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Beating the Machine: How Memphis Can Win

Here are three ways to attack a scary San Antonio Spurs team.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Memphis faces the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the Western Conference Playoffs. The Grizzlies are the 7th seed; Spurs hold the 2nd seed. The Spurs have a history of strong playoff runs in the Gregg Popovich era. This matchup will be interesting to say the least, and the Grizzlies have some tough games ahead of them.

There are very few weaknesses in the Spurs’ game, but there are few different areas that Memphis can try to exploit to have a better chance of winning. I will break down some weaknesses based on stats and game performance that could be attacked to beat the Spurs.

I will preface by saying that the Grizzlies will have to play pretty close to a perfect series to defeat San Antonio. This is a team that has won 60 games in three of the last five seasons (and one of those seasons they won 58 games). If it weren’t for the Golden State Warriors, they would be the unanimous first seed in the Western Conference for much of the 21st Century.

I believe Memphis has a chance to steal this series if they attack three holes in the Spurs game: tempo, fouls, and the Spurs scoring tandem.


Yeah, like that James Ennis III.

I know, I get it, Memphis doesn’t play at a quick pace. They never have, and even when they tried to this year, most of the time it went poorly. But here’s the thing, San Antonio basically needs to score 100 points to win a game. Against the top 7 seeds in the West this season, they only won two games scoring under 100. Guess who those games were against? Memphis.

Both teams take care of the ball - they both average under 13 turnovers a game, good for top 10 in the league. Even more impressively, Memphis and San Antonio both take care of the ball in half court settings majority of the time. Both teams rank in the bottom five in possessions per game (under 98 per), SA at 27th and Memphis at 28th.

Increasing the tempo could benefit Memphis. The Grizz aren’t strong in transition, that’s no secret. But scoring in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock could give Memphis more possessions, aka more chances to score. The flip side of that: if you shoot earlier in the shot clock, the more defense you will have to play. The Spurs aren’t that much better when the ball is sped up; they’re in the bottom half of the league in fast break points (12.2), so it isn’t much of a risk to speed them up.

If you consider the roster that SA is bringing, you will see that speeding them up could be the best strategy to attack their bigs. Pau Gasol and David Lee can’t run with the Memphis guards, and JaMychal Green can beat LaMarcus Aldridge down the floor. Keep in mind, the Spurs do have the 2-time defending defensive player of the year, Mr. Kawhi Leonard. He can hit a dagger jumper and sprint back to block your shot. Watch out for that man.


NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Yeah, like that Z-Bo.

This is interesting. An underrated part of the Memphis offense is drawing fouls. The Grizz rank number four in fouls drawn per game (20.9 per). I’m not saying that the Grizzlies should try to get the Spurs in foul trouble, that isn’t even possible. 12 players on the Spurs roster played 62 or more games, their bench is stupid deep, foul trouble isn’t an issue.

But what is important is getting to the free throw line. This gives the Grizzlies a chance to score without the clock moving, and in case you weren’t aware, a free throw is uncontested and has a good chance of going in. Memphis ranks in the top half of the league for free throw attempts per game (23.4) while shooting just over 78% from the line If both averages hold, that equates to about 18 points per game. That’s an easy way to score against a tough Spurs defense.

LaMarcus Aldridge and Dewayne Dedmon are the Spurs that foul the most, fortunately for the Grizzlies because those are fouls committed on big men; advantage Grizzlies bigs. Again, the goal isn’t to get the Spurs in foul trouble. The goal is to get easy points and keep the Spurs rotation from getting into a groove.

I know asking the Grizzlies to speed up the tempo but also shoot more free throws seems contradictory, but not every possession will be an opportunity to speed the game up. When in a half court set, forcing the Spurs defense to foul is a huge advantage that the Grizz could attack. Ideally, Memphis would attempt around 30 free throws, so we could watch a lovely, three-hour first game.

Scoring Tandem

NBA: Indiana Pacers at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Yeah, those guys.

The Spurs’ offense is rigidly controlled by two players: Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge. To put them in perspective, Leonard has 1,298 field goal attempts this season (most on the team), and Aldridge has 1,035. The next Spur on that list is Patty Mills with 617 (a bench player?!).

So insightful: “Stop Kawhi Leonard.” Tough to do, I understand. But there are ways to keep him in the 15-20 point range instead of the 25-30 point range.

  • Don’t let him catch the ball. You need the basketball to score, so do the defensive work before he gets the ball.
  • Force him into late shot clock situations. The Spurs play slow - they want to use the clock - but forcing him to take a Memphis defender one-on-one causes rushed shots.

He’s averaging over 25 points a game for a reason, he is an elite scorer. So is Aldridge. But it’s obvious that those two players provide the biggest spark on the offensive end. Forcing other players to beat the Grizzlies can cause confusion and poor shot selection for the Spurs. I don’t love forcing Patty Mills to beat Memphis (the dude can shoot), but I’ll take his shots over the first two.

In the season series, Memphis has played decent defense on both Leonard and Aldridge. Kawhi only shot 42% and Aldridge shot 45%. If Memphis could maintain that for this series, they have a good shot to win. Both players scored around their averages against Memphis, so forcing them to give the ball up or take late second shots could prevent that. Losing Tony Allen doesn’t help with this goal.

I’ll hold to it that, if both players shoot under 45% for the series, the chances of winning this series get exponentially higher.

Remember, it’s the Spurs we’re talking about here. Popovich is considering the Grizzly weaknesses as well, so all of my insight could be tanked because of their game plan. There are other ways to attack the Spurs as well; check out the other GBB writer’s perspectives coming throughout this series. This article from CBS writer Matt Moore says you should just put whoever Leonard is guarding in the corner, forget about that player, and play 4 v 4.

In other words, there are so many different angles to take, and I’m sure the Memphis coaching staff is considering all of them. This could be the last year of the Grit-N-Grind era, so it would be appropriate to finish by the same result as this era started: beating the Spurs in the first round series.

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