Playoffs 2017: West First Round -- Spurs (2) vs. Grizzlies (7)

Series preview: Kawhi Leonard set to lead San Antonio Spurs against Memphis Grizzlies

Behind its MVP candidate, San Antonio won't look past familiar playoff foe

Fran Blinebury

The Spurs facing the Grizzlies has become almost as much a part of annual spring traditions as the first robin and tulips popping up in flower beds. This will be their fifth meeting overall in the playoffs and fourth time in seven seasons. The Spurs have won three times by sweep — including a year ago — while the Grizzlies pulled off a No. 8 seed over No. 1 stunner in 2011.

The Spurs didn’t miss a beat in their first season without retired legend Tim Duncan as Kawhi Leonard fully embraced the mantle of leadership ship, leading them to the seventh 60-win season in franchise history, trailing only the Celtics and Lakers on the all-time list. San Antonio also extended its NBA record to 18 consecutive 50-win seasons and has the longest active streak of reaching the playoffs in North American sports at 20 seasons in a row.

In their first season under new coach David Fizdale, the Grizzlies underwent a dramatic lineup change with power forward Zach Randolph moving to the bench. They were up and down all season and faded badly down the stretch to settle into the No. 7 spot in the West.

3 quick questions and answers

Where’s Grit & Grind? Even though the Grizzlies have JaMychal Green in the starting lineup to help with spacing and shooting, there is still plenty of time when Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph are on the floor together to work the paint and beat up opponents with their inside game. When push comes to shove, the Grizzlies still push and shove.

Is Kawhi Leonard the real MVP? While the season has been dominated by the debate about whether Russell Westbrook or James Harden should be named MVP, the taciturn Leonard has quietly made a case that he’s the best two-way player in the league. Defense counts, doesn’t it? Leonard is the reigning two-time Defensive Player of the Year and hasn’t lost his edge at that end of the floor while stepping up to carry the lion’s share of the Spurs’ load on offense. If you like your MVPs well-rounded, here’s your man.

Can Tony Parker step up? The 16-year veteran point guard has been plagued by a series of injuries to his knees, feet and back all season long and has the lowest output statistically since he was a rookie. If Parker isn’t fully healthy and able to push the pace occasionally and spread the ball around effectively to Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and the rest, the Spurs can have trouble scoring points against a quite capable defensive team.

The number to know

+8.9 — For the second straight season, the Spurs led the league in *aggregate bench NetRtg at plus-8.9. Patty Mills, Manu Ginobili, David Lee and Jonathon Simmons all ranked in the top 10 in raw plus-minus off the bench and Pau Gasol has been remarkably efficient off the bench since returning from his hand injury. But in their four games against Memphis, the Spurs’ aggregate NetRtg was minus-4.5 and Ginobili’s minus-20 over the four games was his worst plus-minus against any opponent.

* Aggregate bench NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions with bench players on the floor, weighted by minutes played.

Making the pick

The Grizzlies won the first two meetings this season in Memphis because they were able to keep the pace under control and get Randolph pounding away with his brute strength on the inside. The Battle of Brothers between Marc and Pau Gasol will be quite interesting to watch. Both are firing up 3-pointers at a record pace for 7-footers this season. It’s a series that will be physical, not pretty. But in the end, you have to go with the team that has the best all-around player and that’s Leonard. He can make the difference at both ends. Spurs in 6.

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Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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