As the Memphis Grizzlies enter their first ever playoff series with the defending champion San Antonio Spurs, its hard to get a read on the match-up. The Grizzlies won three or four from the Spurs in the regular season, but reigning MVP Tim Duncan played only seven minutes in those three Spurs losses.
And one wonders how meaningful it is that these two teams are headed in such different directions as the postseason begins: The Spurs are the hottest team in the league, winners of 11 straight. But if the Spurs are surging, the Grizzlies are floundering, losers of six of their last seven games. With their vaunted chemistry unraveling in the face of a rash of late-season injuries (most destructively, a foot injury to Pau Gasol) and with complacency seeming to set in after the team clinched a playoff birth and notched its 50th win, the Grizzlies are clearly off their game.
This was apparent in the teams depressing, season-closing loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, who needed a victory in the game to ensure the top seed in the Western Conference playoffs. We were two steps behind them the whole game. Not one step, two steps, said coach Hubie Brown after the game. And you could say the same thing about the Grizzlies in relation to the referees: The amount of contact that happened without whistles was notably different from the regular season, particularly for the Grizzlies, and the team didnt respond well at all. Essentially, the Timberwolves and the officials had both shifted into playoff mode and the Grizzlies were still stuck in the regular season. Hopefully the Grizzlies will catch up by Saturday, when the Spurs series begins.
If not, then you can pretty much count on a sweep. This Spurs team, which led the league in differential by outscoring opponents by more than seven points a game, may well be better than last years title team. But despite their brilliance and experience, and the Grizzlies fragility and callowness, Im struck by how similar the make-up of these teams is:
Super-Skilled Power Forwards --Tim Duncan vs. Pau Gasol
Like many of the top teams the NBA (see also Pacers, Mavericks, Timberwolves, and, in theory anyway, the Kings), the Spurs and Grizzlies are built around splendidly talented power forwards that anchor the offense and lead their respective teams in rebounding.
Theres a difference here, of course. Duncan is a two-time MVP in his prime who, if he isnt the best player in basketball, is inarguably in the top five. And Duncan doesnt just lead his team in rebounding; he dominates the boards. And he doesnt just anchor his teams offense; he also anchors that leagues-best defense.
Gasol, by contrast, has as much raw skill on the offensive end of the floor as any big man in the league, but is still developing both his body and his game. And defensively and on the boards will likely never reach Duncans level.
Both players enter the postseason with health concerns: Duncan has had knee problems that have forced him to miss 13 games with a couple of stints on the injured list. Since he came back to action most recently, on March 18th, the Spurs have held him to only 32 minutes per game. One suspects that will change in the postseason, but the more time Duncan spends on the bench, the better it is for the Grizzlies, and if the Big Fundamental (so-called for his technically flawless game) re-aggravates the injury, all bets are off for the Spurs.
And theres Gasol, who missed games for the first time in his NBA career this month after suffering a strained arch on his foot. Its no coincidence that the Grizzlies late-season slide happened with Gasol either hobbled or out of action. If hes ineffective in series --and Hubie Brown sounded concerned about Gasols conditioning on Thursday -- then the Spurs will wrap it up quickly.
Clearly, this match-up does not favor the Grizzlies. Duncan played only 41 minutes versus the Grizzlies this season, but shot a sizzling 62 percent against Memphis. In the one game in which Duncan played the full game, the Spurs out-rebounded the Grizzlies by 18, doubled them up at the foul line, and held the Grizz to 67 points on 36-percent shooting.
Gasol was mediocre in the first three games with the Spurs this season before exploding in the teams last meeting. But Grizzlies fans should be pleased to note that, for his career, Gasol has actually faired pretty well against Duncan.
If Grizzlies fans want a real boost of confidence, look back to January 22, 2003, where the Grizzlies beat a soon-to-be-champion Spurs in San Antonio 98-93. Duncan had a monster game that night -- 30 points, 21 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 blocks. But Gasol responded with a big game of his own -- 28 points, 17 rebounds, 3 assists, 3 blocks. The message here: If Gasol responds to the challenge of matching up with Tim Duncan, the Grizzlies can win. They won this game in San Antonio, with Duncan having a monster game, with since-ousted Drew Gooden and Gordan Giricek clogging up the offense, and with marginal role players like Brevin Knight, Mike Batiste, and Cezary Trybanski playing significant minutes. Maybe Brown should pop that tape into the VCR on the flight to San Antonio,
Ultra-Quick But Erratic Point Guards --Tony Parker vs. Jason Williams
This may be the most crucial match-up of all. Both players are lightning quick and capable of huge games, but you can never be sure what youre going to get. Theyre different kinds of players: Parker is more of a scorer in a halfcourt-oriented offense where the ball runs through Tim Duncan. Williams is the more quintessential floor general for a team that looks to run at all opportunities. Parker is the Spurs second-leading scorer. Williams, with the ball in his hand and defenses tightening up, may well assume the same role for the Grizzlies.
