NBA Playoffs Preview: Spurs vs. Grizzlies
The Spurs swept both series -- the first being the 2013 Western Conference Finals and, of course, last year's first-round matchup.
So, with yet another Spurs-versus-Grizzlies showdown in this year's postseason, can we expect anything different?
Memphis is coming into the playoffs stumbling. They have lost 9 of their last 12 games, not a promising sign for a team that has made it past the first round twice since that 2011 upset.
The Spurs have failed to get back to the conference finals in two straight seasons after winning it all in 2014, and if they want another shot to get back to the Western Conference Finals, they are going to need to make quick work of Memphis.
San Antonio has swept their first-round opponent in three of the last five years, and last year's sweep of the Grizzlies was the only time in those three years where the Spurs failed to make the Western Conference Finals.
With the Grizzlies limping into the postseason, should we expect another first-round domination from the Spurs, or should we expect something similar to the 2011 playoffs?
A competitive series would not surprise anyone, but with Kawhi Leonard playing like an MVP candidate and the addition of Pau Gasol and Dewayne Dedmon in the middle this season, the Spurs have a much-improved roster from last year, when they had an average margin of victory of 22.5 points in their first-round sweep of Memphis.
San Antonio Spurs (2)
Championship Odds: 20.2%
Memphis Grizzlies (7)
Championship Odds: 0.51%
Regular Season Series - Spurs 2, Grizzlies 2
Unlike their playoff series from last season, the Spurs and Grizzlies had some good games this regular season. The Grizzlies won the first two games, but both teams held serve on their home courts. All four of the games came in February or later, and the final three games were all decided by single-digit margins.
However, Leonard and Gasol were missing in the first meeting when saw Memphis beat the Spurs 89-74 at FedEx Forum. The Grizzlies held the Spurs to just nine fourth quarter points in that one, and if Leonard, who averaged 24.3 points in three games against Memphis this season, was playing, you have to think that game would have turned out differently.
The Grizzlies averaged 93.0 points per game against the Spurs this season with San Antonio sitting at 90.5 points per game against Memphis. The Grizzlies did top 100 points in one of their wins against the Spurs, which could be important.
Since their win against San Antonio in the 2011 playoffs, the Grizzlies have failed to score more than 95 points in eight straight postseason losses to the Spurs and averaged just 84.4 points per game in those contests.
One thing that stood out from these two divisional rivals' matchups this season was the play of the two benches. Both teams finished the year owning top-10 bench scoring units.
Considering the lower scoring these two tend to produce in the playoffs, the fact that eight different bench players scored in double-figures in these four meetings this season could be the difference in this series.
Even though the four games this year were close, with one going into overtime, if Marc Gasol plays poorly, the Grizzlies likely have no shot at winning the series.
The younger Gasol brother was only 21-for-52 (40.4%) shooting in the regular season against the Spurs, and he failed to score 20 points in any of them. If he and Mike Conley can't match the offensive output from Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, this series will probably be over quickly.
How the Spurs Can Win
The game plan for the Spurs seems to be pretty straightforward. If Leonard is the best player on the court and the Spurs are winning the battle of defense and bench scoring, they should win this series pretty easily. The Spurs own the league's best defense by defensive rating this season, allowing just 103.5 points per 100 possessions.
These two teams are very similar in their defensive metrics, but the one big difference is their ability to play defense without fouling. The Spurs ranked sixth in their opponent free throws per field goal attempt at .192. The Grizzlies ranked 29th, letting their opponents shoot a free throw for every four attempts from the floor.
In the regular season series against Memphis, the Spurs were outshot from the free throw line with 81 attempts compared to 89. However, in the final two games that the Spurs won, they won the free throw attempt battle 41-33.
Spurs Player to Watch - LaMarcus Aldridge
Aldridge is an important piece for the Spurs this series and in the potential playoff run to come. He also had some good games against the Grizzlies this season, averaging 18.0 points and 8.0 rebounds in the four contests. If Leonard is putting up a consistent 18 to 20 points, the Spurs are going to be very hard to stop.
In games where Aldridge scored 20 points or more this season, the Spurs were 17-3, with one of those losses coming against the Grizzlies. He was a steady second option last year against the Grizzlies in the playoffs, and he showed up big on the road when the Spurs needed him the most with two straight double-doubles to help close out the series.
With Aldridge coming into the postseason red-hot from the floor with a true shooting percentage of 54.4% over his final 13 games, his offense and floor spacing is going to be key for San Antonio in this series.
How the Grizzlies Can Win
Other than getting big games throughout the series from their two stars and limiting the Spurs' freebies, the biggest two things the Grizzlies can do in this series is play good defense and play big on the road.
Memphis allowed nearly 103 points per game on the road this season, and they finished an uninspiring 19-22 away from Beale Street. The Grizzlies were also 5-8 in road games against fellow Western Conference playoff teams, and they lost their final five road games against those teams dating back to the beginning of February.
If Memphis can somehow reclaim their intensity and consistency on defense from earlier in the season, they are going to be in this series.
For example, Memphis owned a defensive rating of 102.8 prior to the All-Star break. Over the final few months of the season their defensive rating rose 6 full points to 108.8.
Against the Spurs, who ranked eighth, with an offensive rating of 111.1, Memphis will have to find a way to shut down some of the Spurs' key offensive weapons, while ensuring they keep them off the foul line as well.
Grizzlies Player to Watch - Zach Randolph
On Memphis' side, it's obviously a team effort, but the play of Zach Randolph stands out as their potential x-factor off the bench.
Obviously, the Grizzlies need their stars to be at the tops of their games, but if Randolph is scoring in the high teens or 20s off the bench, this series might go longer than our models or anyone is projecting.
Randolph dropped a huge double-double in his final regular season game against the Spurs, and in four games against them, he is averaging 14.8 points and 9.0 rebounds.
Randolph had a poor showing against the Spurs in Game 1 of last year's playoffs, but after picking it up in Game 2, he is now averaging 14.7 points and 9.4 rebounds in his last seven games against the Spurs. If he can provide that kind of scoring and rebounding all while playing solid defense on either Pau Gasol or David Lee off the bench, the Grizzlies will have their chances in this series.
With all that in mind, it's very hard to see the Spurs losing this series. Considering San Antonio is 8-0 in their last eight playoff games against Memphis and 6-2 in their last eight overall against them, a sweep is very much in the cards.
Even with the Grizzlies relatively healthy this year opposed to last, San Antonio has beefed up their frontcourt depth since last year. Plus, according to our metrics, the Spurs have the best player in the league in Leonard.
Our algorithm sees a lot of these same issues for the Grizzlies, and based on the two teams' overall performances from this season and our simulations, the Spurs are overwhelming favorites to advance in this series.
According to our algorithms: Spurs are 82.94% favorites.
My final prediction: Spurs in 5.