POSTED: May 17, 2013 4:57 PM ET
The Marc Gasol (left)-Tim Duncan showdown may decide the West finals.
Say this for these two Western Conference combatants: They are who they said they were.
Grizzlies-Spurs: Game 1 Preview
Or something like that.
There are no secrets here. Both teams embrace a specific style, play to their strengths and go about their work with precision, passion and aplomb, mirroring the personalities of their coaches.
It's the San Antonio Spurs against the Memphis Grizzlies for the right for an NBA Finals berth. And it promises to be a good old-fashioned, black-and-blue brouhaha.
"They've had a heck of a year," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said of the Grizzlies. "They're gritty and talented. It'll be a heck of a challenge."
What a year it has been for the Grizz. New ownership. The Rudy Gay trade. A franchise-record 56 wins. And now a first-ever trip to the West finals.
They do it their way, with players other teams either didn't want or had yet to blossom. Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol came to Memphis in perhaps the most ridiculed trade in NBA history that sent older brother Pau Gasol to the Lakers for what was deemed (at the time) to be for nothing more than a bag of flat Spaldings. Zach Randolph arrived four seasons ago with a bad rap and worse rep. Tony Allen emerged as a three-time NBA All-Defensive team selection after six up-and-down seasons in Boston.
Mike Conley is now talked about as the league's most underrated point guard. Tayshaun Prince was said to be washed up. The bench was gutted in a mid-season trade and coach Lionel Hollins, who has worked without an extension all season, barely goes three deep on his bench.
Yet here they are, winning four straight after falling into an 0-2 hole against first-round foe Chris Paul and the Clippers. Then came another four-game streak against the Oklahoma City Thunder in the semifinals while making Kevin Durant look human.
It's a feel-good story about a gritty, grimy team buying in and uniting.
"Just believing," said Randolph, who is averaging 19.7 ppg and 9.3 rpg in the playoffs. "Management believing in us and keeping the core together, and confidence. The first season I came here, we had 10 more wins. Next season we went to the playoffs; just continuing to build and build and guys continue to get better and better. This moment means a lot to me. I'm happy, but we still have work to do. I want to win a ring."
That would entail getting by the systematic Spurs and then, likely, LeBron James and the Miami Heat. Which brings up an interesting nugget. Many around the game believe the Grizz have the best shot to beat the Heat because of how they're built, from the inside out. Randolph and Gasol are the most talented, low-post big man duo in the league. Memphis is a strong rebounding team and they play team-focused defense that has ranked near the top of the league all season.
Their construction is conventional in a true basketball sense, but unconventional by today's standards of going small, spreading it out and shooting 3s. Memphis doesn't do any of it. They start it inside and run the offense through Randolph and Gasol, who, on any given night, can finish with as many assists as Conley.
In the run-and-gun West, the Grizz are a lone wolf. Of the eight West playoff teams, Memphis was the only one not to average at least 101.1 ppg (they're at 93.4 ppg). But, the Grizz were the only team to hold opponents to under 94.6 ppg -- again, not even close at 89.3.
"We have a lot of heart and we try to defend and we try to rebound," Hollins said. "And we try to take advantage of the lack of size that some other teams play with. It's just the way we're constructed and the way I have to coach. If we had more perimeter people that could shoot and put the ball on the floor, we would space the court and do some things as well. This is our roster and personnel and I try to play to its strengths."
Meanwhile, the Spurs, under the direction of general manger R.C. Buford and coach/guru Gregg Popovich, have been completely re-fit around Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and the ageless Tim Duncan. They are lethal from all areas on the floor, they penetrate, dish, shoot, score and they defend.
For basketball purists, this is a Western Conference championship matchup for the ages.
1. Can Conley and Allen slow down Parker?
They couldn't in the regular season. Parker was dynamite against the Grizzlies in four regular-season games, averaging 25.5 ppg on 36-for-71 shooting (50.7 percent) and 6.5 assists. Conley and Allen didn't have to worry about Russell Westbrook in the last series, but both are now officially on notice.
2. What kind of impact can Memphis expect from Prince?
It is interesting that the Grizzlies can say they've improved since the Gay trade. Prince brings a team-oriented work ethic and solid defense, although his offensive game has been ragged in the playoffs. He scored a total of 31 points on 13-for-44 shooting against the Thunder, but maybe much of that can be attributed to being matched up against Durant. He'll have it tough again at both ends of the court against terrific Spurs youngster Kawhi Leonard.
3. What's up with Manu?
It's probably never necessary to worry about Ginobili. He's always going to show up giving his all. Whether that translates to big games is another story. He buried the game-winning 3-pointer in Game 1 vs. Golden State, but otherwise shot terribly. He finished the semifinals averaging 12.7 ppg on 34.2 shooting and 27.5 percent from 3-point range. Even his free throw shooting has suffered (65 percent). His minutes, though, ramped up from 19.5 in the first round to 29.7 in the semis. Getting open looks would seem to only get more difficult against Memphis, but Ginobili is a wily veteran and his contributions often transcend statistics.
