2013 Western Conference Finals Preview: The Elephants in the Room
It is not 2011.
Despite the seeming protestations of analysts and prognosticators, it is not 2011.
I know this because I have an iPhone 5, which did not exist in 2011. (In 2011 I rocked a Palm Pre, a phone that I adored but is pretty much extinct). I know this because last night I watched the series finale of “The Office”, which was commemorating the departure of Steve Carrell in 2011. (In retrospect, that should have been the series finale, but that’s a post for another website.) And I know this because we just dispatched a team in the playoffs that saw Richard Jefferson play a grand total of 19 minutes over 6 games and score a mere 7 points. (In other words, he had almost zero impact on the series and Mark Jackson had almost zero faith in him.)
In contrast, in 2011, Richard Jefferson played a grand total of 177 minutes in a 6 game playoff series, scoring a total of 39 points and corralling 25 rebs (averages of 29.5 minutes, 6.5 pts, and 4.2 rebs). We all know which team he played for in that series, against which team, and we all know how poor a fit he was for this team (unless you’ve been lucky enough to suppress such memories). By Game 6, he played a mere 10 minutes, scoring zero points and grabbing one rebound.
Several things to notice about that series:
–Manu Ginobili, at that time an even more important player for the team, missed Game 1 and played the rest of the series with a broken elbow. True story. He also started Games 2-6, meaning we lost all of his punch from the bench.
–The other 2 starters: the aforementioned Richard Jefferson and the soon-to-be retired Antonio McDyess.
–The rest of our big man rotation: DeJuan Blair and Matt Bonner. Until Blair became so ineffective that Pop benched him for a rookie named Tiago Splitter.
–Our wing players off the bench: George Hill and Gary Neal. Both nice players, but not a one over 6’4″. By the end of the series, a late-season pick-up named Danny Green was starting to get some minutes, mostly out of desperation.
–By Game 6, Hill, Parker, and Ginobili were playing most all of the wing and back court minutes. I love all 3 players, but they are severely lacking in size, and we basically didn’t play a SF save for Jefferson’s 10 minutes.
–While much of the Grizzlies core remains the same, they no longer have Shane Battier, Greivis Vasquez, or OJ Mayo, three players who all played superbly for them in that series.
–Since that series, the two teams have played 8 regular season games. While many have been close, the Spurs hold a 6-2 edge in those games. (They split this season 2-2.)
All of this is to say: these two teams are vastly different today than they were in 2011. To my mind, this series is dead even, and there is good reason to pick either team. But if somebody picks the Grizzlies because of that 2011 series, they aren’t paying close enough attention.
So let’s get to this year. A few more things to consider about this iteration of the Spurs:
–People seem to be discounting the impact of Tiago Splitter, a smart player and strong defender. And, you know, a big player. Splitter and Duncan together is a formidable big man pairing on both ends. I would still give the edge overall to the Grizzlies, but it’s not as large as you might expect. One might argue that that 2011 series is the reason the Spurs gradually moved towards starting Duncan and Splitter together, knowing that the two teams to be most prepared for in the West (OKC being the other) played two bigs together quite a bit.
Splitter is huge in this series, and after an up-and-down series against Golden State, he seemed to find his rhythm in Game 6 after his bad ankle injury. And don’t forget that Pop didn’t play Duncan in the last 4 minutes because he thought Splitter was the better defensive option. So in the coach’s estimation, Splitter is at least equally important in the team’s overall interior defense.
In many ways, this series will be easier for the big men, as it will require less hedging on pick and rolls at the 3-point line (to prevent crazy Steph Curry shots), and more just banging inside. Plus, with Diaw and Bonner, we can stretch out their interior defense on the other end by dragging one of those big men out to the 3-point line, where they are quite uncomfortable. (Lost in that sentence, the rest of our big man rotation starts with Diaw, and doesn’t have Blair in it. Huge upgrade over 2011). And though counterintuitive, I do think this is the type of match-up that allows Bonner to play. He can bang on defense and won’t make mistakes, and make life difficult for the Grizzlies on the other end.
So while the Grizzlies still possess the edge in this department (we haven’t even discussed Darrell Arthur, whose midrange jump shots from 2011 still give me the chills), it’s a lot closer to even than you might think.
