The Memphis Grizzlies staked their claim to NBA success two seasons ago by knocking off the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs. Now further in the playoffs than they've ever been, the Grizzlies once again look to throw a wrench in the Spurs' typical plans as the squads square off in the Western Conference Finals.
The Grizzlies fended off an Oklahoma City Thunder team that never fully recovered from the loss of Russell Westbrook in five games, while the Spurs knocked off Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and a Golden State Warriors team that wasn't interested in missing three-pointers. Now, the two teams meet with the opportunity to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals.
For the Grizzlies, winning has come on the back of incredible defense -- the second-most efficient squad in the league at preventing opponents from scoring, peppered in with Zach Randolph's gravitationally challenged low-post brilliance. For the Spurs, it's much of the same thing that's gotten them championships in the past: some games, Tim Duncan's refined scoring bores teams to death; in others, Tony Parker or Manu Ginobili explode.
Here's the info on Sunday's game, plus three questions that will determine how the series plays out:
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
Location: AT&T Center, San Antonio, Texas
Odds: Spurs favored by 4.5 points
Can Tony Allen slow Tony Parker?
On a team strapped head-to-toe with defensively-dominant players, Tony Allen is the lockdown guy. In the last series, he and Tayshaun Prince went back-and-forth with the responsibility of guarding Kevin Durant: Prince stifling the three-time NBA scoring champion with his length, Allen somehow managing to get in the grill of a player five inches taller.
In this series, the focus will turn to Tony Parker. The Frenchman had arguably the best season of his illustrious career, averaging 20.3 points per game and somehow upping that to 22.4 points in the playoffs. Parker operates the Spurs' offense, and when he's successful, so is the team. In eight postseason wins, he averages 23.4 points per game; in two losses, he's averaged just 18.5. Can the ranting, raving defense of Allen irritate the fundamentally sound scoring ability of Parker?
Who dominates pace?
The easy thing is to look at two teams that earn their bread defensively and call this a battle between molasses-based slowpokes. But that's only half true. The Grizzlies were the slowest team in the NBA this season, gritting, grinding and ... something else that starts with "gr" with only 88.4 possessions per game. It let the team get into its style of play, a muck aimed at preventing the opposition from doing anything attractive while scoring just enough to remain competitive.
Although Gregg Popovich has also earned a rep for being slow -- his teams were towards the bottom of the league in pace year after year while winning four NBA championships -- things have changed. These Spurs are No. 6 in the league in pace, averaging 94.2 possessions per game.
The team that gets into its rhythm will be more successful. If the Spurs speed things up or the Grizzlies slow things down, they'll have a better chance at winning with a slightly less comfortable opponent.
Who wins on the glass?
Offense isn't really the Grizzlies' thing, but rebounding is. Memphis grabs 31.0 percent of its misses, the second-highest offensive rebound rate in the league. Randolph manages to grab boards even though he can't really jump, eating up space and probably some other stuff too while jostling bodies down low, while Marc Gasol uses his burly 7'1 frame to his advantage. They're one of the filthiest frontcourts in the league, and combined, they're straight up grimy on the offensive glass, averaging 6.4 off their 19.0 offensive rebounds per game.
While the Grizzlies try to dominate by playing big, the Spurs throw Tim Duncan at the opposition, preferring to play smaller. Tiago Splitter provides relief, and Boris Diaw plays a center-type role when called upon, but the key big is Duncan, who averages 8.1 boards per game -- significantly more than any of his teammates. They grab 74.9 percent of the opposition's missed shots, the third best defensive rebounding rate in the league.
Can Duncan pry rebounds from the Grizzlies' grasp, or will he be overmatched by a squad that wins games grabbing offensive rebounds?