Spurs face challenge of contending with Grizzlies' physical defense

Spurs vs. Memphis Grizzlies
First-round playoff series schedule

Game 1: Saturday, 7 p.m., AT&T Center
Game 2: Monday, 8:30 p.m., AT&T Center
Game 3: Thursday, April 20, 8:30 p.m., Memphis
Game 4: Saturday, April 22, 7 p.m., Memphis
Game 5: Tuesday, April 25 (time TBD), AT&T Center*
Game 6: Thursday, April 27 (time TBD), Memphis*
Game 7: Saturday, April 29 (time TBD), AT&T Center*
*if necessary

SAN ANTONIO – For years, the Memphis Grizzlies have thrived as a tough, defensive-minded team that frustrates opponents with its physical play.

The Grizzlies aren’t much different offensively, preferring a grinding, half-court game to playing at a fast tempo. If the Grizzlies were a football team, they would win with a rugged defense and punishing running game.

“They’ve got good defenders on their team,” Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard said. “They take pride on the defensive end. Whenever you have that, it’s going to be difficult for anyone to score. They’re very physical and they don’t care if they send people to the [free throw] line because they get steals. They’re aggressive.”

While Memphis has always ranked among the NBA’s best defensive teams, it has struggled to score enough points to keep up with the league’s elite squads. Seeking to give the Grizzlies a little more offensive punch this season, first-year coach David Fizdale implemented some changes in training camp, including having 7-foot center Marc Gasol shoot 3-pointers.

“The first conversation I had with Marc, I said, ‘You’re going to be shooting some threes, buddy,’” Fizdale recalled. “You’ve got to take four a game. He laughed at first, but then when he saw I was serious, he just dove in.”

But the Grizzlies, who face the Spurs in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series Saturday night at the AT&T Center, are still the same hard-nosed team they’ve always been. Toughness is in their DNA, and nowhere is that physicality more evident than on the defensive end of the court.

Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers pretty much nailed it last Saturday when he was asked about the Grizzlies before his team played the Spurs at the AT&T Center.

“They are trying to shoot more threes and spread the floor more, but it’s like the wolf in sheep’s clothing,” a chuckling Rivers said. “At the end of the game, they’re trying to punch you in the mouth and beat you up. It’s funny.

“When we played them, they start the game out, they’re shooting threes and, by the end, they’re grabbing you and knocking you down. They remember who they are. They still have Zach [Randolph], Gasol, and Tony Allen on that team. Until they change, that’s who they are.”

Unfortunately for the Grizzlies, Allen is out indefinitely with a strained right calf. Allen, a guard who is Memphis' best perimeter defender, sustained the injury during the first quarter of the Grizzlies' home loss to the Dallas Mavericks in their regular-season finale. Citing a source, ESPN's Tim MacMahon reported Thursday that Allen is likely to miss the entire series against San Antonio.

Even without Allen, the Spurs will face rough sledding against Memphis, which split four games with the Silver and Black this season. Allen missed the teams' last meeting, a 95-89 Spurs victory in overtime on April 4, with an eye injury.   

The Silver and Black scored an average of only 90.5 points and shot 43 percent against the Grizzlies. San Antonio finished the regular season averaging 105.3 points and 46.9 percent shooting from the field.

Given the problems they had with ball movement in the last weeks of the season, the Spurs could be hard-pressed to match their season’s offensive averages against Memphis in their playoff series.

The best way to counter a physical defense is with crisp ball movement, but that’s difficult to do against a team that clogs the passing lanes as effectively and consistently as the Grizzlies do.

“They’re a very good defensive team,” said Spurs center Pau Gasol, Marc’s older brother. “They’re a physical team. They get into you. They use their hands and they make it hard. So you have to be sharp, be strong with the ball, and make them pay sometimes for that aggressiveness.

“That’s kind of what we have to do. It’s going to be a little ugly, but it happens with any team that they play. They’re a good, aggressive defensive team, and they bank on it.”

Pau Gasol started his NBA career with Memphis in 2001, playing for the Grizzlies until they traded him to the Los Angeles Lakers in February 2008. A six-time All-Star, Gasol is in his first season with the Spurs.   

For all of Fizdale’s efforts to infuse Memphis with a little more scoring power this season, the needle on the Grizzlies’ offensive production has barely moved. Memphis ranked 29th, or next to last in the league, in scoring this season with an average of 100.5 points. The Grizzlies were 24th with a 99.1 average last season.

Defense is another matter. Memphis allowed an average of 104.5 points, seventh in the league. The Spurs (100.9) were first.

“They play very physical defense,” Ginobili said. “They play 48 minutes with intensity. They make us play uncomfortable.”

The challenge for the Spurs will be to punch holes in the Grizzlies’ rugged defense with ball movement that produces good-to-great looks at the basket.

That won’t be easy.

Spurs-Grizzlies 2016-17 series (2-2 tie)

Grizzlies 89, Spurs 74, Feb. 6, Memphis
Grizzlies 104, Spurs 96, March 18, Memphis
Spurs 97, Grizzlies 90, March 23, San Antonio
Spurs 95, Grizzlies 89, OT, April 4, San Antonio 

Spurs-Grizzlies playoff history (Spurs lead 3-1)

2004: Spurs won first-round series 4-0
2011: Grizzlies won first-round series 4-2
2013: Spurs won conference finals series 4-0
2016: Spurs won first-round series 4-0

© 2017 KENS-TV


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