–Parker is in the midst of the best 2-year stretch of his career. Green is starting to come into his own, and is a lengthy defender who (mostly) reliably knocks down shots. Joseph is a defensive minded back-up who has shown a fearlessness in the playoffs. Ginobili isn’t the same player, but still has a knack for a big moment every now and then, and still can run the offense with a maestro’s touch. Neal is a knock-down shooter and pure scorer, but more of a luxury than a necessity at this point. (Plus, with Bayless, has a player that Pop can find minutes for him against.)
The back court situation is a lot more stable than 2 years ago and, to my mind, a clear advantage for the Spurs. Between the 5 players, we have defense, length, athleticism, shooting, offense, slashing, leadership, and veteran poise. We have the ability to fill just about any situation.
For Memphis, Conley is really coming into his own, and is probably closer to Parker (with a pretty similar game) than most realize. Tony Allen is a devastating defensive player who can chip in on offense more than you might think, but is good for 3-4 boneheaded plays a game. Bayless is a pure scorer and shooter, much like Neal, who can heat up in an instant, but can be a huge defensive liability.
Memphis clearly misses Battier and Vasquez here, and the Spurs have the clear advantage. But, as is the theme here, it’s probably a lot closer than we think.
–And that brings us to SF. Mr. Leonard. In that Golden State series (to contrast Jefferson), he played a total of 241 minutes, scored 88 points, and grabbed 55 rebounds. That breaks down to 40.2 mins, 14.7 points, and 9.2 rebounds per game. That is very good for a SF. Factor in his adhesive defense, and he might be our most important player this series.
Memphis starts Tayshaun Prince, a player I’ve always liked and thought would be a good Spur. He is team-oriented, smart, and plays solid D.
But Leonard is better than he is at this point. And with enough aggression, could be a LOT better. This position might be our biggest single head-to-head match-up advantage, and I’ll be curious to see how we exploit it. Leonard is also capable of playing small ball 4 effectively, and guarding wing scorers effectively. Will he see time on Mike Conley late in games?
It’s a small one, but I think this is our biggest positional advantage going into the series.
A few more notes:
–Memphis has a great defense, but so does San Antonio. That’s probably closer to even than most realize.
–Memphis’ “grit and grind” mentality keeps them in every game, but their lack of reliable outside shooting also prevents them from really blowing a team out. About the only way they can score in bunches is through transition points off TOs. If San Antonio can limit TOs, they won’t be out of any games. With the Spurs more potent offense, there is a better chance for a Spurs blowout in one random game, though I don’t see that happening. Expect every game to be tight in the last few minutes, in which both teams are great at executing on both ends of the court. It’s even, and it’s going to be a battle.
–A lot is being made of the Grizzlies march through the playoffs, but a severely hobbled OKC team had a chance to win each of those last 4 games in the last few minutes. But I think San Antonio’s beating of Golden State was more impressive. Memphis really only had to shut down one player to stop OKC. I think the Spurs offense (if they play their offense) is exactly the type of offense that can break down their defense.
–A small-ish Golden State team was able to wreak havoc in stretches on the offensive glass. Memphis is one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the league. That could be trouble. Defensive rebounding will be a huge point of emphasis for San Antonio, and a possible gauge of the series writ large.
–Conley and Gasol are better than 2011. But so are Leonard, Green, Splitter, Duncan, and Diaw. The real force in that 2011 series was Randolph, who was in the midst of his best stretch of basketball ever. After struggling a bit the last 2 seasons, he seems to have regained that form from 2011, or at least 90% of it. How well we can contain Randolph might be the key to the series.
This series is about as even as a series can get. No outcome would surprise me, though I do expect each individual game to be close.
I think the Spurs have been waiting two years for this chance, a chance at redemption. Their team is better, and better equipped to handle the Grizzlies. Factor in the desire for one last chance at a title with Duncan, and I’m giving the slight edge to the Spurs.
Mostly, though, I’m predicting one hell of a competitive series, the type of basketball that might not please many, but is my favorite kind to watch. And is, quintessentially, Spurs basketball.
Go Spurs Go.
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