By Jesse Blanchard
Since the Memphis Grizzlies upset the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the 2011 NBA playoffs, the two franchises have seemingly been on a collision course every year—with grit and grind always ending up worse for wear.
Over the years, the strength of this Memphis team has been its ability to wear down the binds that hold teams together, pulling at different seams until an opponents’ identity comes unraveled. This Grizzlies team that doesn’t bluff often leaves a team’s true nature laid bare.
In 2011, the Grizzlies upset a Spurs team not yet entrenched in its identity—caught in mid-transformation, reconfiguring itself into an offensive juggernaut in the image of Tony Parker while transitioning away from Tim Duncan as a steady offensive focal point. Memphis, meanwhile, was just coming into its own.
That series, Memphis tested the Spurs’ resolve at every level, reducing its newfound up-tempo style to former default isolations and post plays San Antonio was no longer geared for.
As Mike Tyson once said, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.
In this first round playoff matchup, the Grizzlies catch the Spurs in transition once more, with the beautiful ball movement that has disoriented Memphis’ elite defense over the years flickering in and out with the wind. The Spurs’ fortunes are now wholly in Kawhi Leonard’s hands, and in that process, San Antonio has become something far more likely to meet the Grizzlies on their terms.
With a towering frontline featuring LaMarcus Aldridge, Dewayne Dedmon, Pau Gasol and David Lee, San Antonio lacks the same matchup-swinging chameleon power forward it once employed in Boris Diaw. Furthermore, while San Antonio’s offensive tenets still revolve around movement, passing and execution, they’re now triggered by Leonard, who operates from the post and isolation far more frequently than any San Antonio player since Duncan’s MVP days.
All of this changes the dynamics of spacing for the Spurs, locking them into a more conventional form that, conceptually, the Grizzlies can account for a little better.
While the gap in talent and quality is evident and well-represented by the seeding for these two teams, the hope for Memphis is that the terms of this series, with the strengths of each team meeting head on, is something that might offer a foothold towards victory.
Both teams operate at a relatively slow pace, ranking near the bottom of the league with the Spurs squeezing just a few more possessions out per game.
Memphis, true to form, remains an elite defensive presence. The Grizzlies rank fifth in defensive rating, allowing 104.2 points per 100 possessions according to NBA.com. The Spurs have been the best defense by that same metric, holding opponents to 100.9 points per 100 possessions.
But the Grizzlies’ stylistic approach is both blessing and curse. For Memphis, the slow pace is a grind that equally wears on both teams, trying to keep opponents within arms’ reach of the Grizzlies’ No. 18-ranked offense (104.7 points per 100 possessions) long enough to get to the last few minutes of a game, where Memphis executes well enough on both sides to overcome its flaws.
For San Antonio, the pace is more leisure than liability, keeping an efficient offense that ranks seventh in the NBA in offensive rating at 108.8 points per 100 possessions despite trailing the Grizzlies in terms of three-pointers made and attempted this season. The Spurs are No. 25 in three-pointers attempted, but are the league’s most accurate deep shooting team at 39.1 percent.
While San Antonio has remained devastatingly efficient offensively, they’ve become less dynamic, which gives the Memphis defense more things it can latch onto.
Marc Gasol works as a smart defensive anchor, strangling driving and cutting lanes by subtly shading his massive frame a few steps in any direction as a deterrent without compromising his base assignments. Mike Conley aptly keeps his man in front of him, executing the team’s schemes at the point of attack. Beyond that, the Grizzlies feature a number of lengthy bodies with smart instincts and non-stop motors, not giving an inch to opponents freely.
But the questionable status of Tony Allen is potentially a huge loss for the Grizzlies. In the two games Allen has played the Spurs this season, he’s held Leonard to 39.1 percent shooting when on the court, including 14.3 percent from the three-point line in 29.2 minutes on the court. Allen is one of the few players who can mirror Leonard in terms of footwork, balance and strength, disrupting Kawhi’s base on pull-ups and running hooks or floaters to overcome a disadvantage in length.
Still, this is Leonard’s first year completely in command of the Spurs without Tim Duncan as a calming influence. Memphis will pressure Kawhi early and cover the most simplistic reads, attempting to force Leonard and the Spurs outside of their comfort zones.
