It's tempting to claim that Memphis has turned the corner against San Antonio after transforming a would-be blowout into a close overtime loss in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals on Tuesday. That much is certainly true in how the Grizzlies are executing their offense. Coach Lionel Hollins' adjustment to lean on the shooting of reserves Jerryd Bayless and Quincy Pondexter (at the expense of wing starters Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince) has made it far easier for Memphis to feed the low post -- a development that helped the Grizzlies make up ground in Game 2 and bodes well as they try to rally from a 2-0 series deficit.
But the general tenor of commentary and response to Memphis' Game 2 moral victory has perhaps been too kind. Crucial though it was for Pondexter to replace Prince, these Grizzlies are still struggling to score while suffering some brutal -- and unusual -- defensive breakdowns. Memphis is a truly terrific team, but in this series the Spurs have attacked every seam in its coverage while fully exploiting their own defensive advantage whenever possible.
The Grizzlies' offensive improvement in the second half of Game 2 figures to be a prominent talking point ahead of Game 3 on Saturday. In the final 15 minutes of regulation, Memphis erased a 16-point deficit by shooting 44 percent from the field and earning 10 free-throw attempts while turning the ball over just once. Memphis milked some productive play action during that stretch, but it has to be noted that almost all of the Grizzlies' offensive successes in this game and this series have come without Tim Duncan on the floor. That's an important distinction to make.
It's a stretch to say that the Grizzlies have figured out how to score in this series when what they've really figured out is how to score when players such as Matt Bonner and Boris Diaw are anchoring the paint. San Antonio does a better job than most of compensating for its players' individual defensive weaknesses, but there inevitably comes a point against capable teams in which Bonner is overpowered or Diaw is a step too slow. Those instances came more often in Game 2, as Duncan's consistent foul troubles limited him to just 31 minutes in a 53-minute game.
The fact that Duncan picked up so many early fouls can't be entirely divorced from the Grizzlies' offensive efforts, but his absence makes a rather glaring difference on possessions like this one:
The initial shot attempt -- a Bayless mid-range jumper between two defenders -- is one that San Antonio is OK conceding. It requires terrific balance and touch to convert that kind of look off the dribble on a regular basis. For the Spurs, the rim is protected, the three-point line is secure and coach Gregg Popovich's defensive imperatives are all accounted for. With Bonner in his immediate vicinity instead of Duncan, though, Grizzlies center Marc Gasol easily collects an offensive rebound and redeems what had otherwise been a relatively successful defensive possession for San Antonio.
A similar disadvantage for the Spurs is clear on this sequence:
Bonner does well to deny power forward Zach Randolph a post entry angle until the shot clock hits single digits, but a late catch and face-up drive forces him to commit a foul. Even with the help of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green digging down, Randolph and Gasol can put Bonner (and to a similar extent, Diaw) on the ropes with relative ease.
It's for this reason, among others, that the Spurs' defense swung by roughly 50 points per 100 possessions when Duncan was on the floor (65.2 points allowed per 100 possessions) compared with when the 37-year-old was off (116.3) in Game 2. Even with the Grizzlies' improved spacing, Duncan can body up opponents in ways that Bonner can't, he can challenge shot attempts out of Diaw's reach and he can track more elaborate sequences that Tiago Splitter occasionally struggles with. He's a brilliant individual and team defender even at this stage in his career and is the cohesive element that makes San Antonio's defense whole.
Additionally, while the influx of perimeter shooting should open up the floor for Memphis, that in itself doesn't guarantee secure offense. Even after a high-scoring third quarter in which the Spurs largely kept pace, Memphis registered a scoring rate (88.8 points per 100 possessions) well below its season average (101.7) during a stagnant fourth quarter. Memphis' 21 points in the final period were only effective by comparison, as San Antonio was held to just nine points on 21.1 percent shooting.
Those were miserable marks, and the Spurs didn't fare much better over the final stretch of the third quarter, either. But we shouldn't put too much emphasis on raw makes and misses, given the quality of looks that the Grizzlies allowed.
There were the terrific looks that came out of the pick-and-roll (and the Grizzlies' occasional switches):
… the wide-open attempts at the rim that San Antonio just couldn't convert:
… the makeable jumpers that just didn't fall:
… the painfully evident blunders:
… and the routine looks afforded to Parker -- typically a 47 percent shooter from mid-range and a 41 percent shooter on corner three-pointers -- who shot only 6-of-20 overall:
The Spurs failed to complete plays across the board over the final 15 minutes of regulation, but not because an elite defense had swallowed up their opportunities. Memphis did a fine job in coverage at times, but committed far too many errors to warrant holding one of the most potent offenses in the league to a nine-point fourth quarter. This wasn't a case of the Grizzlies being the Grizzlies, but of the Spurs surrendering a double-digit lead one atypical miss at a time.
That didn't much matter in the final verdict, as Duncan's return gave San Antonio a game-saving dose of scoring and interior defense at an opportune time. But this game, while decidedly closer and better for Memphis in totality than the Game 1 debacle, still served to highlight a stark discrepancy in the quality of these two teams' execution. San Antonio isn't above making its own costly mistakes, some of which contributed to the second-half setback that nearly evened the series. But the principles of the Spurs' offense were productive even when the players themselves weren't -- an outcome with which even the curmudgeonly Popovich can be pleased. Memphis may be better and the subsequent games close, but marginal gains in a fool's-gold second half does not a watershed moment make. Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.