Starting Sunday, the second-seeded San Antonio Spurs take on the seventh-seeded Memphis Grizzlies in a playoff series for the third time in six years.
San Antonio’s regular season was one to remember, as the team won a franchise-record 67 games and effectively built its core for the future in Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge. Considering the Big Three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili is long past its prime, the Spurs needed the duo to be consistent, and it was, especially during the second half of the season
Memphis’ season definitely didn’t go according to plan. Though the squad ended with a respectable 42 wins, persistent injuries to its core of Marc Gasol, Mike Conley and Zach Randolph (along with several other players) kept the team from reaching its potential. With those maladies attacking the Grizzlies hardest at the end of the season, they dropped 14 of their final 17 games. In all, Memphis set an NBA record by having 28 players log at least a minute for the team this season, per ESPN’s Marc Stein.
Before we get into the nitty-gritty, let’s look over a quick statistical overview of the two teams:
It’s not looking too good for Memphis. The squad’s point differential is the worst mark by a Western Conference playoff team since the 1996-97 season, when the Los Angeles Clippers snuck in with a 36-46 record and minus-2.3 point differential. Not surprisingly, that group was promptly put out to pasture in a three-game sweep (back when it was best-of-five in the first round) by the Karl Malone- and John Stockton-led Utah Jazz.
Unfortunately for Memphis, this Spurs team is even better than that Jazz squad.
Stars Leonard and Aldridge are tough for any team to contain, but it’s the depth that gets difficult to deal with. Duncan, Parker and Ginobili are old, but they’re crafty and usually at least one of them is playing really well in any given game. Danny Green is one of the top wing defenders in the league, Patty Mills will kill you from the outside and Boris Diaw and David West would be starting big men on many NBA teams. Boban Marjanovic plays very limited minutes, but totally dominates (27.7 player efficiency rating) when he does appear. Jonathon Simmons, Kyle Anderson and Kevin Martin are capable of turning the tide of games with their differing skill sets, and 40-year-old Andre Miller is a cagey floor general who can still catch teams off balance with timely post-ups and heady passing.
Meanwhile, this is the list of the Grizzlies’ top 10 minute-getters since the All-Star break:
Matt Barnes (903)
JaMychal Green (732)
Lance Stephenson (692)
Zach Randolph (628)
Vince Carter (538)
Tony Allen (482)
P.J. Hairston (375)
Jarell Martin (370)
Chris Anderson (366)
Jordan Farmar (291)
How many of those 10 guys are getting rotation minutes (in 2016) for Gregg Popovich’s Spurs in a meaningful game? In my opinion, anywhere from two to four: Randolph and Allen are likely, with Stephenson and Barnes as possibilities.
San Antonio’s sheer amount of healthy, serviceable bodies is going to wear down Memphis in a four-game series. The projected shooting guard matchup of Green and Allen is the only one that’s close to even (and to a lesser extent, Aldridge and Randolph), but the 6’4 Allen’s defensive skills are best used on high-scoring guards, which the Spurs don’t employ in their rotation. TA is also banged up with a hamstring injury, but should play in Game 1, according to the Commercial Appeal‘s Ronald Tillery.
When Memphis upset San Antonio in the 2011 playoffs, the Spurs had transformed themselves into a finesse, offensive-minded team. The Grizzlies ground out victories with hustle and scrambling defense, mucking up San Antonio’s ball movement and laying the foundation for the team’s Grit ‘n Grind identity.
Memphis still embraces the same sort of principles under third-year head coach Dave Joerger, but the Spurs have accustomed themselves to winning games in the Grizzlies’ preferred way this season. They now play slow and set the tone with a tightly-choreographed defense and domination on the boards, while the offense is post-up heavy and focuses on shots inside the arc.
Not only are the Grizzlies undermanned, but the way they like winning is the same way their 67-win, historically-great opponent prefers to win.
Randolph could make things interesting if he finds the fountain of youth and Aldridge gets lazy checking him, but Memphis’ stable of healthy players is no match for the personnel San Antonio has available.
On paper, this is the most lopsided matchup of the postseason, and Coach Pop will make sure his squad keeps this series from going any longer than it needs to.
Series Prediction: Spurs in 4