Memphis' fate may not be sealed, but after three straight losses, the Grizzlies are left to cling to the possibility of a comeback without precedent. Every postseason bears reminder of the fact that no NBA team has ever won a series after being where the Grizzlies now stand. The formality of elimination may be yet to come, but Memphis' signaled end is already here.
Of course, none of that will stop a team so persistent from taking aim at history. The challenge of winning four straight against a team as capable as the Spurs is a daunting task, but it begins with a single game and, more precisely, with a few adjustments. Things haven't gone according to plan for Memphis, but below are a few factors that will be key for the Grizzlies throughout the desperation stage of this series.
• Stay level. If we reduce this series to its coldest statistical indicators, Memphis wouldn't even seem all that competitive. Their 0-3 deficit aside, the Grizzlies have been outscored in the last three games by an average margin of 13.4 points per 100 possessions, a lopsided average differential unmatched by any team in the regular season. Yet much of that margin can be attributed to a Game 1 blowout distinct from the two ensuing games, both of which were extended to overtime after the Grizzlies kept point-for-point pace with the Spurs for 96 minutes.
Such are the breaks of the game. Memphis, for all of its charming grit and self-awareness, has functionally been dominated -- to the point of elimination being a matter of when, not if -- despite playing the majority of this series to a draw.
Memphis would do well to remain mindful of its proximity. The defense has been elite at times, and the offense far more than serviceable. The Grizzlies have simply struggled enough -- and just enough -- to let two winning opportunities slip through their grasp. Growth and adaptation are required over the course of any series, but overall this is a team in need of only minor adjustment despite its rather dramatic disadvantage.
• Adapt to Tim Duncan as a roll threat, continue to play Tony Parker with varying coverage. With their current roster, the Grizzlies have far greater potential for in-series improvement on defense than on offense. Yet if those gains are to be made, they'll have to begin with the handling of the two most potent creators for San Antonio -- Tim Duncan and Tony Parker.
In regard to the former, Memphis has guarded Duncan rather effectively for most of the series, opting to give him space to shoot from mid-range and countering his low-post work with the long-armed, big-bodied defense of Marc Gasol. That combination has helped Memphis to guard San Antonio's offense more honestly -- a crucial development given how well the Spurs move the ball and acclimate to defensive pressure.
Yet in Game 3, Duncan surprised the Grizzlies' defense by deviating wildly from the scouting report. Over the last several seasons, Duncan's pick-and-roll play with Parker has shifted into a consistent pick-and-pop -- a sequence that sets him up with open jumpers instead of looks closer to the basket. It's a natural evolution for a player of Duncan's age, both as a means of disguising his athletic decline and keeping him as fresh as possible. Duncan stayed true to form through the first two games of this series, but rekindled his roll game when the Grizzlies amped up the ball pressure against Parker in Game 3:
Hollins and his staff had the right idea in applying more pressure to Parker as a means of forcing Duncan to shoot, but their strategy turned against them when the Spurs' offense tilted toward to the rim. With Gasol guarding Duncan and helping on Parker's penetration, Memphis was left with Darrell Arthur, Zach Randolph and undersized perimeter players to help against Duncan's rolls -- a reliance that proved brutal in a game decided by so slim a margin.
That adjustment from the Spurs and Duncan was a byproduct of the Grizzlies' attention to Parker, but Memphis has little choice but to continue to attack Parker with as many different coverage schemes as possible. Beyond Gasol's help, they'll switch Mike Conley, Tony Allen and Quincy Pondexter into on-ball coverage, and try to challenge Parker by doubling from different directions. Doing so will open up opportunities for players like Duncan, but Parker has proven to be too tough a cover in this series to address with some singular approach. Nothing will work perfectly, and in that the greatest defensive asset the Grizzlies have at their disposal is variety.
• Look to optimize the offense in any way possible. Memphis' greatest struggles in this series have predictably come on offense, where the Grizzlies have shot just 38.4 percent from the field while averaging a pitiful 93.4 points per 100 possessions. Such trials were expected in a playoff series against a defense as well-schooled as San Antonio's, but Memphis only serves to accentuate its own limitations with every cramped, dragged-out possession. Spacing is and will be an issue for the Grizzlies, who have done pretty much all they can to stretch the impact of Quincy Pondexter and Jerryd Bayless in these Western Conference finals. Yet there are still a few more micro-level tweaks in approach that can be made to help Memphis get a bit more out of its offense, and thus stand a better chance of preserving their playoff lives.
The first is the simplest: Get into the offense more quickly. Memphis has a few go-to cross screens and the like that it uses to free up Randolph and Gasol for post-ups, but both of those players kill time by easing into position. I hesitate to use the word "urgency," given how overused it is in basketball circles, but in this case the cliché applies.
The best stretches of Grizzlies offense have come by way of quicker execution, in which Randolph, Gasol, Mike Conley and Jerryd Bayless have managed to create quick-hitting actions that either directly led to scores or created opportunities for others. A bit more effort in getting down court and getting into the offense could at the very least strain the Spurs' transition defense, and in the process create the kinds of mismatches that allow the Grizzlies to thrive.
Tim Duncan (right) is averaging 15.7 points and 9.7 rebounds in the Western Conference finals. (Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images)
More reactive lineups could also help Memphis manage its dry spells, simply by appropriating the resources available to counter the challenges that the Spurs present. Hollins has already altered his rotation pretty substantially in order to get Pondexter and Bayless into the lineup as often possible, but a matchup-specific approach could help to further stretch the value of those shooting assets. The most important change: Utilizing Tony Allen only when he has a specific perimeter threat to smother.
Matching Allen's entry and exit with Manu Ginobili's would seem like a simple starting point, though finding him minutes to cover Parker would also make sense in spots. Where some would see this as a concession of sorts, I see only pragmatism; Allen is a limited player who is only providing value when guarding opposing shot creators, and yet for stretches of this series he's been pitted against Danny Green or Gary Neal on the perimeter. Were Hollins to move Allen to the bench as an explicit counter to Ginobili, he could filter out his go-to stopper's less effective minutes while maximizing his value.
Another option for the Grizzlies is to attack Duncan more deliberately on defense, if only because attacking Parker isn't a realistic possibility. Gregg Popovich can choose to hide Parker on defense at any point by assigning him to guard Allen, Pondexter, or Tayshaun Prince, earning the high-octane point guard a chance to catch a breather in between active offensive possessions. But Duncan has no such luxury in guarding Gasol, who too often lets Duncan get away with more passive coverage.
Gasol is famously tentative on offense at times, and because of that Duncan has been able to skate through some defensive sequences with his teammates helping to crowd the paint. Even Gasol's scores largely come out of sequences that don't demand much effort from Duncan; his mid-range jumpers only require that Duncan recover out of the pick-and-roll to challenge a jumper, without putting all that much pressure on Duncan to defend consistently over the course of a full possession.
In that regard, Gasol and the Grizzlies can frankly do better, and should look to make a more concerted push against Duncan's defense as a means of wearing him down and potentially drawing fouls. Backward though it may be to target a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, Memphis needs to make Duncan work in coverage more consistently -- not only as a means of getting Gasol more involved offensively, but also to help minimize the chance that Duncan has the legs for a big scoring night.
Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.