The Memphis Grizzlies and the San Antonio Spurs will face off in the first round of the 2017 NBA Playoffs. The Grizzlies finished the season with a 43-39 record and will be the seventh seed in the Western Conference playoff race. San Antonio finished with a 61-21 record, earning the second seed. The winner of the series will face the winner of the Houston Rockets-Oklahoma City Thunder (AKA the Harden-Westbrook duel) in the Western Conference semifinals.
The Grizzlies and Spurs split their season series 2-2 this season. Here’s how their regular season matchups shook out.
February 6, 2017 – San Antonio @ Memphis – 89-74, Grizzlies
Kawhi Leonard didn’t play in this matchup and the Grizzlies thrived. Neither team shot well, with both teams shooting less than 40% from the field and less than 22% from the three-point line. It wasn’t the prettiest basketball, for sure. No Grizzlies player scored over 15 points, but they were still able to come away with the victory. Without Leonard, Memphis’ defense was able to key in on Tony Parker and LaMarcus Aldridge.
March 18, 2017 – San Antonio @ Memphis – 104-96, Grizzlies
San Antonio was at full strength for this game, yet were still unable to come away with the victory in the Grindhouse. Memphis played a solid defensive game, forcing Kawhi Leonard to commit four turnovers and shoot 6-of-15 from the field, despite seeing him score 22 points. Memphis packed the paint and San Antonio was unable to make them pay on the perimeter, shooting 9-of-28 from three. San Antonio kept the game close through the final three-quarters, but the Grizzlies were able to stave off a Spurs comeback. On the offensive end, Zach Randolph was solid off the bench for Memphis, scoring 18 points against the Spurs’ glut of big men.
March 23, 2017 – Memphis @ San Antonio – 97-90, Spurs
The two faced off five days later but ended up with a different result. Both teams were at (relatively) full strength again, but San Antonio pulled out the victory on their home court. Only two Grizzlies – Marc Gasol and Mike Conley – scored in double digits. The Spurs saw strong performances from Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, as the two combined for 42 points on an efficient 17-of-31 shooting. Unlike their previous matchup, San Antonio was able to control the ball, committing only six turnovers. (As a comparison, James Harden led the league with 5.73 turnovers per game.) San Antonio’s ability to control the offense, while playing solid defense, led them to their first win of the season against the Grizzlies.
April 4, 2017 – Memphis @ San Antonio – 95-89, Spurs
Their final regular season matchup was awesome. It was another close game for the two teams. Memphis trailed most of the game but was able to strike back and tie the game up at 84 to end regulation. Zach Randolph and LaMarcus Aldridge made shots towards the end of regulation to tie the game/prevent the loss. With the game at 92-89 with 20 seconds left in the game, Andrew Harrison committed a key offensive foul to seal the overtime victory for the Spurs. Kawhi Leonard sealed the game with a steal, taking the ball right from Troy Daniels’ hands. As a reminder, Leonard’s nickname is “Claw.”
Previous Playoff Matchups
This will be the fourth time in seven years that the Grizzlies and Spurs will meet in the playoffs. The spurs have won three of the four playoff series. Memphis’ 2011 first round upset of the Spurs was the birth of the “Grit and Grind” style that Memphis has employed for nearly a decade. The Spurs, on the other hand, have changed through the years – some of it was out of necessity, including the rise of Kawhi Leonard and the graceful twilight of Tim Duncan’s career. Other stylistic changes kept the Spurs afloat.
The Spurs in their last two matchups swept the Grizzlies. Memphis lost in the Western Conference Finals – it was coach Lionel Hollins’ last season with the team. Last season, the Spurs swept the Grizzlies in the first round – leading to the firing of Dave Joerger and the hiring of David Fizdale. Memphis will try to avoid elimination from the Spurs for the second straight season.
Things to Watch for Grizzlies vs. Spurs
Pace (or lack thereof)
The Grizzlies and the Spurs are two of the slowest teams in basketball, ranked 28th and 27th respectively. The teams may both play at a deliberate pace, but the way they execute their offense is different. Both teams rely on elaborate off-ball screen schemes to run their offense. Yet the Grizzlies rely on the post-up heavily, while the Spurs rely on the pick and roll. That shows the strengths of the best players of both teams.
Memphis is about grinding out possessions (obviously) and the Spurs have become masters of prevision. San Antonio was in the bottom third of three-point attempts, yet made them at the highest rate. Memphis may have shot the lowest field goal percentage in the league, but they rebounded the ball on the offensive side well, along with drawing fouls at a decent clip. The two teams have modified their styles over their playoff contests. Mike Conley will control the pace for Memphis, and Leonard and Parker will orchestrate San Antonio’s offense. The Grizzlies will need the tandem of Conley and Gasol to play efficiently against two of the Spurs' few flawed positions - point guard and center. Tony Parker and Pau Gasol may be no match against their Memphis counterparts. The slow offensive styles of the two may be built for seven-game series playoff basketball.
The Absence of the Grindfather
Tony Allen was ruled out indefinitely due to a strained calf, and will likely not play in the first round series, per NBA.com. Allen’s presence will greatly be missed for the Grizzlies. Allen’s 105 defensive rating made him the best Grizzlies wing defender by a long shot. His tenacity and hustle will be a missing link for the Grizzlies. Allen has been the face of the Grizzlies’ style of basketball for years – an upset against the Spurs is even more difficult without him.
Allen’s replacements have the tough task of defending Kawhi Leonard. The likely All-NBA player has ascended to even greater heights than expected. Leonard has become a true two-way player. The absence of Chandler Parsons for Memphis makes the matchup even more difficult. Memphis will need to rely on Tyler Ennis (who’s also banged up), Wayne Selden, and Vince Carter to at least contain Leonard on both ends. Either that or shut down the rest of the Spurs' offense. It will be an uphill battle, for sure.
The Big Man Battle
One area in which the Grizzlies have an advantage over the Spurs is in the frontcourt. Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, and JaMychal Green are a tough, formidable frontcourt that could dominate on the low block. Outside of Dewayne Dedmon and LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio has a weak defensive big rotation. Pau Gasol will likely be matched up against his brother on the block. The younger Gasol could be a focal point of the Grizzlies’ offense, trying to exploit his brother’s lack of mobility defensively.
While he may be coming off the bench for Memphis, Zach Randolph can still grind his way to the basket and generate points when the team is in a rut. Expect a strong series from Randolph, who could receive more minutes than the Grizzlies’ starter, Zach Randolph. Even a player like Brandan Wright, who has missed a lot of time this season, could be a more athletic option to outrun and outjump San Antonio’s bigs.
San Antonio has looked like the best team in basketball at certain points this season. They briefly had a better record than the Warriors in March. So it will be an uphill battle for the Grizzlies to pull off the victory. Without Tony Allen and Chandler Parsons, the task becomes even more difficult.
If the Grizzlies want to notch the upset, they need to have strong performances by their big men, and for Mike Conley to play at an All-Star level. Conley is certainly capable. But the Spurs may be too much to handle. It may not be a sweep, but this series could merely just be a tune-up for the San Antonio Spurs.
San Antonio Spurs in 5.