By: Dan Grant
INT – DEEP IN THE SAME PAGE HQ, SOMEWHERE IN THE WILD TUNDRA OF THE NORTH OR AT A QUAINT BRUNCH SPOT ON COLLEGE STREET
Grant: Hello? Is this thing on?
Reynolds: Dan, what are you doing here?
Grant: It took some doing but I’ve got my Western Conference predictions done.
Reynolds: Wait, has the series started yet?
Grant: It starts tonight.
Reynolds: And… and… you have it done already?
Grant: Ready to go!
Reynolds: But… but… it’s Sunday. Don’t you realize the Internet is closed on Sundays?
Grant: NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!! [runs off screaming]
Reynolds: Well I hardly think that’s necessary.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS vs. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES
Oh man. This is going to get ug— wait? I’ve said that about every Memphis series so far? Well they play ugly! It’s a deserved reputation! It’s also a good thing and the way they’ll need to play if they’re going to beat the Spurs. San Antonio and Memphis have met before, and recently. In 2011, the top seeded Spurs were knocked off by the 8th seeded Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs, only the third time an 8 seed has beaten a 1 seed, ever. If you think San Antonio isn’t looking for revenge as much as Memphis is looking for validation, well, then I have a DeLorean that just needs a flux capacitor to sell you.
Memphis’ road to the conference finals has been that of a wrecking ball smashing through an abandoned K-Mart (the store, not the guy). I’ll cop to the fact that I initially thought Chris Paul would carve the Grizz up in Round 1, and through 2 games, that looked like it would be the case, as the Clips went up 2-0. Some injuries and terrible coaching later, Memphis took the next 4 in a row, essentially sweeping the Clippers out of the playoffs. Mike Conley Jr., who had shouldered a larger load after the Rudy Gay trade, showed that he was up to the challenge of competing with the elite point guards in the NBA, which vaulted this Memphis team from fringe contenders to real contenders.
The Russell Westbrook injury threw open the door to the Western Conference and Memphis has taken full advantage. I’ll pat myself on the back, as I predicted a Grizzlies victory over the Westbrookless Thunder, although I did think it would go 7 games. The fact that Memphis disposed of the former Western Conference Champs in 5 shows just how well they’re playing right now. If you throw out those first two Clippers games (which I will, because this is my article and you can’t stop me!) Memphis is 8-1 in these playoffs and have knocked off two division champions, including the top seeded OKC squad. They’re rolling right now.
The San Antonio Spurs are a paradox, seemingly, every season. They finished 2nd in the West this year, winning 58 games, going over 50 for the 15th time in Tim Duncan’s 16 seasons. But they’re the Rodney Dangerfield of the NBA, despite having one of the best ten players of all time in the aforementioned Timmy D, an all-world point guard in Tony Parker and the best non-Phil coach in NBA history (yeah I said it) in Gregg Popovich. And still, they’re nobody’s pick to win the Finals; they weren’t even when they won all FOUR of their titles. In 1999, they won in the lockout shortened season, so people discounted the title then and still do. In 2003, nobody thought they would be able to beat the Lakers, who had just completed a three-peat; when they won, the Shaq-Kobe feud was blamed. In 2005, when they beat the defending champion Pistons, a Dwyane Wade injury was blamed, as the pundits loved the Shaq-Wade combo in Miami and thought they were the front runners, something that was validated when the Heat won in 2006. And in 2007, people were already talking about Duncan being washed up and all the storylines were about a young upstart named LeBron James dragging his misfit Cavaliers to the finals. That was six years ago!
Does Tim Duncan look washed up to you? A finalist for defensive player of the year this year at age 37, Duncan has benefited from his minutes being managed beautifully, and still being able to find a sixth gear from time to time, which the Spurs need from him. The development of Tiago Splitter has been astounding, as has the emergence of Danny Green. Kawhi Leonard has become a force of nature on the perimeter and though he’s looking old, Manu Ginobili is still an incredible weapon to have coming off the bench.
The team finished tied for 3rd in the NBA in defensive efficiency this year and 7th in offensive efficiency. They finished 5th in the league in 3 point percentage and 3rd in overall FG%. They finished 3rd in assist % (the percentage of their baskets created by an assist. Essentially this shows how good a team is at passing) and 3rd in defensive rebound rate, grabbing nearly 75% of available rebounds on their own end.
That was a lot of statistical mumbo jumbo, but it all adds up to one thing: THE SPURS ARE REALLY FUCKING GOOD! Offense, defense, everywhere. They’re well coached, intelligent and ruthlessly efficient. It has been forgotten or dismissed too many times and I had to mention it here.
Keys to the Series: As I just mentioned, the Spurs are incredible at controlling the defensive glass. The Grizzlies are going to have to do their best to break this down, and they have the personnel to do so. Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol have been absolutely punishing throughout the playoffs, using their unique combination of physicality, soft hands and basketball IQ to punish the big men of both the Clippers and Thunder.
But they haven’t played Tim Duncan yet. The Z-Bo/Gasol vs. Timmy D/Splitter matchup is going to be a war. The Spurs were able to overpower the Warriors in Round 2, a team that tried to use Harrison Barnes as a small-ball four, the new NBA trend. While Barnes certainly isn’t of the ilk or calibre of a Carmelo Anthony or LeBron James, the Spurs showed the blueprint for beating the rudimentary version of that system. That matchup doesn’t exist in this series. It’s going to be a more traditional battle and the Spurs are going to need to use all their veteran savvy to stop Memphis.
Another matchup that will be absolutely key is that of Mike Conley vs. Tony Parker. While they likely won’t guard one another, they’re both going to have to dictate the will of their respective teams. I expect Memphis defensive specialist Tony Allen to take on Parker on the defensive end, not because Conley can’t but just to get him some rest. Conley can handle a Danny Green, more of a corner shooter, or a Manu Ginobili on the perimeter, though Allen and Conley are a ferocious tandem that will be able to mix and match based on the situation. Green and Kawhi Leonard will likely try to cover Conley for San Antonio, as Parker isn’t a great perimeter defender and Conley’s speed and ambidextrous ball handling might give them fits.
I think that while I gave my shout out to the Spurs above, that was out of respect. The Grizzlies are younger, stronger and on a roll.
That leads us to our final matchup: Gregg Popovich vs. Lionel Hollins. I love Pop and if I could choose any coach in the NBA to start a franchise with, it would be him. He’s the master of making something out of nothing, of finding diamonds in the rough and of constantly tweaking his system to fit his personnel. He’s a Hall of Famer. But Lionel Hollins is no slouch either. He took a team that traded its leading scorer and turned that into a positive thing, giving the squad a true identity and taking them further than they’ve ever been before. Unless Gregg Popovich can pull an all-time coaching job on Hollins, the Grizzlies are heading to their first NBA Finals.
Prediction: Memphis in 6
Reynolds: Wait, who is going to write about the Heat vs. Pacers matchup?
Reynolds: Well then.