The Memphis Grizzlies did it. They made big play after big play down the stretch on Sunday afternoon, and secured a 1-0 series lead against the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs, not to mention scored their first playoff win in franchise history. The victory was a tremendous achievement on several levels, and yet even the Grizzlies’ day in the sun seems fleeting; Game 2 will likely mark the return of Manu Ginobili, and though Memphis is still equipped to compete, a Ginobili-infused Spurs team presents an entirely new kind of challenge. The poor, hungry Grizzlies faithful and underdog bandwagoners alike should cherish this moment while they can, because we’re in for a fundamentally different matchup once Ginobili takes the court.
Case in point: the Spurs’ dreadfully poor shooting. San Antonio posted an effective field goal percentage of just 44.3 percent, and while Ginobili’s typically efficient scoring alone would boost that number, his very presence should also bring less direct shooting gains. Ginobili’s drives demand the full attention of opposing defenses, which should grant the Spurs’ sharpshooters even more open opportunities. Plus, Ginobili is a deadly enough shooter in his own right that his presence on the perimeter prevents opponents from cheating off of him to help against Tony Parker or Tim Duncan.
Yet above all, the most compelling reason for San Antonio to bounce back on offense is the lofty anchor of the Spurs’ season-long averages. San Antonio posted a higher effective field goal percentage than any team in the NBA this season, while the Grizzlies defense ranked 18th in effective field goal percentage allowed. This isn’t some perfect cocktail of defensive factors to cripple one of the league’s top offenses, but merely a momentary hiccup in the Spurs’ otherwise stellar offensive performance. They’ll climb back because the players, the coach, and the system involved are just that good, and when they do, the Grizz could be in a bit of trouble.
Yet Memphis has their own unique advantages on the front line, as the combination of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph proved too big and too productive for Tim Duncan’s big man counterparts. DeJuan Blair, Antonio McDyess, and Matt Bonner all struggled defensively, and Gasol and Randolph — who scored a combined 49 points on 19-of-25 shooting shooting while grabbing 23 total rebounds — had a field day. The problems with those three aren’t exactly based in execution, either; Blair, McDyess, and Bonner could all stand to play better, but their biggest weaknesses stem from their lack of size, lack of mobility, and lack of overall athleticism, respectively. Those aren’t elements that are going to change between Games 1 and 2, and the brilliant efficiency of Randolph and Gasol should endure so long as the Grizzly big men are committed to exploiting mismatches.
Beyond Gasol and Randolph, Memphis benefited from a solid performance by Mike Conley, O.J. Mayo balancing his poor decision making with three-point marksmanship, timely scoring by Shane Battier, an impressive team defensive front against Tony Parker, and the occasional moments of Tony Allen heroism. It was a total performance championed by two of the Grizzlies’ finest, but a similar showing in the games to come unfortunately may not be enough. If the Grizz are to steal any more games from the Spurs after Ginobili’s return, they’ll have to be even better. The fouling — though mostly due to an overly anxious officiating crew in Game 1 — will have to be reined in. The shooting from all over the floor must remain pristine, and Memphis’ supplementary scorers will have to become even more efficient. It took quite a bit going right for the Grizz to steal Game 1, but this was the game they stood the greatest chance of winning. Now comes the real test, and Memphis’ chance to really throw a wrench into this series’ works.
Good work so far, Grizzlies. Now let’s see what you’ve got.