Gregg Popovich’s decision to rest the heart of his lineup on Thursday sparked a major controversy that cost the San Antonio Spurs a quarter of a million dollars, but he may reap the benefits of that decision on Saturday night if his team can beat Memphis as they return home from a six game road trip.
The Spurs are a half game behind the Grizzlies in the standings and will need a victory tonight keep pace with a younger side that has played like it had something to prove throughout the year. The Grizzlies have won nine of their last ten games and are currently on a four game winning streak.
Meanwhile, the Spurs have been pretty consistent themselves having won seven of their last ten and are among the leagues best shooting and scoring teams. Getting Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili back into the lineup fueled by a few days off will have the Spurs firing on all cylinders, but they’ll have to bring more to the table than just their best personnel to beat Memphis.
San Antonio was able to sweep the season series in 2011-12 partially because of their pick and roll efficiency and partially because Tim Duncan was able to face up against Marc Gasol and draw him away from the basket with Zach Randolph out of the lineup for a good chunk of the season. Even after Randolph’s return, Memphis had to play him off of the bench as he and Rudy Gay struggled to gel.
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This year, Memphis has worked out the kinks meaning Duncan and Randolph will go toe-to-toe leaving Gasol, one of the best defensive centers in the league, free to guard the paint. Memphis is the eighth best defensive team when it comes to defending the paint and the fourth best in points in the paint per game. The Spurs are no slouches on that side of the ball as they are the sixth best when it comes to scoring in the paint, but they’re going to have to step it up defensively as they struggle to stop other teams who excel in that area of the floor.
The battle inside will be crucial and whether or not Duncan and Boris Diaw and can keep up with the league’s second best rebounder in Randolph (12.6 per game) will also play a major part in this one. Memphis averages 12.4 offensive boards per game as a team, a huge source of their scoring around the basket.
While the Grizzlies have a slight advantage inside, the Spurs may boast a better back court. The key for Memphis will be how well Mike Conley can deal with Parker coming off of picks. Conley is third in the league in steals at 2.5 per game while his backcourt partner Tony Allen is tied for seventh at 2 per game. Conley has the speed to keep up with anyone, but Parker is one of the best at using all of his options when coming off a pick, so it will take a good game from both Allen and Conley to keep the Spurs at bay.
Games like this often come down to how much a team’s bench contributes. San Antonio holds an edge here because they have the second best scoring bench in the NBA. Even though Memphis’ bench is very solid defensively, the Spurs bench ranks in the top 10 in the NBA in rebounds, points and assists. The Grizzlies second line will have their hands full giving Lionel Hollins some tough decisions on how he handles his rotations.
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If the game has a ton of pace to it, this one will turn into a shoot out. San Antonio likes to get guys like Gary Neal and Danny Green out on the break with Parker and Ginobili, but Memphis ranks in the top 10 in fast break points per game. Rudy Gay is currently averaging 19 points per game and would love to see this one turn into sprint session.
The Spurs should look to slow the game down. Memphis may be a very good defensive team, but the Spurs have the fifth best assist to turnover ratio in the NBA and will be confident that they can run their half court set efficiently.
In the end, it would be hard to find a pair of teams around the league that are more evenly matched. Each has an incredible coach, players with high basketball IQs and is sound on both sides of the ball no matter what personnel they have out there. It’s a statement game for both teams, Memphis trying to improve on their success against the big teams like Miami, Oklahoma City, New York and the Lakers, while San Antonio is looking to prove that they’re still the kings of the Southwest. No matter what happens tonight, Spurs versus Grizzlies promises to be fun to watch.