WHERE: AT&T Center in San Antonio, Texas
WHEN: 7:00 PM CT
HOW TO WATCH/LISTEN: ESPN-Fox Sports Southeast, 92.9 FM ESPN Memphis
MEMPHIS: Tony Allen (Out, calf), Chandler Parsons (Out, knee)
SAN ANTONIO: NONE
PROJECTED STARTING LINEUPS:
MEMPHIS: Mike Conley, ?, Vince Carter, JaMychal Green, Marc Gasol
SAN ANTONIO: Tony Parker, Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Dewayne Dedmon
For the seventh consecutive season, the Memphis Grizzlies are in the NBA Playoffs.
And for the fourth time overall, and third time in the first round, their opponent is the San Antonio Spurs.
The beginning of these Grizzlies as we know them, this “Core Four” and “Grit and Grind Era”, came during a magical playoff run in 2011 that started with an upset of the 1 seed San Antonio Spurs by the 8 seed Grizzlies. The only four players that remain in Memphis from that star-crossed squad remain that “Core Four” of Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Zach Randolph, and Marc Gasol.
A lot has changed over the course of seven seasons. This core is on its third head coach, its second owner, and they’ve had dozens of teammates come and go. Marc and Mike have taken the mantle of leadership from Tony and Zach, and the games and skill sets of all four players have changed over time, as have their roles on the team. Yet through all the turnover, a belief system and ethos have stayed because of the work ethic and character of the four players who started this era, and are now likely destined to end it.
While some faces and functions of the Spurs machine have changed, their constant march of excellence has continued even without Tim Duncan leading the way. San Antonio belongs to Kawhi Leonard now, and he and his machine are operating quite well under future Hall of Fame Head Coach Gregg Popovich. Another 60-win season, another NBA Finals contending season, another opportunity for the Spurs to show why they remain the standard bearer for consistent excellence in the NBA.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. Just as in 2011, the Grizzlies are underdogs to a superior Spurs team. But starting tonight, they have a chance to make history repeat itself by defeating San Antonio and going on yet another magical playoff run.
How can they do it starting tonight in Game One?
The Element of Surprise
You may have noticed that in the “Projected Starting Lineups” section of the preview, there is a question mark when Tony Allen normally is. His strained calf has led to him being out for tonight’s game, and perhaps the whole series. That is not a surprise, as it was announced on Thursday. But what is mildly surprising, and encouraging, is that we have absolutely no idea who will take his place.
That is good, Coach Fizdale. Keep it that way.
Gregg Popovich is a master coach. He’s earned the title of GOAT, at least among active coaches. But he’s not clairvoyant. He cannot see into the future, or read the minds of his opponents. Fizdale is wise to play close to the vest just who will be replacing Tony Allen, because it will directly impact how Pop adjusts.
A bigger lineup on the wing with Vince Carter and James Ennis III would result in Tony Parker perhaps having to defend Ennis in the post, or for Danny Green to have to stick Ennis and Parker play the more perimeter-based Carter. Troy Daniels starting at the 2, though, would mean screens on screens on screens for whoever is defending Troy for the Spurs. Or perhaps Fizdale goes in an entirely different direction that even those of us who have followed the team can’t predict.
Keep Pop off balance. That’s a key to sneaking a game one upset.
Initially, it was widely believed that Tony Allen would draw the assignment of defending Kawhi Leonard and hopefully make him exert lots of energy on offense to get his points. Clearly that will not be happening now. So first year head man David Fizdale must try to figure out a way to replace Allen in the aggregate - how can you piece together a combination of scheme and personnel to slow down an MVP candidate? It’s quite possible you can’t - Leonard is a top-5 NBA player and probably would have gotten his, even against TA. But Allen was your best perimeter defender - now that he’s gone, things just got that much more complicated.
Simply telling Vince Carter, Andrew Harrison, or Wayne Selden Jr. to stick Kawhi is not a long-term solution. Hopefully Fizdale plans to keep Kawhi guessing every possession with different body types defending him, double team looks, etc. That’s now likely your best bet to try to contain Kawhi - you’re not going to stop him. You never were.
Conley the Destroyer
Looking at starting lineup matchups, there are really only two places where the Grizzlies hold the advantage: center and point guard. And of those two positions, you need both Mike Conley AND Marc Gasol to dominate their respective opponents. But of the two, Gasol vs. Dedmon makes you more nervous. Dedmon has created issues for Marc in the past, and he’s a huge part of the Spurs’ #1 defense in the NBA over the course of the regular season. Marc should win, but by how much? To be determined...
For the first time, however, Mike Conley should dominate his 1 on 1 matchup. Tony Parker has always been the better player when these two have played...until this season. Now Mike dictates their showdowns; Conley is the one who must be a focus of gameplanning, Parker must be hidden on someone else defensively so he doesn’t get completely destroyed by Mike.
For any upset dreams to become reality, Marc and Mike must play the series of their lives. But Marc will have a harder time getting that done. Conley must be the man who leads the way.
If Memphis hopes to make this a series, they have to pull out one of the first two games in San Antonio. Going home to FedExForum down 0-2 is not a good look, and that will end poorly more often than not. Tonight is the most likely game for them to sneak out with a win - the uncertainty of who will start and the absence of Tony Allen’s impact on scheme creates openings and opportunities for those taking his place.
But will players like James Ennis III and Troy Daniels be able to take advantage? They are still role players playing outside of their roles, and that will likely be what dooms Memphis overall in this series...but not in this game. Faith in Fizdale and his ability to catch the Spurs off guard will rule the day and make it a series early on.
Hey, it’s #BelieveMemphis time. Sometimes, you have to believe.
Memphis 98, San Antonio 93