Tonight the San Antonio Spurs (0-0) will kick off their 2011-2012 season with a date against the same team that ended their season in last year’s playoffs, the Memphis Grizzlies (0-0).
The Spurs will be looking to send a message to the up-start Grizzlies team that last season’s playoff upset was just a fluke while the Grizzlies will be looking to proclaim they are a team to reckon with in the NBA.
However, heading into tonight’s matchup, Memphis is ailing. The team lost forward Darrell Arthur for the season due to an Achilles injury. But Rudy Gay is back after a shoulder injury which will present another weapon to throw at San Antonio along with big men Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol.
To discuss tonight’s game, I recently spoke with Josh Coleman of Grizzlies blog 3 Shades of Blue. In this Q&A, Josh gives us his key matchup, which team will walk away with the win, the loss of Arthur and Shane Battier and much more. And make sure to visit 3 Shades of Blue to read my answers to a Q&A Josh had for me.
Jeff: What does the loss of Darrell Arthur (injury), and Shane Battier mean to Memphis?
Josh: The loss of Darrell Arthur to injury is a much more damaging blow to the Grizzlies than the free agency departure of Shane Battier. Battier was brought in as a veteran leader/stop-gap last year after Rudy Gay suffered a season-ending injury to his shoulder. With Rudy back now, Shane’s services would have been much appreciated, but weren’t really a necessity. DA, on the other hand, was the primary backup to both Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol in the paint last year, so losing him is a huge obstacle. The team has had to scramble to find an adequate replacement and, so far anyways, has had to settle for bringing in veteran big man Brian Skinner and journeyman Josh Davis to fill the void. It is likely that the team will have to trade a wing player (probably O.J. Mayo or Xavier Henry) for a quality big man at some point this season, in order to repeat their success from last season.
Now with Rudy Gay back, does this push the Grizzlies into the Western Conference Finals or beyond?
If DA hadn’t gotten injured, then I would have tentatively penciled them into the WC Finals against Oklahoma City this spring. Now, it is anyone’s guess as to how they will perform without having quality depth in the frontcourt at the PF/C positions. I still think they’ll be a quality playoff team who should make the second round again.
What lessons did the Grizzlies take away from beating the Spurs in the first round of the playoffs last season that they take into this season?
The Grizzlies learned last year that just because you haven’t been there before, that doesn’t mean you don’t belong there. They were able to exorcise the demons of the franchise’s 3 straight playoff sweeps from a few years back, and found that they could play with anyone — even without one of their two best players, as they did it without Rudy Gay. Because of that, I think they’ll be able to put together a good season, even with a key player like DA not able to play. Also, I think one of the biggest positives to take from that series was that PG Mike Conley finally realized that he can outplay a great opponent since, at worst, he played Tony Parker to a draw in that series. That will be huge for his confidence going forward, I hope.
What areas of concern do the Spurs present tonight that the Grizzlies must address to pull out the road win?
Playing the Spurs always comes down to two key areas: Don’t let their frontcourt dominate the paint and don’t let Manu Ginobili get hot. Tim Duncan, DeJuan Blair and Tiago Splitter are all solid rebounders, so the Grizzlies will have to crash the boards to prevent easy second opportunities. With Manu, the most important thing is to keep him out of the lane as much as possible, because his wild, twisting style is nearly impossible to stop once he heads to the rim. On offense, the team just needs to play inside-out basketball and let the big men (Randolph and Gasol) set the tempo of play. The wings will get theirs if either of them gets going early.
What is the key matchup tonight and which team comes out with the win?
Interestingly enough, I think the most important battle tonight will be between the point guards. In the playoff series, in the two games that Parker had more than 5 assists, the Spurs won, whereas when Conley had more than 5, the Grizzlies won, with the exception of Game 6 where he only had 3. Whichever point guard can get his teammates going by creating opportunities for them will probably decide the outcome of this game.
As much as I’d love to say that the Grizzlies start the season off with a win, the fact is that they ALWAYS lose the first game of the year. Having to play in San Antonio after beating them in the playoffs last postseason will only give their opponent that much more of an incentive, so I think the Spurs probably wind up winning a close one, with Ginobili coming through with some late-game clutchness to seal it.