That was impressive, San Antonio.
A sweep was just not something anyone saw coming (even those of us who picked the Spurs in the series). Tony Parker was again playing like the guy everyone wanted to put in the MVP conversation mid-season. All series long he would turn the corner off the pick and do whatever he wanted — drive into the lane and score, drive and dish to open shooters, pull up for a jumper, hit Tim Duncan rolling down the lane. He did it all and seemed to always make the right decision. Memphis had no answer for him (37 points in the closeout game) and that was ultimately the difference.
But in the ashes of this playoff loss for Memphis is a roadmap via San Antonio on the next steps to take so they can take the next steps.
And the most obvious thing is getting shooters.
It is hard to defend San Antonio because everyone on the floor can hurt you. Yes, Parker is lightning quick off the pick but you pay a big price if you help off Danny Green or Kawhi Leonard or Gary Neal or Boris Diaw or Matt Bonner or Manu Ginobili or… you get the idea. They all share the ball and they all knock down the shot.
Like San Antonio, Memphis wants to work their offense inside out but San Antonio did a masterful job all series of making life difficult for Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. Their big men fronted the post and help came before an entry pass was ever made — because the Spurs could completely ignore Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince without paying a price. It is why Quincy Pondexter got a lot of burn as the series went on — Lionel Hollins needed shooters and Pondexter was the best he had.
Memphis needs some wing players who can knock down threes and midrange jump shots, guys willing to share the rock.
(If you are about to say that is Rudy Gay, you’re wrong. The Grizzlies with Gay don’t get past the Clippers — he would take 20 or more possessions a game and turn them into isolation sets and he shot just 40.8 percent with Memphis this year and 31 percent from three. San Antonio would have cut off his driving lanes and encouraged him to shoot jumpers all day, then get the rebound off his miss. Memphis became much better with him out and Mike Conley stepping up, plus the offense often going through Gasol at the elbow.)
San Antonio also showed that the next step for Memphis is about commitment to the plan. You don’t Rudy Gay dominating the ball to win games, you need team play like the Grizzlies are really starting to do.
“And the second goal (for the Spurs this season) was to play together and trust each other,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said after the game. “We’re not a one-on-one team, we can’t give the ball to one guy and say ‘go score.’ We do it as a group.”
You can clearly win that way. But what you can’t do is break it up and put it back together — San Antonio won in part because they have kept their core together for so long. That familiarity is an advantage.
The Spurs are relentless and do not vary from their system of strategies. San Antonio didn’t look for mismatches to exploit; it looked for a hole in the Grizzlies defense (that Randolph couldn’t show out on Tony Parker and stay in front of him off picks) and exploit it relentlessly. Memphis does some of that with their grit and grind style under Hollins, but the Spurs are the masters.
And while the Grizzlies were the better defensive team in the regular season, the Spurs showed that solving matchups is key in the playoffs.
“It was their defense not only on Zach but on Marc, on our pick and roll game, they did an outstanding job of taking away our pick-and-roll game, they did an outstanding job of taking Mike (Conley) away from the lane,” Hollins said after the game. “They forced him into turnovers sometimes by playing big on him and he couldn’t make a pass that he normally makes.”
San Antonio defensively could take away the Grizzlies preferred options, but Memphis could not do the same in return.
The Grizzlies are not that far off — they won 56 games and reached the franchise’s first ever conference finals. That is something to be proud of and build on. This is a good team headed in the right direction.
And if they need a roadmap to get where they want San Antonio left one behind.