Who will win the battle of the big men? (Credit)
Every executive from ESPN, ABC, and the NBA is one 80-77 Game 1 away from throwing themselves off of some popular landmark in Memphis or San Antonio I’ve never heard of. So, why am I so excited?
Well, aside from the money ESPN is losing by drawing Memphis and San Antonio instead of some combination of Oklahoma City, Golden State and the Clippers?
Because for real basketball fans, this series is going to be freaking awesome.
There are no convoluted storylines, no fans who show up in the second quarter, no potential for ESPN: First Take to cover this series whatsoever. It’s going to be seven games of pure basketball, and not boring, clear out for the star basketball, either. If you enjoy basketball being played the right way, with ball movement and screens and hairy-chested big men, then this is the series for you.
What’s more: every player in this series is a man. They’re going to go at each other and play physical basketball. There will be no Dwyane Wade making fun of Dirk Nowitzki's illness here. Everything will be settled on the court.
So what can we expect in this series? We’re gonna do a round of Quinn and Answer (get it, Q&A, but with a twist) to figure it out.
Q: What happened between these two teams in the regular season?
A: Awesomeness. They played four times. They split the season series 2-2. Three of the four games were decided by less than four points.
The home team won every game. Is this a bad omen for Memphis? Not necessarily. They won Game 2 in Oklahoma City and Game 5 in Los Angeles. They won’t be intimidated by San Antonio’s raucous home crowd.
Q: Memphis beat San Antonio in the playoffs in 2011. Should we ignore that?
A: Yes and no. You can’t ignore the fact that San Antonio HATES playing Memphis because of their size. Gregg Popovich loves letting Tim Duncan coast on defense against weaker big men so he can save himself for offense. He can’t do that against Z-Bo and Marc Gasol. With so much of San Antonio’s offense reliant on Duncan, can they afford to unleash him fully on defense? Meanwhile, Gasol consistently abuses Tiago Splitter to the point that San Antonio might be better off going small and trying to force the Grizzlies into playing their game.
However, Manu Ginobili wasn’t quite Manu Ginobili in that series. He was coming off of a serious arm injury and had to wear a brace. Manu keeps the offense moving at full speed even when Tony Parker is on the bench. If he’s at his best, San Antonio has to be favored. Otherwise? It’s not clear.
Q: Who is the best player in this series?
A: Marc Gasol. Who saw this coming? The irony of the junior Gasol beating Popovich twice in three years after he spent weeks chastising the NBA for allowing the Lakers to trade him for his big brother would be delicious to anyone who can properly use the term.
Gasol is the best you can hope for out of an international player; he's the perfect combination of European finesse with American toughness. Gasol is the best passing big man in the league BY FAR (sorry Kevin Love), yet he sets some of the hardest screens of anyone in the game. He’s strong enough to defend Duncan but fast enough to cover the entire paint on drives. He’s a joy to watch and has been the best player of these playoffs so far.
But four other players have the potential to own this series, and here they are in rapid succession:
Tony Parker: If he can find ways into the lane to create room for his shooters this is an entirely different series
Tim Duncan: Does he have another gear? He’s averaging 19 and 9 so far in the playoffs. Can he dip into the fountain of youth and give them 25 and 12 against Memphis’ immovable front wall?
Zach Randolph: He dominated the Spurs so convincingly in 2011 that the Grizzlies literally extended his contract on the spot. He might not physically be the same, but if he is, the Spurs have no real answer.
Mike Conley, Jr: I have no idea where this Conley came from, but he suddenly looks like a borderline All-Star. He’s what makes Memphis’ inside-out attack go.
This series is so damn close that whoever ends up as the best player in the series is probably going to win it. It’s that simple.
Q: Can Lionel Hollins play chess with Popovich?
A: I have no freaking clue. He’s done such a good job with the maturation of Conley (which in the case of point guards has everything to do with the coach) and adjusting his team on the fly post-Rudy Gay trade, but why does he keep yanking Tony Allen’s minutes around? (More on this later.) Why stick with Quincy Pondexter in offense-heavy lineups over more Jerryd Bayless?
