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I’ve been wrong about a lot of things in my life – I thought the Celtics were done last season, I predicted that the Washington Wizards would be a playoff team this season, etc. – but one thing that I was dead on about was this San Antonio-Memphis series.
I’ve been constantly telling folks all year long that the San Antonio Spurs’ regular season success was an illusion. While many folks bought into the idea that the Spurs were a well oiled machine on offense that scored the ball extremely efficiently, I knew the likes of Matt Bonner, Gary Neal, and DeJuan Blair wouldn’t show up in the post-season. While the media fawned over the Spurs’ championship experience, I saw a humongous defensive liability in Tim Duncan rather than a veteran leader. While Tony Parker was praised for his ability to get into the paint at will, I saw a point guard that did a poor job running the offense while shooting the ball horribly outside the paint. While Gregg Popovich was considered a Coach of the Year candidate, I saw a man that was getting lucky production from his bench that wouldn’t sustain in the post-season.
Now that we’re four games into the first round of the 2011 NBA playoffs, I can look back and say that I was right on all accounts – and my Grizzlies in six pick doesn’t look so bad either.
The Memphis Grizzlies deserve all the credit in the world for proving me right. After the Spurs racked up 61 wins during the regular season by beating the bottom feeders and barely scrapping by against decent teams, San Antonio was finally exposed once they got matched up with a team that competes on both ends of the floor each and every night – each and every night excluding those nights leading up to the post-season when they seemingly tanked in order to match up with the Spurs in the post-season (I guess they were right, too, huh?).
Just like I said after game one, the Grizzlies hard working defense has absolutely shut down San Antonio’s perimeter attack. Save for Tony Parker lay-ups, the San Antonio guards have not been able to get anything going in this series. After hoisting 21 three’s per game during the regular season at a 40% rate, the best mark in the league, the Spurs have shot 20-of-65 from beyond the arc in this series. So not only have the Spurs shot about 20 less three’s than the normally would over the course of four games, they have also shot 9% worse from three point land.
The Grizzlies have simply refused to allow the Spurs to get any open looks from beyond the arc. Save for a few defensive mistakes from their second unit, the Grizzlies have rotated extremely hard out to the Spurs shooters and San Antonio’s drive and kick offense has faltered thanks to size of their bigs. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph have done a great job at stopping penetration even if Tony Parker gets the occasional contested lay-up and when the Spurs guards or big men kick it out to the corners, the cornerstone location of their offense, there are those pesky Grizzly guards, getting their hands up, contesting every movement while playing disciplined defense.
In game four the Spurs hit just five of their 18 three-point shots while the Grizzlies converted five of their 12 three-point attempts. Memphis’ defensive intensity was there the entire evening and the Spurs’ role players were simply not able to handle the defensive pressure. Matt Bonner, George Hill and Gary Neal combined to shoot just two-of-seven from beyond the arc while the Grizzlies reserves at those positions had 29 points.
The story of this game was definitely the Denver bench and the run they put together during the third and fourth quarters. O.J. Mayo hit a big-time three pointer with 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter to increase the Memphis lead to 14. Darrell Arthur followed that with the defining play of the game, the Grizzlies’ season and even the Spurs’ season. Tony Parker drove by Greivis Vasquez to get into the left side of the lane like had done a few times several times before in this game. The difference on this drive: Arthur came from behind to swat the shot. Mayo collected the lose ball, pushed the ball up the floor, stopped on a dime at the three-point line and threw up a perfect lob pass to Arthur, who had sprinted passed San Antonio’s entire team to get to the basket.
That combination of stellar defense and unparallelled effort has been the storyline of this series and Arthur showed it all on the biggest play of the series. The Grizzlies were up 16 at that point and the Spurs were never able to get closer than 15 after that. Memphis’ next basket was a 15-foot jumpshot from the pinch post from Darrell Arthur. A few plays later, Mike Conley found Arthur at the top of the free throw line circle after a pick and pop. The result: another swish. A few plays after that, Arthur and Tony Allen ran a pick and roll on the right side of the floor and Allen put a perfect drop pass right in front of Arthur. The result: Another thunderous slam for the Grizzlies’ top big man reserve.
Arthur was simply spectacular in the second half of this game. He finished with 14 points on seven-of-10 shooting and every single one of his baskets were dead on. His two buckets in the third quarter pushed Memphis’ lead to double-digits for the first time in the game and his performance in the fourth quarter helped the Grizzlies blow the Spurs out of the building.
Just like they have been doing all season long, the Grizzlies made the Spurs’ offense a mess. They forced the Spurs to commit 17 turnovers (seven of which were by Tony Parker) by doubling down on Duncan in the post, jumping passing lanes when the Spurs’ ran predictable sets and even by pressuring Tony Parker on an in-bounds play 90 feet from the basket. Tony Allen was absolutely brilliant in this contest not only because of his efficient offensive execution (12 points, five-of-10 shooting, two assists) but because of that tough defense. He locked down on Manu Ginobili, holding him to 14 points on 13 shots, while picking up three steals. Even though it was a pretty standard defensive performance for the Grizzlies it was still darned impressive to see them pull it off against the Spurs in their biggest game of the year.
What wasn’t standard about the Grizzlies’ 104-86 victory, though, was that Memphis was able to blowout San Antonio by 18 (the first game of the series not decided by single digits) despite a single digit performance from Marc Gasol and a below average game from Zach Randolph. Randolph and Gasol combined to score just 20 points, which is surprising, but they only took 12 shots, which is even more surprising. The Grizzlies were certainly looking for them in the post but rather than dominating the game with their scoring Gasol and Randolph won this game with their passing (six assists total), rebounding (18 boards combined) and their defense (Duncan and McDyess were five-of-12 from the field).
If you had said before this game that Randolph and Gasol would score just 20 points combined, which is less than what Randolph was averaging in the first three games of the series, I would have thought the Spurs would win the game. But rather than just being shut out Gasol and Randolph decided to distract the Spurs’ defense and make proper passes to cutters. Those cutters made San Antonio’s defense look old and slow, which was fitting on Tim Duncan‘s 35th birthday. All too often the Spurs’ help big man would be caught staring at Randolph or Gasol in the high post while Tony Allen or O.J. Mayo worked the baseline and got an easy lay-up.
And don’t overlook the performances of Mike Conley and Shane Battier in this game. Conley may have had a bad shooting night but he wasn’t afraid to take the mid-range jumpshot that the Spurs conceded by going under on pick and rolls. His aggression on the drive was useful and he did knock down his fair share of jumpshots too balance out his offensive contributions. Despite the six-of-15 shooting line Conley actually led the team in scoring with 15 points. Tony Parker may have had 23 points of his own but Conley did his best job on him defensively as he could and he was able to force him into seven turnovers. Battier put in nine points, four rebounds and two steals off the bench and hit the dagger three late to put the Grizzlies up 20. Watching Battier in a Grizzlies uniform never seems to get old.
The Memphis Grizzlies are just one game away from upsetting the San Antonio Spurs. The idea of an eight over one upset is normally thought of as a rarity but this series is different: the better team is winning. Popovich is being outcoached by Lionel Hollins and their players are being outplayed at each position. If we’ve learned anything over the first four games of this series, it’s that the Memphis Grizzlies are the better team between themselves in the Spurs.
And I knew it all along.