Heading into the Western Conference Finals series, the San Antonio Spurs had struggled to put away the #6 seed Golden State Warriors, while the Memphis Grizzlies had taken a major step forward in their progression as a playoff team by knocking off our Thunder. Given that the Grizzlies had taken down the #1 seed Spurs two years prior, many of us, myself included, thought that now was the time for Memphis to really establish themselves as a contending team.
Four games later, Memphis is sitting at home and the Spurs are headed to try and win Tim Duncan's 5th ring. What happened?
It is impossible to consider the outcome of this series and not contemplate about the Grizzlies' 4-1 series win over the Thunder. What made Memphis so good, so consistent against OKC and yet fall apart time and time again against the Spurs? How could the Spurs look so dynamic against the Grizzlies' league-leading defense while the Thunder defense looked so inept?
Perhaps that is what makes the Spurs so amazing, and what makes us feel even worse about how the Thunder's season ended. We got to see up close how much a reliable offensive system matters to a team when they're facing a defense like Memphis'. The Thunder did not need much more on offense to defeat Memphis, but there was simply not enough substance to their methodology to find anything greater than Kevin Durant for 45 minutes a game.
To be sure, this game was controlled from start to finish by Tony Parker and Tim Duncan, but underpinning it all was the idea that the Spurs knew what they were doing at all times on both ends of the court. To wit, the Spurs defense held the Grizz to under 88 points per outing, and that is with the benefit of 2 overtime periods. The Grizzlies' centerpiece Zach Randolph, the hero of 2011, shot a woeful 30% from the floor, and his brother at arms Marc Gasol didn't do much better, shooting 40% from the floor. There are many smart basketball folk who sing the praises of Gasol's evolving offensive game and his ability to play like Tim Duncan on both ends of the court. However, in this series Duncan proved that he is not yet ready to cede the crown of best big man in the NBA.
"They taught us a lesson, how to play at this stage, this far into the season, this far into the playoffs...They taught us a lesson how to execute, how to play, how to read schemes. They taught us a lesson all around. I think we’re going to be better because we played against one of the greatest teams of the past 15 years."
Indeed. those lessons were some of the same that The Thunder had learned two seasons ago against the Grizzlies and Mavericks and then we thought they had mastered them last year against the Spurs in the WCF. Unfortunately, the loss of Westbrook proved that the Thunder have a ways to go still to get to the level of offensive consistency borne by their big brother Spurs.
Where do the Grizz go from here? One of the big things they're still missing is a wing scorer who can create offense. Even more important in my mind, I believe they have to begin running their offense exclusively through Marc Gasol. He is still far too passive on offense, passing up makable jump shots to look for better ones taken by less talented offensive players. Gasol is going to be great for a long time. Just not any more this season.
As for the Spurs? The old men march on.
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