Parker has been particularly Jekyll-and-Hyde against the Grizzlies. He didnt play in the teams first meeting and was abysmal in Memphis win at San Antonio. But in the other two games he was very effective, averaging 21 points and shooting 7-10 from three-point range. In the last meeting, a Grizzlies' win, Parker torched Williams in the second half, forcing Brown to go with backup Earl Watson, whose play bogs down the teams offense.
If there ends up being a clear winner in this match-up, then that team will likely advance to the second round.
Steal-Happy, Energizer Bunny Swingmen -- Manu Ginobili vs. James Posey
Whoever youre rooting for in this series, if youre a basketball fan you should just enjoy the opportunity to watch these two guys go at it game after game. Gritty defenders with unbelievably quick hands, Posey and Ginobili are as adept at getting steals as any players in the league, and both have a penchant for converting those turnovers into breakaway buckets at the other end.
Both guys attack the basket with abandon, knock down threes, throw their bodies all around the floor, and are just a pleasure to watch. Both are complementary scorers who average about 13 a game, but have proven to be capable of pouring in 25-to-30 on any given night.
Offensively Limited, Defensive-Oriented Small Forwards -- Bruce Bowen vs. Shane Battier
When Shane Battier was drafted sixth overall in 2001, if youd compared him to Bruce Bowen, fans would have been pretty disappointed. But thats pretty much what hes become, and it isnt such a bad thing.
Bowen is one of the leagues most effective perimeter defenders (some have accused him of being a dirty defender) but has never been much of a factor on the offensive end. Then, in the last couple of years, he developed a corner three-point jumper so sure that he actually led the league in three-point shooting last season. So Bowen defends and hits spot up threes and thats it.
Battier isnt quite so one-dimensional: Hes better at putting the ball on the floor, has a better mid-range game, and can get to the basket when he needs to. But his primary offensive contribution is that same corner three Bowen has mastered. On the other hand, Battier, while a brilliant help defender, isnt quite as effective one-on-one as Bowen.
Its an interesting -- and telling -- comparison, but one suspects that this match-up will be of only minor consequence in the series. Bowen was brought to San Antonio to guard the Kobe Bryants of the world. With the Grizzlies not boasting a big-scoring swingman that needs to be shut down, Bowen could see his minutes reduced. Similarly, if Bonzi Wells and Mike Miller are effective in the series, Battier is the most likely of the Grizzlies four quality swingmen to see reduced minutes.
Undersized But Intense Power Players -- Malik Rose vs. Lorenzen Wright
Rose and Wright are pretty familiar with each other: It was Roses Drexel University team that upset Wrights highly ranked University of Memphis in the NCAA tournament years ago. These days, both make their living as undersized but tough power players whose mean streaks balance out the softer outlooks of their European frontcourt counterparts. Both are also low-percentage offensive players who are nonetheless capable of finding a groove for the occasional big game.
Big, Versatile, Offensive-Minded Shooting Guards --Hedo Turkoglu vs. Mike Miller
The ostensible starting two-guards in the series (unless Spurs coach Greg Popovich reinserts sixth-man Manu Ginobili into the starting lineup), Miller and Turkoglu have two-guard handles in small-forward bodies, pretty jumpshots, and remarkably well-rounded floor games. Both guys seem capable of averaging 20 points per game, but, through a combination of their supporting roles on deep teams and inability to completely harness their considerable skills, really average closer to 10. And both are still young -- a year or more removed from their 25th birthdays.
Turkoglu was a disappointment early on, but has settled in to his role of late: In the final two meetings between the Spurs and Grizzlies, he averaged 18 points per game and shot 7-12 from downtown. If he does that in this series, the Grizzlies can start planning their summer vacations.
Quintessential Veteran Role Players -- Robert Horry vs. Bo Outlaw
These guys should see limited minutes, but I wouldnt be surprised to see them step into larger roles: Outlaw could be asked to D-up Duncan if the Grizzlies other frontcourt options struggle. Big Shot Rob Horry -- trying to win a title with his third different team -- could demand more floor time with his unique blend of interior defense and legendarily clutch three-point shooting.
Tough Old School Coaches: -- Greg Popovich vs. Hubie Brown
Popovich is an Air Force grad who once trained to be a spy. Brown is a crusty legend whose coaching career spans decades. Both are tough-as-nails taskmasters who also seem to have strong relationships with their players.
Pieces That Dont Fit
Jake Tsakalidis might be the odd man out of the Grizzlies frontcourt rotation in this series, but I suspect hell find his way onto the floor one way or another. But Rasho Nesterovic could be key. In replacing David Robinson in the pivot, Nesterovic has been a step back defensively for the Spurs, but brings underrated offensive skill.
