The Western Conference Finals begin Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC. In a high-glamour, superstar-heavy matchup sure to attract all manner of casual fans coast to coast, the San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies meet. This actually is a fantastically interesting pairing with the feisty, bullying Grizzlies hoping to disrupt the clean precision of the Spurs. Memphis has been rolling the dice well with two upsets in the books this postseason, while the Spurs have handled business pretty businesslike against the Lakers and Warriors.
Here's a breakdown of what to expect in this series.
- The Spurs have never, under Gregg Popovich, made a point of worrying about offensive rebounds. (That's made the DeJuan Blair era even more curious.) Against the Grizzlies, San Antonio isn't getting any second chances. That makes the two other battles even more important.
- The shooting battle is one to watch. The Spurs' main strength on offense is the league's No. 2 shooting efficiency. San Antonio is near the top of the NBA in both two-point shooting and three-point shooting, and quite high in three-pointer frequency. The Spurs have good shooters up and down the roster, and have a strong offensive identity that gets scores of open looks. But the Grizzlies excel at forcing tough shots. Memphis runs off shooters, has an excellent paint defender in Marc Gasol and generally causes massive problems for the typical shot creators (guards) with handsy Tony Allen and Mike Conley.
- Speaking of handsy, Tony Allen and Mike Conley: watch that turnover count for the Spurs. San Antonio's turnover rate is average. Despite a strong point guard in Tony Parker and a crisp offense, they don't protect the ball particularly well. Memphis' guards are unabashed thieves, and this could be a problem for San Antonio.
And now the other side of the ball.
- This is what continues to concern me about Memphis: the team struggled to shoot all season long. The Grizzlies' struggles from long-range are well-known, but Memphis isn't really too efficient anywhere. Despite having perhaps the best center-power forward combo in the NBA, the Grizzlies ranked No. 28 in shooting percentage at the rim and No. 14 from 5-10 feet, per HoopData. If Memphis has a shooting strength, it's on long two-pointers (No. 9 in the NBA). And San Antonio has historically forced long twos, given that they are the least efficient shots you can get. (In 2005, another team adept at long twos -- Seattle -- gave the Spurs a scare in the second round.)
- Whereas the Spurs need to be concerned about conceding turnovers on offense, they may struggle to pry the ball from Conley's hands. The Grizzlies are pretty sure-handed. Add in what should be a fantastic battle on the glass on Memphis' many errant shots. If Memphis can get a good portion of offensive rebound opportunities, the Grizz could end up with plenty more shots than San Antonio. That could even out Memphis' poor shooting, especially if its defense also does its job and keeps the Spurs' offense in check.
- Memphis has spent a lot of time at the free throw line in this postseason. It's unlikely to happen in the conference finals: Tim Duncan, the Spurs' paint presence, doesn't foul. Neither do the guards; Parker has had a couple of LeBronian foulless streaks. Of course, if Joey Crawford is involved, all bets are off.
I've picked against Memphis twice now, and I've been wrong both times. The offense of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol has been the difference. San Antonio has the best defense Memphis will face this postseason, barring a Pacers-Grizzlies Finals. This series may come down to whether a defense anchored by Tim Duncan can slow Z-Bo and Marc. I don't make a habit of betting against Big Fun. Spurs in 7.