NBA Playoff Preview: Spurs vs. Grizzlies
Both the San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies entered the 2015-16 NBA season with legitimately high hopes.
The Spurs were coming off a coup of an offseason after signing LaMarcus Aldridge and David West to their 55-win squad. They, of course, still had their veteran trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili along with reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Kawhi Leonard. Add in a new contract for legendary coach Gregg Popovich, and it is easy to see why we gave the Spurs a 90.6% chance of returning to the playoffs and made them one of the favorites to win the title with a 9.6% chance.
The Grizzlies were coming off a 55-win season of their own and an appearance in the conference semi-finals. They appeared to solidify their depth with the additions of Matt Barnes and Brandan Wright. Coupled with the re-signing of Marc Gasol, the roster was set to contend in the West. With Memphis eighth in our preseason ranks, we saw them as a near lock to make their sixth-straight playoff appearance.
However, the season could not have gone much differently for the two clubs. While the Spurs bested all expectations by putting up the seventh-best season, record-wise, in NBA history, the Grizzlies stumbled out of the gate before losing the heart and soul of their squad, Gasol and Mike Conley, to season-ending injuries.
Since March 1, Memphis has lost 16 games, including 10 of their last 11. Counter that with San Antonio losing only 15 games all season long, and we have what could be an incredibly lopsided series.
Despite the rough ending to the regular season for Memphis, they managed to hold on to the 7 seed in the playoffs and will face off against their division rivals in the first round.
Will the Spurs start another title run by taking out the Grizzlies? Or can Memphis shock the world and pull off perhaps the biggest upset in recent postseason memory? Let's take a look.
San Antonio Spurs (2)
Championship Odds: 30.62%
Memphis Grizzlies (7)
Championship Odds: 0.13%
Regular Season Series - Spurs 4, Grizzlies 0
Playing in the same division since the Grizzlies' inception in 1995, San Antonio and Memphis are quite familiar with each other. Over the past five seasons, the pair has faced off 20 times with the Spurs holding a dominating 16-4 regular season record. That includes a 2015-16 season sweep of Memphis, as they beat the Grizzlies all four times and by an average of 12.5 points.
In the first two games, Gasol and Conley were fully healthy but could not stop the Spurs from winning by double-digits in both contests. In the second of those defeats, the Grizzlies were embarrassed on their home court, losing by 20 points on December 3.
Less than three weeks ago, the teams played a weekend home-and-home series, where the Spurs took both games handedly, even without the services of Leonard. To be fair, the Grizzlies were without their big three as well, with Zach Randolph missing the games due to an ankle sprain.
How the Spurs Can Win
Show up? Seriously, though, the matchup between Memphis and San Antonio is one of the most lopsided in recent history.
The Spurs own the top-ranked defense in the league (first in points allowed, 92.9, and Defensive Rating, 99.0) and are facing off with a depleted Grizzlies squad struggling to score over their last 20 games (99.2 points per game, 26th).
To make matters worse for Memphis, one of the few ways they have been able to score reliably this season, free throw shooting, falls right into one of the strengths of the Spurs' defense. While the Grizzlies rank in the top nine of both free-throw attempts and percentage, the Spurs commit the fewest number of fouls in the Association, effectively neutralizing perhaps the only positive Memphis had offensively.
Things don't get better on the other side of the court either, as it appears San Antonio can do no wrong there. Despite their methodical Pace, the Spurs still had a top-10 offense (103.5 points per game) due to their impressive efficiency (110.3 Offensive Rating, fourth in the NBA). They shoot well, second-best in the league at 48.4%. They don't turn the ball over, only 13.1 turnovers per game (fifth-best). They share the ball and are tied for third with 24.5 assists per game.
I mean, the Spurs could even win this series with their "B" team.
The real question for the Spurs in this series is not "How or will they win?" Rather, it is "How much rest can they get Duncan and Co. in this round?"
Spurs Player to Watch - David West
With LaMarcus Aldridge nursing a finger injury and the Spurs heavy favorites to advance to the next round, West may find himself starting in Game 1. Primarily a reserve this season, West did start 19 games this year with the Spurs going 16-3. Even in a backup role, West had one of the most efficient seasons of his 13-year career.
The power forward transitioned well into his new role after starting every game he played in the last 10 years, 714 games. He put up a career-best shooting season at 54.5%. His 95.2 Defensive Rating ranked fourth on the team behind only Duncan, Leonard, and Ginobili and was the best mark in West's 13-year career. He also set a new career-high in Block Rate (3.0%) while posting per-36 averages of 14.2 points and 7.9 rebounds.
Not a stranger to postseason play with more than 70 playoff games in his career with Indiana and New Orleans, West will be in familiar territory. When he gave up $12 million with Indiana to sign for a measly $1.5 million veteran's minimum with San Antonio, West had this time of year in mind.
If you don't think he will be pumped up for the opportunity to win the first championship of his career, you are sorely mistaken.
How the Grizzlies Can Win
Let's be honest: it will take a miracle for the Grizzlies to prevail. Injuries have decimated their continuity. Gasol, Conley, Wright, and Mario Chalmers are all out for the year. Reliable veterans Zach Randolph and Tony Allen have both nursed injuries with Allen questionable to play at the beginning of the series.
In the past month, they have been relying heavily on journeymen (Barnes), castoffs (Lance Stephenson, Jordan Farmar), and players at the tail end of their career (Randolph, Vince Carter, Chris Andersen) -- a real cast of misfit toys.
The first thing Memphis needs to do to beat San Antonio is to believe. Late in the season, coach Dave Joerger started preaching the mantra "Believe Memphis" as the losses began to pile up down the stretch. He knew whomever they would have to face in the playoffs would present an uphill battle. If the Grizzlies are going to contend in the series, Joerger will need his veteran leaders (Randolph, Carter, Allen) to dig deep, play with pride and energy, and rally the team to renew some of the old grit and grind.
Because the numbers don't offer much of an advantage.
Grizzlies Player to Watch - Lance Stephenson
The Grizzlies' roster, even as thin as it is, is filled with savvy playoff veterans. Randolph, Barnes, Carter, and Farmar all have played in over 60 postseason games. Even one of the younger players, the 25-year-old Stephenson, has been part of two deep playoff runs with the Pacers, logging nearly 1,400 minutes.
If the Grizzlies are going to steal a game or two in this series, they are going to need the 2014 version of Stephenson to make an appearance.
After arriving from the Clippers at the trade deadline, the small forward flashed some of his past energy and swagger, as he averaged 14.2 points, 4.4 rebounds, and 2.8 assists per game with Memphis. On the flip side, he also disappeared more than once, racking up a few DNP-Coaches Decisions and struggling with a 4-point, 2-for-8 shooting, and 6-turnover performance against the Spurs on March 28.
No matter which version of Stephenson shows up, he is always entertaining.
Without Conley and Gasol, the Grizzlies do not resemble anything close to a playoff team this season. With no real offensive firepower and a swiss-cheese defense, the Grizzlies are far from the grit-and-grind squads of the past few years.
Any of the other 15 playoff teams, East or West, would be big favorites in a series over Memphis. Unfortunately for them, they are not playing just another playoff team. They have to play one of the overwhelming favorites to win the title this season.
The dominance of the Spurs this season has been completely overshadowed by the record-breaking Warriors. Our in-house numbers will even argue that the Spurs are the best team in the NBA. It's no surprise, then that we feel the Spurs will make quick work of the Grizzlies and move on to the second round.
According to our algorithms: The Spurs are 90.66% favorites.
My final prediction: Spurs in 4.