And while the Spurs are deep, the Grizzlies are deeper, which could work to the teams advantage. Stromile Swift is always a wild card, but, with his sublime athleticism, he could be very effective against a Spurs frontline that, outside of Duncan, is slow (Nesterovic), undersized (Rose) and old (Horry, Kevin Willis). The Spurs can guard Gasol or Swift, but if both are on their game, the Spurs will have match-up problems. Similarly, Bonzi Wells, an aggressive scorer who once pumped in 40 in a playoff game, could be a difference maker if he gets on a role. And Earl Watson can very much be a factor against a Spurs team that has had problems at the back-up point-guard spot all season.
For the Grizzlies to compete in this series, three things have to happen:
One, Gasol has to produce. He doesnt have to match Duncan basket-for-basket, but he needs to at least match his regular-season numbers.
Two, the Grizzlies have to keep the Spurs supporting players in check. Duncan will get his; his numbers in wins and losses are nearly identical. For the Grizzlies to have a shot, they have to keep other Spurs from over-performing. This means keeping Nesterovic and Rose, who have both been more effective against Memphis than against the rest of the league, from having big games on the boards. And it means keeping guys like Turkoglu, Bowen, and Parker from shooting well from three-point range. All three have shot 50-percent or better from three against the Grizzlies this season. If they keep that up, itll be a short series.
Finally, the Grizzlies have to knock down some threes of their own. As has been the pattern all season, the Grizzlies can negate their weak rebounding with opportunistic defense. If that happens and Gasol produces, the Grizzlies can stick around. But outside shots have to fall to actually win.
Lets get real: Winning this series is a longshot. But there are plenty of storylines outside of wins and losses that may be of even more significance long-term. How will Gasol respond to the pressure of the playoffs? If he has a big series, he can establish his bona fides as an emerging franchise player. If he wilts, there will be serious doubts. Swift, wholl be a restricted free agent in the off-season, has a chance to make himself a whole lot of money if he has a big series. Can Williams complete his mid-career transformation from sideshow to solid point guard with a strong return to the postseason? Can Miller justify his big contract extension over the offseason by unleashing his natural scoring ability? Can Poseys transformation from supporting player to unexpected star continue into the post-season? And will this be Hubie Browns last hurrah?
Whatever happens, itll be fun to watch, but this is still as much optimism as I can muster: Prediction? Spurs in five.
FIRST GAME RECAP
Duncan, Spurs Start Quickly, Hammer Grizzlies
SAN ANTONIO, April 17 (Ticker) --
The San Antonio Spurs looked like NBA champions. The Memphis Grizzlies looked like a team playing its first playoff game.
Led by Tim Duncan and a cast of savvy veterans, the experienced Spurs took advantage of the inexperienced Grizzlies in a 98-74 victory in the opener of their Western Conference first-round series.
The third-seeded Spurs began preparing for defense of their NBA title by winning their last 11 regular-season games. They looked just as sharp as the postseason began, shooting 54 percent (41-of-76) from the field.
Tim Duncan and the Spurs opened their title defense in style.
Duncan scored 14 of his 26 points in the first half, helping the Spurs grab a 15-point lead. The MVP of the NBA Finals in 1999 and 2003 made 12-of-18 shots, adding nine rebounds and two blocks.
"It was a good start to get that nervous energy out, kind of continue from there," Duncan said.
San Antonio also got a huge lift from Robert Horry, who scored 10 points on 5-of-6 shooting in the first half of his 166th career playoff game. Signed as a free agent last summer, Horry has made a career of playing well in the postseason.
"He played well for us all year long," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "Sometimes we limited his minutes (during the season), but tonight was something we were hoping to get from him."
The sixth-seeded Grizzlies are in the playoffs for the first time since entering the NBA in 1995. The players on their roster had just 74 postseason games under their collective belts, and it showed.
Spurs championship holdovers Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Bruce Bowen helped set a tone of toughness that the Grizzlies could not match. Memphis shot a season-low 35 percent (23-of-66), committed 20 turnovers and spent too much time complaining to the referees.
"That's what I just talked to them about in the locker room," said Grizzlies coach Hubie Brown, who was coaching his first playoff game in 20 years. "This is your first time in this type of situation. You're playing the best defensive team in the league, and you have to gain from this."
By the time James Posey flagrantly fouled Ginobili with 6:08 to play, it was too late as the Grizzlies trailed by 23 points. Duncan took a seat a minute later.
During the season, Memphis beat San Antonio three times. But Duncan played just 10 minutes in those games and reminded the Grizzlies that the Spurs are a much different team when he is on the floor.
