get his guys involved and we’ve just got to find a way to be aware of that. He’s the best when you least expect it. When you think he’s done with the play he’s finding someone for an assist or getting fouled, doing something to keep his team in the game. Being a wing defender, whenever I turn around it’s forcing me to help. Forcing the bigs to help.”

On the season, Parker’s 26.8 usage rate wasn’t far behind that of Durant (27.4) and was even higher than Paul (23.8). Against the Grizzlies, through two games, Parker’s usage rate is even higher (27.5) while his minutes are also up (32.9 to 37.5). That the Spurs have also outscored the Grizzlies (albeit at a lower rate) with Parker on the bench speaks to the depth of their problems in San Antonio. But maybe stopping the Spurs is, in large part, about slowing down one player, which, as Allen indicated, may include pressuring Parker fullcourt at times throughout the game.

Reaching for an explanation of the problem, Allen deployed the idiom already in my head: “What’s the saying? You cut the head off the snake, the body should follow. You got to do that, because he’s the head of it all.”

5. The All-NBA Bigs Battle: It goes without saying that Zach Randolph needs to get going. He’s shooting an unfathomable 27% through two games and is 3-8 from the line. And his pick and roll defense has been so bad that you can’t have him on the floor if he isn’t producing offensively.

But the Grizzlies also need to get more from the middle, where Marc Gasol is shooting 39% overall, 25% from mid-range (where he was 48% on the season), and went 0-4 in overtime, with his coach acknowledging that the team needs Gasol to be more of a scoring factor.

Yesterday, Gasol was named to the All-NBA second team while his Spurs counterpart Duncan was named a first-teamer. In San Antonio, the duo’s raw numbers were nearly identical, with each playing brilliant defense in stretches. (Gasol was otherworldly in helping hold San Antonio to 15 points in the first quarter of Game 2.) But it was Duncan who made the big players in overtime, on both ends, Tuesday night. The is likely a product of playing less and thus being fresher. And the Grizzlies might try to use Ed Davis a little more to buy Gasol some rest. But the Grizzlies mostly can’t afford to keep Gasol off the floor too much. As heavy a load as Gasol is carrying on the defensive end, he'll have to impose his will offensively a little bit more if the Grizzlies are going to extend this series.

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