The Memphis Grizzlies have lost their first two games to the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. Kawhi Leonard has led the charge for San Antonio. Why has Leonard been so successful against Memphis?
Kawhi Leonard’s ascendance to megastar has been well documented this season. His brilliance has been on display in the early stages of the San Antonio Spurs’ postseason as well. The Memphis Grizzlies are trying their best to stop Leonard in their first-round matchup with the Spurs. Unfortunately, as much as the Grizzlies are trying, they can’t stop Leonard, despite their best efforts.
Memphis has lost big time in the two opening games of the series, played in San Antonio. On Saturday, they lost 111-82 after leading early initially. On Monday night, they trailed by as many as 26 points before leading a second-half comeback. Most of that comeback was done with Leonard off of the floor. Memphis’ defense looked cohesive and tough without Leonard in the second half. They trailed by as little as four points early in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately, Leonard checked back in for San Antonio, leading them to victory. The Spurs extended their lead and came away victorious, 96-82.
Kawhi Leonard led the Spurs in scoring in both games. In game one, he scored 32 points on a remarkable 11-of-14 shooting. He scored in every way imaginable, fully embracing his newfound identity as the go-to scorer in a Gregg Popovich system. Leonard has been nothing short of incredible and could be the best player so far in the entire first round of the playoffs.
Leonard continued his incredible run in the Spurs’ game two victory. His performance was even more impressive, scoring 37 points on 14 shots. Kawhi went a perfect 19-for-19 from the free throw line. Through two games, he has yet to miss a free throw. (He’s 28-of-28.) Let that sink in. Leonard has become the best player in the series by a large margin.
Leonard’s dominance isn’t due to poor defense by the Grizzlies. Memphis’ reputation as an elite, hard-nosed defensive squad continues to this season, and was on display in Memphis’ second half of game 2. Vince Carter and Wayne Selden struggled to keep up with Leonard in game one so defending Leonard became a team-wide effort for game two. The Grizzlies have gone with possibly every possible trick to stop Leonard on the defensive end. That was on display throughout game two.
Throughout game two, Memphis threw everything but the kitchen sink at Leonard and the Spurs on the defensive end. Memphis doubled Leonard sideline – he was able to pass out to cause ball movement for the team. They ran a full court press in denying Leonard the ball – he was able to dribble and muscle his way past half-court. They doubled him in the paint – he pump faked and had his defenders bite to extend the Spurs lead in the fourth quarter. Memphis tried to play physical coming off of screens and on drive – but Leonard drew fouls around the basket.
Even in the pick and roll, they ran different coverage. At first, Zach Randolph dropped back to prevent Leonard from driving and scoring (or dishing.) Leonard proceeded to assist Patty Mills. After, Randolph switched onto Leonard – that ended with a Leonard off-the-dribble jumper.
Memphis brought the playoff intensity after a tough loss in game one. Zach Randolph was fired up, seemingly frustrated for not being rewarded with free throws. Vince Carter drew a technical foul, trying to bring some energy to the Grizzlies after a stagnant second quarter. When Memphis made their run to close the gap, they played their best defense all series – and then Kawhi came in.
Now, things may be different if Tony Allen were on the floor. Allen’s physicality and sheer nastiness on the defensive end would at least put fear into Leonard and the Spurs. Memphis platoon of wings simply doesn’t have the reputation – or the intensity – of a key player like Allen. Memphis’ lack of anything on their bench compounds things even more. Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley are trying – but the team may have way too many holes on the wings.
David Fizdale’s comments post-game 2 caused quite a stir. He defended his players and called out a seemingly wonky game by the officials. Leonard shot more free throws (19) than the entire Grizzlies team (15), despite Memphis trying their best to attack on the interior. Fizdale had a right to voice his frustrations – their defensive coverage on Leonard led to way too many free throws, and they weren’t being rewarded on the other end as well. The Grizzlies actually controlled the ball well, with 8 turnovers compared to San Antonio’s 14. The Grizzlies’ low shooting percentage could also stem from the team’s lack of love from the officials.
Game 2 was a tough loss, but Memphis’ second-half comeback was encouraging. It was an improvement over game 1, where the team looked completely outmatched in the second half. Despite their injury woes, and the pure dominance of Kawhi Leonard, Memphis’ defense seems to be clicking. Their offense needs to follow suit if they want to win. It will be an uphill battle for the Memphis Grizzlies starting Thursday at the Grindhouse.