The Grizzlies lead the series 2-1. But surely the Spurs respond like they always have... except, they've never done it in this specific situation before.
Posted by Matt Moore
The Narrative: Alright, it's been fun, Memphis. You've made some noise. But this is where champions come out and take care of business. This is what the Spurs do. They right the ship and take care of this thing...
Except the Spurs haven't done this before. Ever. The Duncan-era Spurs have never won a series, down 2-1 when they have surrendered homecourt advantage. In the Duncan era, San Antonio has been down 2-1 seven times. They've come back to win once, in 2008 against the New Orleans Hornets, when they did not have homecourt advantage to begin with. You can easily argue that it only proves they've overcome tougher circumstances than this. However, it does not change the fact that, when they have surrendered homecourt advantage in two of the first three games, they are oh-fer. In 2009, the Dallas Mavericks stunned the Spurs in the first round, taking two of the first three games and losing in five. In 2006, the Spurs lost two of the first three, again to the Mavericks, losing in seven after a furious comeback. In 2001, they were swept by the Lakers when they possessed homecourt. And, in 2000, they lost a best-of-five series against the Suns after losing two of the first three.
This isn't to say the Spurs can't do it. In fact, you could just argue this is one more thing to mark off their impressive checklist. After all, the biggest reason there are so few of these situations for them is because the Spurs also won four championships in the Duncan era. But the fact remains they are trying to do something they've never done.
The way this series has gone is also different. In the 2008 comeback series against the Hornets, they lost the first two in New Orleans, then homecourt held for both teams until Game 7. A stout defensive performance (typical for those Spurs) and a bad shooting night for New Orleans (typical for that city's luck) lead to the Spurs advancing to the Western Conference Finals against the Lakers, who had homecourt advantage. Most notably, though? These are not the Spurs of old. The cast of characters at the front of the bill is, but the way they're trying to win is not.
The Hook: Read Spurs blogs, listen to their broadcasters, listen to analysts. The message remains the same. The Spurs aren't going to get where they want to go in this series by playing gritty, hard-nosed defense. Instead, they have to rely on the perimeter shot. The Spurs are shooting 32 percent from the arc in this series versus 39 percent in the regular season. You can chalk that up to misses, but they're also taking six fewer shots from deep. (Stats courtesy of NBA StatsCube.) The Spurs are playing better defense than they did in the regular season, both overall and in the four meetings with the Grizzlies, holding them to 98 defensive efficiency. But their offense has struggled as well and the result is two losses in three games.
The Spurs shot an average of eight 3-pointers from the corner in the regular season. Against the Grizzlies, they're averaging just five. They're hitting at 47 percent, but the reason for the drop isn't systemic, it's based off the work of the Grizzlies defensively. The Grizzlies' best defensive attribute is disrupting passing lanes. They are great at anticipating and reacting to passes, particularly the drive and kick, which is a huge element in the Spurs' offense. Their help defense on penetration is their weakest asset, but their ability to jump passing lanes is their strongest. Even if they're not intercepting the pass to the corner three or wing, they're causing enough havoc to make the pass just a little harder to make, just a little harder to catch, and that disrupts timing and forces the Spurs to reset. If the Spurs cause enough damage inside on drives to force the Grizzlies to collapse harder, those perimeter threes open up, and San Antonio's success compounds itself. That's what's deciding this series so far.
The Adjustment: In Game 1, the Grizzlies pounded the ball inside relentlessly. In Game 2, the Spurs responded by jamming the lane and collapsing on any ball-handler who entered, risking the kick-out to shooters. In Game 3, the Grizzlies spread their bigs more evenly, creating more space in the passing lanes within the paint. That helped with dishing to cutters, which forced the Spurs to not double over-aggressively, which created more room for the Memphis bigs. Again, the problem compounds itself. The Spurs in Game 4 will likely counter that by bringing doubles even faster and risking the Grizzlies having driving lanes. No Memphis wing has proven they can effectively slice through the offense other than Mike Conley. And if Mike Conley beats you, you just have to live with it if you're the Spurs. At some point, down 2-1, you have to pick your poison. They don't want to pick getting huge contributions from Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol.
The X-Factor: Matt Bonner can kill the Spurs or the Grizzlies. It's going to be one or the other. Offensively, Bonner is one of the best 3-point shooters in the league. He's phenomenal. He's an abject terror on the catch and shoot. With a tall frame, high release, and consistent form, Bonner daggered the Grizzlies in Game 2 and can do it again in Game 3 if left open. On the other hand, Bonner is a defensive nightmare... for San Antonio. The Grizzlies have started actually isolating Bonner at the elbow with either Darrel Arthur or Marc Gasol (the Spurs don't let Bonner see much time on Zach Randolph, and if they do, they double immediately). And nearly every time it results in a foul or points. Bonner has over a 109 defensive efficiency. That is awful. He can't handle Marc Gasol's girth, Randolph's moves, Arthur's speed, cover rotations or contribute in any way outside of the perimeter shot. But when he hits, it's a key element. That's why he keeps getting time. If the Spurs can find a way to cover for his defensive malfunctions while allowing the Bonner-Bot 2000 to just shoot 3-pointers, they'll be in good shape to tie the series.
The Sticking Point: Memphis has played what could be arguably better basketball in likely 10 of the past 12 quarters of this series. But the Spurs lost by a Shane Battier 3-pointer in Game 1, and a clinching Zach Randolph 3-pointer (!) in Game 3, and still had a chance to tie that game. Memphis can't rely on San Antonio failing to call a timeout in Game 4. The Spurs, a championship quality team, is backed into a corner. They're going to respond. The big question tonight is how far the Grizzlies really want to go. Are they happy to get their first two playoff wins in franchise history and their first home playoff win ever, or do they really want to shock the world and complete a huge upset of an 8 seed over 1. Game 3 is likely going to be the game that decides that.
It's a must-win. For both teams.