These two know each other. Neither one wanted to see the other one, but neither one is scared of the other one, either. The Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs have a strong sense of familiarity with each other, and it's tinged with respect, fear, and a little bit of animosity born of competition.
Two years ago, the Memphis Grizzlies upset the San Antonio Spurs in a 1 vs. 8 matchup to win their first ever franchise playoff series. Now the two teams meet for a chance to advance to the NBA Finals.
It's less of a contrast in styles than it was two years ago. The Spurs have gone bigger with Tiago Splitter and Kawhi Leonard. The Grizzlies have gone to more wing players off the bench like Quincy Pondexter. The two teams have come towards a middle ground, but it's still offense (Spurs) vs. defense (Grizzlies) and drive and kick (San Antonio) vs. ground and pound (Memphis). The more things change, the more they stay the same.
San Antonio's general stance towards that upset series that kicktarted the Grizzlies "contention" run has been annoyance. Manu Ginobili was limited with an elbow injury. Shane Battier hit unlikely threes. But in that series, it was considered remarkable that Marc Gasol was an offensive weapon. Since then, Gasol has become maybe the best overall center in the league. It was considered surprising that Zach Randolph could dominate that way. He has been at an All-Star level for three seasons (selected twice).
The Spurs will try and do what they always do, out-execute the opponent. The Grizzlies will try and do what they always do, throw the opponent into total disarray so they can't execute. It will be a series with elbows and flops and a lot of free throws. It should also make for high drama.
The Spurs believe no team can stand in their way when they do the right things. The Grizzlies just believe.
For all the physical battling you can expect from this series, the real fight is going to be in the players and coaches' mind, and it is not for the weak in this series.
1. What happened: The two teams split the season series 2-2. Three of the games were decided by four points or less, two were decided in overtime.
One of the Memphis losses was the infamous "Rest Game." With the Spurs looking at a back to back on the road in Miami, Gregg Popovich sat Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Danny Green. Well, he sat them on a plane and sent them back to San Antonio. The league fined Popovich. Two days later, the Spurs beat the Grizzlies... who were on a back to back.
So yeah, pretty close season series. The Spurs were without Tim Duncan and Ginobili in their April 1st loss to Memphis, and without Ginobili in a bigger win in January.
2. X-factor: Can the Grizzlies repeat their defensive gameplan from the 2011 series?
Two years ago, Memphis took on a huge gamble to topple the Spurs. San Antonio wants to create impossible defensive decisions for the opponent, forcing them to choose between letting the driver get to the rim and leaving the man open in the corner. Often their drive and kick rotations end with a wing and corner player passing it back and forth depending on how the defender reacts.
The Grizzlies, interestingly enough, chose to eschew common defensive gameplanning of maintaining position in favor of aggressively attacking passing lanes. The result was turning the Spurs' biggest asset, their willingness to make the right pass, into a liability.
So will this work again? Yes and no. First of all, the Spurs have had a lot more possessions run out of the pick and roll and spot up than in 2011. Second, the Grizzlies have migrated more towards keeping position and trapping. How this plays out, along with the total turnoer rate for the Spurs, will determine much of how the series plays out.
3. The Big narrative: Is Memphis for real?
The Grizzlies got past the Clippers to the surprise of many, but the Clippers had never shown themselves to be an elite team, particularly in the playoffs. Then they took on the Thunder, without Russell Westbrook. Winning in five games is huge, but each game was close.
Is Memphis actually a title contender, or simply a team that managed to land an imploding Clippers team and a wounded Thunder team?
You don't get to choose your opponent in the NBA. You play the team in front of you and Memphis beat that team, twice. But now they face a Spurs team which is at least on the surface, significantly healthier than the Grizzlies' first two opponents and healthier than they were in the 2011 upset.
The Grizzlies were an NBA punchline four years ago. Since then, they've become a powerhouse and a fringe contender. Just making the Western Conference Finals is an accomplishment for the team relative to their history. They're facing the gold standard for accomplishment in the NBA, the Spurs. A win and they're in the Finals, a serious title contender. A loss and they simply hit weak teams at the right time.
That's how it goes in the NBA.
4. Prediction: Pick 'em. I mean, honestly. Can you say the matchup two years ago was a fluke? No. Are these two teams the same as then? Absolutely not. Is Memphis better? You can argue that. Are the Spurs? Certainly defensively.
The Spurs can spread the floor, the Grizzlies defend the perimeter. The Grizzlies can pound the ball in the post, the Spurs have excellent help defense. San Antonio has terrific shooters. Memphis has great defenders. San Antonio has Manu Ginobili as a difference maker. Memphis has Tony Allen to create havoc. Tony Parker is one of the best point guards in the league. Mike Conley played Chris Paul to a draw in the first round.
So take your pick.
What it comes down to for me is belief. The Spurs are so rational, take such a big picture view, never get too up or too down, that they run succeptible to swings. The Warriors geve them trouble with that approach, but were dependent on hitting shots. When that stopped, they were sunk. Memphis thinks this is their time, that this is their year. Throw in the physical nature and the injury issues with the Spurs, and I think you have to lean Grizzlies.
But on the other hand...
The pick: Grizzlies in six.