The NBA playoffs began with the general consensus that the conference finals would feature Miami vs. New York, as marketable a matchup as one could find, and Oklahoma City vs. San Antonio, featuring a rematch of last season’s brilliant series pitting two of the league’s most dynamic players against a team that’s won four titles in the last decade-and-a-half.
Miami and San Antonio made it, but after Indiana finished off the Knicks on Saturday, the other half of each conference final will feature a team that’s … well, not exactly what David Stern would describe as TV friendly. Instead of thinking “hey, we have a fantastic final four that will drive ratings through the roof,” the league’s New York offices instead are left with the villainous Heat and the country’s 28th-, 40th- and 51st-largest media markets.
Oklahoma City is roughly the same size as Memphis, but Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and the tasty possibility of rematches against the Spurs and Heat would have rendered that largely irrelevant. New York has Carmelo Anthony AND IS NEW YORK, so who cares if the Knicks are trotting out ‘Melo and four guys who couldn’t shoot a usable iPhone photo let alone a basketball. (Oh right, they were. Jason Kidd had as many points against the Pacers as your Great Aunt Bethany and he played 89 more minutes than her. J.R. Smith also decided to start hitting Rihanna rather than 18-foot jumpers).
While what we’re left with may not move the needle much, the basketball itself should be excellent. The Heat and Spurs were the two best offensive teams in the league based on true shooting percentage (Oklahoma City actually was second, but Westbrook’s absence essentially renders that irrelevant) while the Pacers and Grizzlies – by nearly every metric available – were the league’s two best defensive teams.
And if Marc Gasol-Tim Duncan, Mike Conley-Tony Parker and Zach Randolph-NBA officials don’t get your interest piqued, I’m sure the real storyline in this series will. The one you won’t be able to stop hearing ESPN promote.
It’s Beale Street vs. the Riverwalk! Which tourist trail will reign supreme?
2.) San Antonio vs. 5) Memphis
What’s in the past: Well, first of all, a series between these two from two years ago that just so happened to feature the eighth-seeded Grizzlies toppling the Spurs. But we’ll get to how they match up in a moment. San Antonio got here with one cakewalk through the Lakers and then a far-tougher-than-expected six-game win over Golden State. The Spurs easily could have been down 3-1 against the Warriors, but wound up even after four games before closing out the final two the way a championship contender should. They got some fantastic individual performances from Duncan and Parker while Kawhi Leonard – if he hadn’t already – established himself as one of the league’s up-and-coming two-way stars.
Memphis dropped its first two games against the Clippers in Round 1 and has won eight of nine games since. The Grizzlies were probably the better team in all five games against Oklahoma City – only Durant’s brilliance down the stretch helped the Thunder steal Game 1 – and have, in my mind, the biggest breakout star of these playoffs east of Stephen Curry. Conley isn’t even shooting that well in the postseason – 38.5 percent overall, 28.6 from downtown – but he’s averaging four assists for every turnover and initiating an offense that’s averaging four more points than it did during the regular season. That’s something that just doesn’t happen in the playoffs. Golden State averaged 1.5 points more than it did in the regular season with the benefit of three OTs in Round 2, but every other team to reach the conference semifinals scored at a lower rate than it did during the season.
”He’s the real key to their basketball team,” Popovich said of Conley. ”Everybody just thinks about Zach and Marc, who are sufficiently wonderful as players. But Conley is very, very important to that group.”
What’s to come: The Grizzlies’ six-game stunning of the Spurs in the first round two years ago would seem to be a good barometer for this series – remember, Rudy Gay was hurt that postseason and is probably taking contested 20-footers on a playground somewhere in Toronto as you read this – as the major players for each team are still around. But Randolph owned Duncan in that series, Manu Ginobili was more of an offensive force and not the inconsistent bit player he’s become and Gasol was more “Pau Gasol’s younger brother” than “Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol,” “Last Gasol Standing” and “Gasol whose beard you’d want in a fight.”
Memphis and San Antonio played four times this season, two of which went into overtime and another of which was decided on a Conley layup with under a second remaining. But Sunday’s Game 1 will be the first time we’ve seen these incarnations go to battle. Gay was still around for the first three meetings, and in that 92-90 Memphis win on April 1, the Spurs played without Duncan, Leonard and Ginobili.
Conley and Parker may decide this series, but how much they see of each other is up in the air. Parker was particularly a liability against Curry in Round 2, and while he may check Conley for stretches, Leonard will likely be on Memphis’ budding star down the stretch. For the Grizzlies, it’s an easy call. Tony Allen should be matched up with Parker on key possessions, though San Antonio will try to exploit Conley checking the bigger Danny Green or Gary Neal if that’s the case. Putting Allen on Parker would also keep him away from Ginobili, but Memphis has a seemingly perfect candidate to make sure the Argentine doesn’t go off on the offensive end in the long-armed Tayshaun Prince.
Looking inside, Memphis should have an edge if the Spurs decide to match bigs with Gasol and Randolph. How’s this for a playoff upgrade? The Grizzlies averaged 22.2 free throws in the 37 regular-season games they played after the Gay trade. In the playoffs, they’ve gotten to the line an NBA-best 31.6 times per game. Part of this is due to the fact that Memphis shoots the 3 less than anyone else in the league, but that’s still a stunning jump considering it was 16th in free-throw attempts during the season.
These teams have the two lowest turnover rates in the playoffs, and Memphis has yet to give the ball away more than 13 times in 11 postseason games. The Grizzlies were 35-9 in the regular season when they had 14 turnovers or fewer.
San Antonio’s best option, to me, is to be to play small whenever possible to force Randolph or Gasol away from the paint. That will open things up for Parker’s penetration, and someone like Matt Bonner could have a big series camping out in the corner and waiting for Parker to drive and kick. The problem, of course, is that Bonner would be a defensive liability in a wheelchair league, so that will limit Gregg Popovich’s interest in sticking him out there for long stretches. What he can do more often, though, is give Boris Diaw a significant amount of minutes. Diaw likes to spot up on the left side of the floor – he was 25 of 49 from beyond 16 feet on that side during the regular season – and unlike Bonner, can also take someone like Randolph off the dribble. He can also at least resemble something other than a matador while defending Randolph, as well.
The pick: There’s little not to like about this series from a basketball standpoint. Memphis is the more traditional, old-school team that plays from the inside out, but the emergence of Conley as more of an offensive threat and the always outstanding high post game of Gasol allow it to score at a level good enough to, along with a championship-level defense, make it very dangerous. San Antonio has more of a chameleon-like approach, as it’s happy to run up-tempo stuff with Parker and rely on long-range shooting or dump it into Duncan and Tiago Splitter and let them go to work. No result would be hard to imagine here other than this being a short series. I love what the Grizzlies have become, but still think they’re a perimeter threat better than Jerryd Bayless or Quincy Pondexter away from being a true title contender. Still, Memphis’ defense and inside game make this feel like a toss-up, but I’ll take the Spurs in 7.