The forecast for the Western Conference finals: mostly ugly. And that could favor the gritty Grizzlies.
By BRANDON SPECKFS Tennessee
Zach Randolph had a choice word or two for himself on the way to the
Grizzlies locker room following Wednesday night’s series-clinching win at Oklahoma City.
The Memphis forward missed two crucial free throws that would have iced the game. He was able to say it with a smile because Memphis won, but mistakes like that may not go over as well against the San Antonio Spurs, as the teams meet in the Western Conference finals.
The Spurs finished off Golden State on Thursday to set up the showdown, which marks the first time the Grizzlies will be playing for a spot in the NBA Finals. Game 1 is scheduled for Sunday at San Antonio. The series shifts to Memphis for the third and fourth games next weekend.
The two teams split four regular-season games, both winning two at home. The second-seeded Spurs have that advantage, one extra game at home if it goes the distance. Three of the games this season came before Rudy Gay was traded away from Memphis, which won the only one without Gay. The Spurs, however, were without Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili for that game.
It’s been two years, but the Spurs may still have revenge on the brain. Memphis won its first-ever playoff series against the top-seeded Spurs in 2011.
San Antonio doesn’t make a lot of mistakes, but nor has Memphis this postseason. Memphis struggled from the free throw line early in the playoffs, but have reversed that trend. In Wednesday's clincher, the Grizzlies hit 25-of-29.
The series has all the makings of a seven-game classic. Both teams pace their offenses -- the Spurs averaged 9.6 points better than the Grizzlies -- and take as much pride in their defense. Memphis led the league in regular-season points allowed (93.5) San Antonio ranked 11th (96.6).
Duncan has already called for an ugly series. San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich called Memphis “gritty and talented.”
“It will be a heck of a challenge,” Popovich said.
If it is ugly, Memphis will take it. Their ugliness has gotten them here, with physical and productive play inside from bigs Randolph and Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol and gritty loose ball play from guard Tony Allen. Allen, Gasol and Mike Conley all made the NBA’s all-defensive team.
It’s the first conference finals series in Randolph’s 13-year career, but as the new Memphis mantra goes, the Grizzlies haven't accomplished anything yet.
“It means a lot to me, but we’ve still got work to do,” Randolph said.
If there is an experience edge, it clearly belongs to the Spurs. Allen and forward Tayshaun Prince have titles, too, and Prince even has some revenge to chase. His Pistons lost a Game 7 Finals series against San Antonio.
Prince had seemed very hesitant to shoot the basketball in the Oklahoma City series, until he took 13 shots in Game 5, including one
highlight slam above three defenders.
Memphis has made a living off its front court this season, with trenchmen Randolph and the improvement of Gasol at center. The Spurs are capable of hanging with the duo with aging-but-youthful Duncan and an improving Tiago Splitter at center. Forward Kawhi Leonard has averaged nearly 10 points per game in his two games against Memphis this season.
The Grizzlies overcame something against the Thunder in the clincher that they might have to overcome again, the 3-pointer. OKC hit six of them, to Memphis’ three. Spurs guards Tony Parker and a healthy Manu Ginobili (unlike two seasons ago) can make the defense pay if Memphis guards are unable to get there in time. Conley is the man for the job on Parker, having already dealt with Chris Paul for six games. Ginobili may see a lot of Allen. But Parker loves to drive as well, which makes it challenging on the guards and Memphis bigs to avoid foul trouble.
Parker has feasted on the Grizzlies. In four games this season, he has scored 25.5 points per game, five more than his season average. He also averaged two rebounds and nearly seven assists.
In the four meetings this season, Conley averaged a team-high 18 points per game, along with 2.3 rebounds and 5.5 assists.
Conley, who was three rebounds shy of a triple-double Wednesday, has grown to answer any call on offense. He somewhat emerged in an April 1 victory against San Antonio with a game-tying 3-pointer in the final minute before delivering the game-winning layup with less than a second to play.
Memphis celebrated that night, but a new celebration is on hold, even in the midst of a franchise-long run.
“We moved to the next round. We’re trying to do something really special. We want to go as far as we can go,” Memphis coach Lionel Hollins said.