Monday, January 30, 2012

Spurs at Grizzlies: Sea Change

Coming into Monday night's game, the Spurs and Grizzlies were getting a taste of how cruel the conference system can be. San Antonio (12-9) and Memphis (10-9) were 9th and 10th respectively in the Western Conference. They would be 7th and 8th in the East.

Alas, neither team can change its location on a map, but they can change the way the play. And that they've done. The Spurs won 4 championships in 9 seasons through defense. In all 4 championship years, San Antonio was a top three club in defensive efficiency, leading the entire league twice. Nowadays, they get it done by scoring. The shift happened over the past couple seasons and solidified itself last year when the Spurs trailed Denver by a tenth of a point for the offensive efficiency crown. This year the Spurs burn the nets with the 4th best TS%, 2nd best assist rate, and 6th best turnover rate. 

Memphis, on the other hand, doesn't have quite the track record of success, but has also seen a change in strengths. Under Marc Iavaroni, the Grizzlies were a horrific defensive club. With Lionel Hollins at the helm they are now in the top ten as far as defensive efficiency goes. The unfortunate thing is, though, their once potent offense has dropped to the 19th best in the league. This partly is because of the absence of Zach Randolph, but the Grizzlies have enough other options that they should be able to score a little more. Yet, they continue to win through good perimeter defense and a tendency to get their hands on the ball. The Grizzlies have the league's best opponent turnover rate and 5th best opponent assist rate. By wreaking havoc in the passing lanes and pressuring the ball, the Grizz make it hard for their opponents to find breathing room for a quality shot. 

San Antonio also had a few reasons to worry coming into this game. First, it was the second game of a back-to-back and obviously the Spurs' age at certain positions doesn't take kindly to heavy minute loads. Secondly, they had won the previous meeting on a spectacular 24 point, 5 rebound, 4 assist performance by Manu Ginobili who was not going to play. Finally, it was a road game. The Spurs have been awesome in AT&T at 10-1, but awful on the road at 2-8. Things seemed to bode well for Memphis.

Until the game started that is. 

Kawhi Leonard's 6 points and 3 boards in the first frame along with threes from Danny Green and Matt Bonner gave the Spurs a five point lead at the end of one. They would then open the second quarter with 7 straight points. Later, a fast break dunk by Leonard on which he was fouled would  give the Spurs a 15 point lead, enough to keep them in control for most of the game. 

The Grizzlies were unable to find any sort of flow to their offensive game and their turnovers allowed the Spurs to widen their lead. After a Matt Bonner three in the third quarter, Kawhi Leonard again got a fast break dunk. Tony Parker would then add a free throw after Rudy Gay was assessed a technical. Down by 20, the Grizzlies would then turn the ball over on an offensive foul. Furthering their frustration, the Grizzlies fouled Danny Green on a clear path breakaway with 10.5 seconds left, only to foul him again with 7.4 left on the ensuing Spurs possession. 

Memphis' offensive woes were embodied in Rudy Gay's 0-7 night. Marc Gasol seemed to have trouble getting into a rhythm as well. A 3-11 night included an airball from about 15 feet and a dish from Sam Young that he could barely get above the rim with his left hand despite being pretty much wide open. Meanwhile, the Spurs had 5 players in double figures with Leonard, who continues to play productive minutes, adding 10 rebounds and Parker dishing 12 assists. 

With the Western Conference so tightly packed, a home loss to a division opponent is never easy to take. The Grizzlies will have to heed the advice of the sign on the scorer's table in Fedex Forum that says "Time to Grind" if they want to stay in contention for a playoff spot. They play 5 games in the next 7 days, 3 of which are on the road and 4 of 5 are against teams that are above .500, with the other being the Celtics. And just for good measure that stretch ends with a rematch at home against the San Antonio Spurs. 

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