Ginobili scored 15 points, Hedo Turkoglu added 12 and Parker 10 and eight assists for San Antonio, which hosts Game 2 on Monday.
"It starts with Tony," Popovich said. "The last month and a half of the season, maybe a little bit more, he's really become more mature as a point guard."
Bonzi Wells, the Memphis player with the most postseason experience, scored 16 points. Posey added 15 in his first playoff game, but other Grizzlies did not fare well. Pau Gasol made just 3-of-11 shots, Stromile Swift was 1-of-6 and Mike Miller 0-of-5.
"We got embarrassed," Wells said. "We're embarrassed in ourselves (representing) the whole city of Memphis."
"Obviously, experience is an advantage. But not this big," Gasol said.
The Spurs took the lead for good midway through the first quarter. Horry came on and scored six quick points, helping San Antonio to a 28-19 lead after one period.
"He plays very smart basketball and adjusts to other people very well, as good as Tim Duncan," Popovich said. "Tim and Robert are so unselfish that they work well together."
As the Grizzlies continued to sputter, the Spurs put together a 17-7 run powered by seven points from Duncan, whose three-point play made it 49-32 in the final minute of the first half.
"Give them credit in that first half," Brown said. "They were quicker than us. An excellent transition game. They got a great spark from Horry and Ginobili."
GAME TWO RECAP:
Spurs Sharp in Game 2 Win, Beat Griz 87-70
SAN ANTONIO, April 19 (Ticker) -- As he has countless times in the playoffs, Robert Horry came up with clutch shots for the San Antonio Spurs.
Horry had 14 points and 10 rebounds and made two 3-pointers to stop a big run late in the third quarter as the Spurs defeated the Memphis Grizzlies, 87-70, to take a 2-0 lead in their Western Conference first-round series.
Tony Parker collected 27 points and seven assists and Tim Duncan added 23 points and 12 rebounds for the Spurs, who held the Grizzlies without a basket for nearly 11 minutes before Bonzi Wells connected with 5:01 left in the fourth quarter.
The Grizzlies trailed by 12 points early in the third period before pulling within 55-54 on a pair of free throws by Stromile Swift with 4:56 left. Horry countered with a 3-pointer 15 seconds later and, after a layup by Memphis' Wells, nailed another shot form the arc to open a five-point cushion with 3:20 left.
The Spurs extended the lead to 68-59 at the end of the quarter.
"I love it because the fans love it," Horry said. "The fans get so amped. They give me amp, and that's the kind of thing you need to push you through games like this. It was tough throw the first three, but then we were able to pull away. It was all the fans."
"Horry did a great job tonight, kept us in it when I thought we could have lost the lead, and he knocked down some shots," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "He really just knows how to play basketball. Might be a shot, steal, rebound, loose ball -- in some ways, he plays like Manu (Ginobili) does, just lays it all out on the line, and he loves this time of year."
Horry, who made 6-of-9 shots, won two titles with Houston and three with the Los Angeles Lakers before signing with San Antonio as a free agent last summer.
"I think Rob's just playing us. I think he just hangs out all season, does what he can, and then in playoff time he really wants to play," Duncan said. "That's just been his rep his entire career and it seems like it's much the same here."
Tony Parker collected 27 points and seven assists and Tim Duncan added 23 points and 12 rebounds for the Spurs, who held the Grizzlies without a basket for nearly 11 minutes before Wells made one with 5:01 left in the fourth quarter.
Pau Gasol split a pair of free throws 57 seconds into the final period to make it 68-60, but San Antonio scored the next 14 points before Wells' converted a layup six minutes later -- the Grizzlies' first basket in 10:48.
"We are frustrated right now," Gasol said. "We played so well in stretches, we just were not ambitious enough. ... They played hard and executed their game plan so well during the run in the fourth, and that just killed us. We didn't play well when it counted the most."
Gasol had 20 points and 11 rebounds for Memphis, which shot just 37 percent (26-of-71). The Grizzlies have averaged just 72 points in the first two playoff games in franchise history.
"If you think about it, we average 97 points a game," Memphis coach Hubie Brown said. "Our goal as a coaching staff is, can you get the same shot attempts and average at playoff time? These first two games, we have not been able to do that. When you average 70 in the playoffs, you're minus-27."
The Spurs got 13 points from Parker in the opening 12 minutes to take a 26-21 lead. Parker had 17 by halftime as San Antonio opened a 46-35 advantage.
The Spurs outrebounded Memphis, 53-35, including a 12-4 advantage on the offensive glass.
"It seemed like every time we started to play well and make a run, they would respond by making a big play or just outhustling us to a rebound or a loose ball," said Memphis center LorenzenWright, who had four points in 28 minutes. "The Spurs are too good a team to give them second shots."
Game 3 in the best-of-seven series is Thursday in Memphis.