4. Do the Grizzlies have enough 3-point shooting to hang with the Spurs?
They certainly wouldn't figure to match the Spurs in this category, but it is important to at least make the Spurs guard the 3-point line. Conley is improved from this area, but the two key names are reserves Jerryd Bayless and Quincy Pondexter. Bayless can be streaky and Pondexter loves to set up for the corner 3.
5. Can the Spurs match Memphis' physical play?
Can anyone? Two years ago when the Grizzlies sent the Spurs packing in the first round, San Antonio simply couldn't muscle up. But back then, Duncan played with a bum ankle and Splitter was a rookie finding his way. Duncan is in phenomenal shape and Splitter boasts a big, strong body that is also playoff-tested. Would the Spurs prefer more of a finesse series? Absolutely. But if they want to advance, they're going to have to -- ahem -- grit and grind.
Parker turned 31 on Friday and although it's been 10 years since he won his first title with San Antonio, the Frenchman has plenty left in the tank and is playing with mid-season exuberance. Parker's ability to get in the lane is uncanny, and it's been accentuated over the years by an accurate mid-range jumper. Everything the Spurs do runs through Parker, so his health in this series is critical. And yet San Antonio is so much more than Parker. Green, Leonard, Ginobili and Gary Neal -- as well as Matt Bonner, who might have a role in this series if the Spurs' bigs get in foul trouble -- are constant 3-point threats. The Spurs spread out the defense and make them pay with penetration and kick outs. And if the perimeter is covered, there's the spry-as-ever Duncan averaging 18.7 ppg, a notch above his regular-season average and his best postseason average in three years. In other words, the Spurs can kill you in a variety of ways.
The Grizzlies were a top defensive unit all season, boasting Gasol, plus an All-Defensive First Teamer (Allen) and Second-Teamer (Conley). They were especially good at limiting 3-pointers, which will be key. Allen gave Durant fits, so expect him to bounce between guarding Parker, Ginobili and Green. Randolph and Gasol will try to use their bulk to irritate Duncan. In three regular-season games against Memphis, Duncan averaged 19.7 ppg, 12.7 rpg and 4.0 apg.
There are no secrets here. Conley is going to get the ball into Gasol and Randolph and let the big men go to work. Randolph is averaging a team-high 19.7 ppg, four points more than the regular season, and Gasol is right behind him at 18.3 ppg. If the Spurs' guards sag down as Oklahoma City did, Gasol is an exceptional passer out of the double team (averaging nearly three a game). Randolph, who got the better of noted post defender Serge Ibaka last round, has learned to move the ball. The key to becoming a more dynamic offensive threat is Conley. When he pushes himself to attack in the halfcourt, drives the paint and gets to the rim, the Grizzlies are a much more dangerous offense. He's also improved his 3-point shooting, critical when the big men toss it back out.
The Spurs did a masterful defensive job against Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol in the first round. Every time Howard touched the ball, he was hounded by multiple defenders and came away black-and-blue. The big difference is the Spurs were more than happy to put Howard on the free throw line. Marc Gasol (79.0 percent in the postseason) and Randolph (73.0 percent) are both solid free throw shooters. San Antonio showed against Golden State that it is a again an elite defensive unit. Duncan has had a career year blocking shots and Leonard adds energy on the perimeter.
Is anyone more clutch than Gasol at this moment? The burly 7-footer scored critical points late in Games 3, 4 and 5 to get by the Thunder. He hit two free throws with 1:03 to go in Game 3, knocked down a 15-footer with 22.8 seconds to go in Game 4 and hit a 19-foot dagger with 27.1 seconds left in Game 5. For the Spurs? Pick your poison. Green and Ginobili have hit huge 3-pointers. Parker's drives are deadly and Duncan -- when Popovich decides to roll with him in crunch time -- is shooting free throws at a remarkable 85.0 percent in the postseason.
Here's the question for the Spurs: Can Splitter and Duncan stay out of out foul trouble defending the Randolph-Gasol duo? Duncan never accrued more than three fouls in the three games he played this season while averaging a whopping 37.0 mpg. Splitter fouled out of two of the four regular-season games (once with Duncan not in the lineup). Thunder bigs like Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and Nick Collison aren't the same threat Gasol and Randolph are. For the Grizzlies the question is: Will the bench provide meaningful minutes? The Spurs can go 10, 11 deep if necessary, while Hollins relies almost exclusively on Bayless and Pondexter, with Darrell Arthur getting sporadic playing time.
The Spurs are too deep, too talented, too capable of winning in multiple ways, too close to returning to the The Finals for the first time since 2007 to let this opportunity slip away. Spurs in 7.