The NBA regular season is in the books and the San Antonio Spurs are set to face the seventh-seeded Memphis Grizzlies in the opening round of the NBA Playoffs Saturday.
For both teams, this isn’t exactly a new postseason match-up, as this meeting logs the fourth time the two teams face each other in the playoffs over the past seven years.
The Spurs split their regular season series with the Grizzlies 2-2, with each team winning on their home court. While the results of those games do not necessarily indicate how the playoff series will go, there are a few things we can expect to see based on how the regular season series went.
Slow, defensive brand of basketball
If you’re looking for beautiful, offensive fueled basketball, you probably won’t see it in this series. In four meetings, San Antonio (90.5) and Memphis (93.0) combined for a scoring average of 183.5 points per game.
The main reason behind those low scoring numbers goes back to how the two teams like to run their offenses. The Spurs and the Grizzlies were 27th and 28th respectively in number of possessions per game, mainly because of how both teams still rely on post-ups during an era where nothing is more valuable than the three-point shot. The Grizzlies with 12.3 post-ups per game, finished first in the NBA in that category, while the Spurs ended up being in the fourth place with 9.9 post-ups per game.
Another factor that could make the scoring numbers in this series even lower, is how both teams excel on the defensive end. San Antonio finished first in defensive efficiency with only 100.9 points allowed per 100 possessions, while Memphis tied for the sixth-best defense at 104.5 PP/100.
Memphis with the anyone-but-Kawhi approach
Over the regular season games between the two teams, the Grizzlies showed how they’d guard Spurs superstar Kawhi Leonard in a playoff series. Whenever he looked to score, Leonard had to deal with double teams. The Grizzlies played Kawhi to pass, forcing him to get rid of the ball as much as possible, even at the expense of allowing open looks for outside shots.
With the injury of All-Defensive caliber guard Tony Allen, the Grizzlies will not only be missing their best perimeter defender, but they’ll also miss the only player on their team who could keep Leonard in check. One could only imagine Leonard seeing more and more double teams as the series goes on.
Spurs’ offensive key to the series: Pushing the pace
For the Spurs, slowing the pace against the Grizzlies would mean playing into their hands. The Grizzlies are one of the most physical teams in the NBA, and when they’re already set on defense, they can be a suffocating defensive team to play against. To make sure they make the job easier for themselves offensively, the Spurs must push the ball in transition to find easy looks when the Grizzlies defense isn’t already set.
Spurs’ defensive key to the series: Containing Conley
Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley is indubitably one of the best offensive players in the NBA. When healthy, Conley is a proven floor manager and his impact on the Grizzlies offense has been nothing but spectacular. When Conley was on the court, the Grizzlies had an offensive rating of 108.6 PP/100, which would’ve been tied for the eighth best offense in the NBA. When he was off, that number plummeted to 99.4 PP/100, which would’ve ranked dead last in the league.
Conley’s craftiness brings a tough defensive challenge for the Spurs, which brings us to the next question, who will guard him?
- Tony Parker will probably start the games defending Conley, and while he doesn’t have the speed to stay with quick point guards, Parker does have the intelligence to make life difficult for Conley by anticipating his moves in the pick-and-roll.
- Over the last few years, Danny Green’s defense has been a huge part of the Spurs’ success on the defensive end, as has taken it upon himself to guard elite point guards night by night, and it won’t be surprising for anyone to see him guarding Conley from time to time.
- Leonard is the reigning two-time Defensive Player of the Year, but with the Spurs relying more on him to generate their offense, it will be unlikely to see him matched up with Conley before the final minutes of each game, as it could affect his production on the offensive end.
The Grizzlies will likely push the Spurs to play their best basketball of the season. However, due to their lack of offensive weapons, I think it will be highly difficult for them to pull off an early upset. Spurs in five.