This is Kawhi Leonard’s team, but it’s not the team he will lead through the prime of his career. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are remnants of a bygone era, keeping the team imbued with corporate knowledge, but constantly battling broken bodies. They know where to go, but often lack the ability to get there.
LaMarcus Aldridge is an able second option and offensive hub, but so long as he works primarily at the power forward position next to a traditional center, the Spurs will always have some spacing limitations to work through. Particularly when Leonard, the team’s best spacing option, works most often inside the three-point line.
Pau Gasol, David Lee and others are more than stop gaps, but they’re still more the team that transitions away from Duncan than the one that’s built around Kawhi. The collection of talent reminds of the 2000-2003 editions of the Spurs, still finding their way without a formidable David Robinson, Sean Elliot or Avery Johnson. Any title chances this year depends on Leonard being the 2003 version of Duncan, which is no easy task.
The Spurs’ second unit operates with a completely different style than its starters, carrying the ghost of San Antonio’s beautiful game with more movement and passing. The question is, is that reflective of the Spurs’ true nature—an ability to adapt and morph to counter opponents—or is it simply what’s left from the previous era, present because the front office hasn’t had the opportunity to reshape it just yet?
Few outside of Memphis expect the Grizzlies to take the series—they are, after all, fighting tooth and nail to keep their own grit and grind identity alive for one more season–but they will reveal some hard truths once more.
The younger Gasol and Conley are the second and third best players in the series, and when working from an aggressive mindset, that disparity can hit a large enough gap to make life uncomfortable for the Spurs.
Marc’s ability to work from the elbows and the top of the key contorts defenses in uncomfortable ways.
Elite passing big men who can hold position and work from the elbows create a unique advantage for offenses. It’s a way of puncturing the defense and getting the ball middle without the drawbacks of a live handle that can be swiped by digging help defenders.
In a way, it puts defenses into a high stress environment, not unlike ants when their hill gets kicked; sending a signal that their defensive integrity has been breached, but offering few places to help from without giving up a simple pass for an open shot.
And Gasol’s newfound three-point range, extending above the break, inverts defenses, sending the big men out, opening cuts along the baseline for the likes of JaMychal Green and (when healthy) Allen.
It also opens the floor for Conley, who appears to finally be fully comfortable as the Grizzlies answer to an elite point guard. This season, we’ve finally seen him dabble into the dagger three-pointers that aren’t traditionally good shots, but nonetheless dangerous weapons for stars to wield.
From a previous story I wrote at the beginning of the year:
While not elite at any one area, the abundance of options at his disposal—he’s a solid shooter, passer, and ambidextrous finisher—is enough to keep defenses honest. The lack of exploitable weaknesses also strengthens his defense, where he’s able to lock in, contain, and create turnovers.
While the above remains true, he’s imbued a few elements of his game with an edge that places defenders in more uncomfortable positions than before, giving the Grizzlies an unpredictability opponents aren’t accustomed to.
But beyond that, there just doesn’t seem to be enough firepower. The shooters lack consistency and the ability to punish defenses with secondary playmaking if rotations sell out to run them off the line—something Chandler Parsons was supposed to alleviate if healthy. (He never was).
Gasol working from the top of the key removes him as a focal point in a threatening area to collapse the defense, and working from the elbows is a rough endeavor against the Spurs.
The true rebirth of the Spurs’ defense wasn’t attributable entirely to a Duncan renaissance, but rather, the presence of Leonard and Danny Green on the wings. The pair can absolutely shut down passing lanes, leaving slower frontcourt teammates with a limited patch of court they can more easily cover. With so many long arms in the paint, interior passing can be a huge risk against the Spurs.
And even within their more conventional constraints, the Spurs remain entirely adaptable—able to bring Leonard in and out of focus, often on the same possession, isolating without stagnating. Gregg Popovich can opt for more shooting or more athleticism, more passing or more defense, often without compromising the Spurs’ base values.
The Spurs are Kawhi Leonard’s team, but in a playoff environment, we don’t know entirely what that means just yet. Facing the Grizzlies once more, expect the Spurs to find out who they are and who they need to be all over again.