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WCF Game 1: The Haymaker

By Jeff Koch on May 19, 2013.

San Antonio 105, Memphis 83
San Antonio leads series 1-0

San Antonio (both the team and the city) has been waiting a little over 2 years for this game.

While much of the make-up of this team has changed since 2011, the roster is still pretty similar. So players like Green, Neal, Bonner, and Splitter who had minimal impact in that series were still on the bench, and still felt the sting of that series loss.

And what a payback it was. The Spurs played a near-perfect game on both ends of the court, reminding all watching what a work of art the offense is when run with precision and confidence, and just how aggressive and stifling the defense can be. Really, we got great games from every player on the roster, each filling their specific role perfectly. I don’t want to dive too much into analysis, because sometimes a work of art should just be what it is, and speak for itself.

But it’s just Game 1, a solitary win. I thought San Antonio had the best chance at a blow out in this series, it just came sooner than I expected. If Memphis leaves San Antonio with a 1-1 split, they’ll still be in control. And a “perfect” game guarantees nothing going forward, as we remember all too well after Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals last year, when the Spurs might have played their best offensive game ever.

So now we look to the chess board, and see what adjustments can be made for the Grizzlies, and how the Spurs might counter-adjust (I’m sure they’ve already got a few wrinkles for anticipated changes).

It is quite clear that the Spurs deem Zach Randolph to be the biggest threat in this series. Conley and Gasol are wonderful players, Randolph wreaks the most havoc, and when he is going, the team is near unstoppable. In Game 1, the Spurs seemed to concede Conley (and the rest of the wing players) jump shots and Gasol shots from the top of the key (which he makes with eerie precision), but they were not going to let Gasol be a playmaker from the high post, nor let Randolph do much of anything down low. It was very interesting that the Spurs started with Duncan on Randolph and Splitter on Gasol. I thought both did a fine job in their respective roles, Splitter crowding Gasol in the high post to discourage passing lanes, and Duncan fronting Randolph to deny the ball. In fact, that was the general strategy overall: front Randolph and deny the entry pass, with backside help always at the ready. Diaw and Bonner both got their turns, and both played great. Bonner continues to be an underrated defender, mostly because he’s a goofy-looking ginger, would be my guess. But he plays tough and doesn’t make mental mistakes, all you can ask from a defender in the low post.

The most obvious counter to this is to try to work some high-low action to get the ball in from the top and weak side off of the fronting of Randolph (anyone who watches the Spurs should know this play immediately: the pass from Parker on the wing to Splitter up top who immediately gets it in to Duncan at the rim). From what I could see, though, it looked like the Spurs were already prepared for this on the few times that the Grizzlies seemed to try it, with the backside help (often the other big or Leonard at the 3) looking to sneak in, or the man defending the top side player already anticipating the pass and denying the lane, or even the man guarding Randolph shading back over in anticipation of this pass. (Think of the many wrinkles and intricacies it takes to know what to do in every situation instinctively.)

Still, Randolph is a great player, and while the Spurs played great defense on him, he will not have another game where he scores only 2 points.

What I was most impressed with was how we attacked him on the offensive end. Much like Curry in the last round, part of our defensive plan is offensive. Parker went after Randolph again and again in the pick and roll, forcing him to come way out, try to stop penetration, try to stop a jump shot, and basically just run him ragged with defensive assignments. He looked gassed near the end of each of his shifts. At one point, Duncan came out to set a pick for Parker, and Parker waved him off, because Gasol was guarding him, and brought Splitter out to set the pick instead because he was being guarded by Randolph. Also, Duncan very often set up on the strong side, bringing Gasol way over, and freeing up the side of the lane that Parker was driving to off the pick, so Randolph had very little back side help if Parker drove into the lane. This collapsed the defense, and we all saw the 3-point shooting that resulted off of that.

The other big adjustment I expect from Memphis is to put Tony Allen on Tony Parker defensively more often and earlier. Allen is a tremendous on-ball defender–probably the best in the game right now–but he is not a good off-ball defender. He wants to roam and be disruptive, and this is not well-suited to guarding a player like Danny Green, who is a spot-up shooter, but also moves off the ball in misdirection quite well. So, if Allen cheats off of him in the corners, Green will be wide open. But, Green is also smart enough to notice when Allen has lost contact with him, and make cuts into open spaces for easy shots and lay-ups and play-making opportunities.

(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Green had a wonderful game in all phases, and exploited Allen’s restlessness quite well. While Conley is also a great defender on Parker, Allen can accomplish the same thing, while Conley will be more disciplined on Green. (This has shades of OKC switching Sefolosha on to Parker in last year’s match-up, and I’ll be very interested to see how Parker will respond.)

Memphis also needs to get their rotations in order, as there were so many wide open 3-point shots in this game, it was a bit embarrassing. However, most of these wide open shots came off the initial kick-out; had the rotations been sharper for Memphis, the Spurs were still just one or two more passes along the perimeter away from a wide-open shot. If San Antonio sticks to their system, still opts to go from “good to great”, I think those shots will still be there.

I was really pleased with the offense in the game. We went away from isolation (particularly Duncan in the low block), and went back to team offense, ball movement, player movement. It certainly helped that we were hitting shots, but those shots were all good shots. In later games, we’ll miss a few of them, but as long as the offense stays where it’s at, I like our chances in any game.

And this is where things get sticky for Memphis: they don’t want to get into an offensive shoot-out. San Antonio is happy playing in the trenches or in an up-tempo game. We have the personnel for both. This is why I thought this match-up was better for us than the Warriors. Our bigs get to stay at home more, pack in the paint, and there are more playing opportunities for players like Neal and Bonner who, as long as they play hard on defense, can cause a favorable mismatch somewhere on the court for us. San Antonio has made it clear that they are going to dare Memphis to beat them with jump shots. The problem is, the Spurs are the far-better shooting team. If we can play them defensively to a stand still, the series is ours.

And this brings us to one last point: do not judge the games of Duncan and Splitter on any numbers that show up in box scores (save rebounds). This series is all about defense, defending that 5-feet in front of the rim, and not letting Gasol and Randolph dictate the terms of the fight. Offensively, their role is more to set screens and keep the wheels of the offense greased: points are a luxury. In Game 1, our bigs won the fight.

This has been a tough offensive playoffs for Duncan, facing Gasol and Howard in Round 1, Bogut and an insanely taxing defensive assignment in Round 2, and now Randolph and the other Gasol. But if today’s game taught us anything, it’s that this team is Parker’s offensively…but still Duncan’s defensively. If “all” he does is anchor our defense the same way he has all season, there’s a wonderful chance he’ll finally be playing for his 5th title in 16 years in just a few weeks time.

Game 2 is on Tuesday on ESPN.

Go Spurs Go.

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