I worry that Hollins might have a bit too much pre-KG Doc Rivers in him. Can he settle on rotation? Or, is he only a motivator? We saw Rivers evolve on the fly during the ’08 playoffs, and we may see the same with Hollins.
Meanwhile, we know exactly who Popovich is. He’s the best coach in the league and if Hollins expects to beat him playing the same way he has all season, he’s going to be in for a big surprise. He has to make adjustments on the fly. He’s not going to play Popovich to a draw, but if he can at least keep it close, the Grizzlies can win the series.
Q: What underrated subplot might pop up in this series?
A: David Stern hates the Spurs. Wouldn’t it be a classic vindictive Stern move to send Joey Crawford to Memphis for Games 3 and 4 and give the Grizzlies some insane 71-28 free throw advantage?
Don’t rule this out. The Knicks and Lakers are both out and Miami is the league’s only moneymaker left. The general populace wants to see how the Heat handle Memphis’ size more than San Antonio’s skill. It’s the Clubber Lang to OKC’s Apollo Creed, a logical follow up that doesn’t ignore the plot device used to beat OKC last year. Or maybe it’s Drago because he killed Creed. Who knows? It’s an amalgam of Rocky villains, that’s for sure.
Q: Is there one particular weakness either team can exploit to grab an early lead in the series?
A: Yes, and his name is Tiago Splitter. The real question is whether we’re going to see 2011 Splitter who Memphis destroyed, or 2013 Splitter who evolved into a legitimate counterpart to Duncan. Memphis is going to attack Splitter early and often.
Meanwhile, Memphis’ one true weakness is Tayshaun Prince’s age, but unless Kawhi Leonard makes a real leap in this series, I don’t think he can exploit it. If he does, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Hollins sic Tony Allen on him (a matchup problem due to Leonard’s size, but he doesn’t have the requisite post chops to exploit it) and hide Prince on Danny Green.
Q: What is the most important matchup of this series?
A: Tony Allen vs. Manu Ginobili. This isn’t trick-or-treat Tony Allen anymore. He’s the best perimeter defender in basketball (and yes, that includes King James). He can defend any guard in basketball and, for the most part, take them out of the game completely.
So why isn’t Hollins throwing him on Tony Parker? It’s the logical move, cut off the head and the body will die. Because Hollins, for reasons I can’t quite be sure of, tends to yank Allen’s minutes around. This would be fine other than the fact that his nickname is trick-or-treat. Do you really want to tempt fate with this?
He’s going to let Conley take his shot at Parker while Allen handles Manu. It’s a risky gamble, but it might be the smart one overall. You can’t take Parker completely out of the series, but a hobbled Ginobili? Now we’re talking. It might just be a matter of diminishing returns.
That’s why Manu’s health is so important. If he can force Allen to chase him off of screens and challenge shots and keep him out of the paint it will at the very least stretch the Memphis defense further than it’s comfortable with, but if he’s too injured to be any more than a decoy, Allen will take on Parker and San Antonio won’t be able to move the ball. Manu has to at least make Allen work on defense for the Spurs to win.
Q: Who wins this series?
A: Traditional NBA logic says the Spurs. Never bet against homecourt advantage in a tight series. It definitely matters that the Spurs have four rings and Memphis has none. They know what they’re doing here, we don’t know if Memphis does.
But I think the Grizzlies are just better. They’re built for the postseason. They can, ironically, do what the Spurs have spent years mastering in slowing the game down to a comfortable speed and making the Spurs beat them at their own game.
I don’t think the Spurs are athletic enough to deal with Memphis’ size. I don’t trust Manu’s health, I worry about Danny Green disappearing like he did against OKC last year, and I just don’t think the Spurs have enough gas in the tank to handle Memphis right as they’re peaking.
Prediction: Grizzlies in six, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it go seven with either team winning it.
By: Sam Quinn