Both teams look to do their scoring down low, and both have tremendous rebounding talent. The Grizzlies have the No. 2 offensive rebound rate in the NBA, the Spurs have the No. 3 defensive rebound rate. Will Tim Duncan's old-man game hold up, or will Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol's down-low swagger give Memphis the advantage?
On one side, a Grizzlies frontcourt that has left every opponent flustered. Randolph is the star, barreling past opposing power forwards with force and a complete lack of grace, averaging 15.4 points and 11.2 rebounds per game, but upping his scoring to 19.7 points per game in the postseason. The fact that his vertical leap tops out at about seven inches makes his success even more impressive. He's a human bowling ball that can hit high-arcing 18-footers and finish stumbling, bruising drives. He's joined by Gasol, not just the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year, but also an incredibly refined center, combining the passing perfection and finely honed post game of his older brother Pau with strength and a mean streak.
For the Spurs, Tim Duncan's reputation and general brilliance precedes anything we can say here. He won his first NBA championship in 1999, when David Robinson was the center and Duncan was just a crafty veteran inhabiting a 22-year-old's body. Duncan's 37 now, and his game is remarkably similar. He still scores with a bored ease, drilling bank shots, powering past opposing bigs with textbook spins, and he's still strong enough to stop most would-be scorers.
But the way the Spurs have used him has changed. Then, he was a power forward on a team that prided itself on slowness, defensive grime, and an offense that was good enough to win but didn't take beauty prizes. Now, he's the team's center on a squad that can gun as well as it can grind. The Spurs have a reputation of slowness, but it's the Grizzlies who played with the slowest pace in the NBA this season, while San Antonio had the sixth-fastest team in the league, thriving off no-name shooters and Duncan.
Two years ago, when the Grizzlies beat the Spurs in a shocking first-round upset, it was based around Memphis's ability to out-big San Antonio. Randolph and Gasol went up against ... well, Duncan. One versus two didn't pan out well, and the Grizzlies pulled off one of the more surprising results in postseason history as if it was nothing.
The Spurs will battle the same issue this time around. Duncan versus Gasol should be a strong matchup to watch -- two strong bodies with great defensive capabilities and polished offensive games.
But the Spurs might not be able to find an answer for the Grizzlies' other big. In the playoffs they've opted to go smaller, with Tiago Splitter, Boris Diaw, and Matt Bonner all seeing their minutes drop, while DeJuan Blair's have been practically non-existent. Splitter is a legitimate big, with Diaw and Bonner both stretch-type guys. Blair seems like the thick type to do battle with Randolph in the post, but Gregg Popovich hasn't really looked his way at all.
Playing those guys somewhat messes with the Spurs' flow -- they'd prefer to go smaller -- but combined, those lesser-used bigs need to find a way to irritate Randolph, Memphis's gravitationally challenged heart and soul. Otherwise, they could be facing the same exit they experienced two years ago, out-gritted and out-ground by the Grizzlies' size.