The Grizzlies enter the Western Conference finals on -- no hyperbole -- the ride of the franchise's lifetime. Never before has the organization won as many games as they won this year -- 56 -- and never before has it reached this point, just four wins from competing for a championship. The Spurs, of course, are simply back, mounted on a familiar horse: San Antonio has won four titles since 1999 and this will be their eighth appearance in the Western Conference finals in the last 15 years. The NBA might as well re-name this round "The Gregg Popovich Invitational" when he retires.
But a straight "Blue Blood vs. Young Money" portrayal of this match-up would be too simplistic. Memphis eliminated San Antonio in the first round of the 2011 playoffs, the Grizzlies' core trio are all established veterans and there hasn't been a hint of "We can't believe this is all happening" from Lionel Hollins' crew over the last month. In fact, quite the opposite.
"I'm happy," Zach Randolph said to reporters after the Grizzlies conquered the Thunder on Wednesday. "But we've still got work to do and I want to win a ring."
If the Grizzlies expected to be in this position, or at least aren't surprised they are here, the Spurs might very well have been anticipating this match-up for longer than any of us. Remember all the way back in November, when the Spurs were fined $250,000 when Popovich rested four key players during a nationally-televised game against the Heat? One explanation for Popovich's decision to let Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Danny Green rest: the Spurs wanted them rested and ready for a game against their Southwest Division rivals two days later. Duncan, Parker and Ginobili all played 35-plus minutes on that night, and the Spurs prevailed in overtime 99-95 against the Grizzlies. By the end of the season, San Antonio finished just two games up on Memphis to claim the division title, the West's No. 2 seed and homecourt advantage in this series. Besides the massive fine, that worked out pretty well, didn't it?
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Anyone bemoaning the "small-market versus small-market" nature of the series is shortchanging two of the most-disciplined and effective teams in this league. And anyone harping on the lack of "star power" here needs a brain transplant. Last round, Grizzlies center Marc Gasol regularly had the biggest impact of any player -- Kevin Durant included -- and along with Randolph, Duncan and Parker, he's one of just four All-NBA caliber players in this series. Throw in two more All-Defensive guys in Mike Conley and Tony Allen, doff your hat to a still-electric Manu Ginobili and then finish with a future All-Star caliber player in Kawhi Leonard, and this series has the makings of a classic for the diehards.
Why The Spurs Will Win
San Antonio is facing its third distinct challenge of the 2013 playoffs. In sweeping the undermanned Lakers in Round 1, it had to conquer boredom. In dashing the Warriors' hopes in round two, it had to unravel the magical shooting performances of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Here, it will be tasked with bathing in blood, sweat and tears against a Grizzlies team that has succeeded in bending its opponents to its will and deliberate style of play throughout the postseason.
The Spurs' hopes rest largely on their elite balance. During the regular season, they finished No. 7 in offensive efficiency and No. 3 in defensive efficiency. Only Miami and Oklahoma City could beat that level of performance on both sides of the ball. San Antonio has only gotten better in the postseason, ranking No. 2 on offense and No. 3 on defense; only Miami (No. 1 on offense and No. 2 on defense) has a better postseason track record, and the Grizzlies' excellent defense has carried an offensive that lacks perimeter firepower and ranked just 18th during the regular season.
While it must be mentioned that the Spurs' numbers were goosed a bit thanks to the D-League caliber of the Lakers, their play in taking the final three of four against the Warriors was truly impressive. San Antonio held a high-powered Golden State attack to just 90.5 points over those four games, finding ways to limit Curry and make Thompson essentially disappear. That defense has sustained them through ups and downs on offense, as Parker and Ginobili have both struggled at times with their consistency, and it should sustain them in a grinding series against a Memphis team that made fairly quick work of the Thunder without ever cracking 100 points in regulation. Should San Antonio prevail, it will likely do so by squeezing more points out of low-possession games thanks to their three-point shooting, which ranked fourth in the league this season and second so far in the postseason, and the old (fairly) reliable trio of Parker, Duncan and Ginobili.
Why The Grizzlies Will Win
After a slow start against the Clippers, the Grizzlies have reeled off eight wins in their last nine games, a streak that puts them in the "Who is playing the best basketball at the right time?" conversation with the Heat. Memphis defeated both the Clippers and Thunder by refusing to waver from its unrelenting defensive intensity and grind-you-down offense and by taking full advantage of beneficial injury circumstances. Blake Griffin sprains his ankle? Randolph beats up the Clippers until there is nothing left. Russell Westbrook misses the series after knee surgery? Mike Conley steps it up on offense while the Grizzlies team defense sinks its collective teeth into Durant on the other end. Parker's health -- he's been limited by a variety of issues, including a leg injury -- will clearly loom large as an X-factor in this series. The physical, nonstop Grizzlies are the last defense you want to face when playing at less than 100 percent and Conley -- who is averaging 17.6 points, 7.6 assists and 4.8 rebounds in the playoffs -- is ready and willing to exploit any edge.
As great as Gasol is, and these playoffs are helping his case as the best center in the NBA, Randolph will likely be the deciding factor in whether Memphis can pull the "upset" for the second time in three years. In 2011, he averaged 21.5 points and 9.2 rebounds against the Spurs, and his big late-series contributions against both the Clippers and the Thunder were decisive. The 2013 Spurs are slightly better equipped to deal with Randolph than they were in 2011, thanks to Tiago Splitter, but it goes without saying that San Antonio hasn't seen anything like Randolph's low-post abilities so far during the playoffs.
Memphis will head to the Finals if it continues to play the unshakable style the Grizzlies have been playing for the last month and through the force of Randolph's foul-drawing, second-chance opportunity-creating, deep-post pump-faking offense. If the Spurs slip up, whether due to nagging injuries, foul trouble or off shooting nights, the Grizzlies are perfectly-positioned to catch them slipping, even if they lack an elite perimeter scorer.
Keep An Eye On
As noted, the health of Parker is the series' biggest X-factor, with Ginobili's hit-or-miss contributions trailing just behind. The Argentinean has come up huge from long-distance -- none bigger than his game-winner against the Warriors in Game 1 -- but he's come up empty, too, never shooting better than 45 percent from the field in six games against the Warriors.
That said, I'd urge you to give Duncan and Gasol your full attention in this one. From a technical perspective, these two will provide everything you want from big men, and more: bank shots, jump hooks, soft-touch fall-aways, drop steps, high-post passing, rim protection, straight-up blocks without fouling, solid screen-setting, good footwork, back line verbal communication, intense glares at referees, licked fingers after made jumpers, double-digit rebounding totals, laser-like focus, and unwavering leadership. These two guys will be putting on a Pete Newell's Big Man camp for the whole world to see. Duncan/Gasol might not be Durant/Kobe but there will be jaw-dropping, head-shaking moments of wonder.
Grizzlies in 7.The Spurs and Grizzlies split their season series at two games apiece: the home team won all four games, two of which went into overtime and a third which was decided in regulation by a last-second game-winner by Conley. Clearly, there's not much between the teams, and the fact that Memphis's No. 18 regular season offense has jumped to No. 5 in the postseason, despite facing two teams that had top-10 defenses in the regular season, makes this match-up that much tighter. There just aren't any glaring weak links that make installing either team as the favorite a comfortable proposition.
The Grizzlies' intangibles have been very convincing: They didn't break after going down 0-2 against the Clippers, they enjoyed great success against both Chris Paul and Durant, they've dictated the pace and style of their games throughout the playoffs, they've got a nice match-up advantage with Randolph and they've got the "playing great basketball at the right time" card mentioned earlier. That's enough to convince me to take them in a series that goes the distance.