The accepted conventional wisdom is that either the Clippers or the Thunder will ultimately represent the West in the finals.
However, partisans of the Spurs and the Grizzlies believe that their respective teams are also legitimate contenders for the Western Conference crown. Me? I’d say last night’s 103-82 taming of the Grizz is a microcosm of why San Antonio is the true dark horse in this particular race.
Let’s take a close look at the strengths and weaknesses of each of these teams.
These days, Tim Duncan lacks the explosiveness to be a serious scoring threat in the low post. As such, Memphis generally avoided two-timing him when he made a rare appearance in the pivot. In fact, TD spends much of his time at the high post where his passing is somewhat shaky but, although he needs lots of time and space, his straight-ahead jumper is better than ever.
It’s on the other end of the court where Duncan’s influence is mostly felt. He isn’t (and never was) a particularly effective one-on-one defender—however, his length, his anticipation born of experience, and his refusal to be faked off his feet, make him a dominating shot-blocker. For sure, he’s on the downside of his remarkable career, but Duncan has made adjustments, pulled in his parameters, and remains a winner.
Tony Parker has lost at least a half-step and relies more on his tight spins to remain a vibrant scorer in a broken field. Also, he has perfected his pull-up jumper going left. More importantly, Parker is more interested in passing than he is in shooting—a remarkable evolution for such a veteran player. As ever, his individual defense is still questionable.
Tiago Splitter runs the court, can finish in traffic, and sets sturdy picks. Too bad he lacks any semblance of a touch (beyond his improved FT shooting) and has difficulty cleanly handling any pass thrown below his waist. On defense, he has the strength and the mass to absorb an opponent’s initial thrust, thereby giving his teammates sufficient time to move into optimal double-teaming position. In short, Splitter is limited, but does what he’s supposed to do. However, on a team that lacked the discipline and precision of Pop’s crew, Splitter would be gathering splinters on the bench.
I must confess that Kawhi Leonard is one of my favorite players.
He can routinely drop treys, and he runs like a deer. Yet what I appreciate most is his quick, long-armed defense that challenges virtually every incoming and outgoing pass. True, his one-on-one defense still needs work, but within three years Pop will turn him into a franchise player.
Gary Neal can flat-out score, mostly on his quick-release long-distance bombs. He’s an earnest, athletic defender who’s still learning how to play without the ball. Danny Green is another accurate long-distance dialer who plays slightly better than Neal but isn’t quite as dynamic a scorer.
Boris Diaw is the primary big man off the bench. Yes, he can shoot, pass, and make righteous cuts, but at 6-8, 203, he’s anundersized big. And this represents one of the Spurs’ most vulnerable areas—especially since the 6-10 Matt Bonner plays like a small forward.
Stephen Jackson has somewhat awkward handle and iffy defense, but he’s a streaky shooter who can light up a scoreboard. As long as he’s not a go-to scorer, Jax is a plus.
Manu Ginobili didn’t play in the game at hand, but his dynamic lefty slants add a necessary jolt of pizzazz to the Spurs’ sometimes lethargic offense. Indeed, he’s the squad’s X-factor who gives them the capability to overcome either OKC or the LAC.
As ever, the Spurs need to shoot extremely well to win, particularly since they lack a fail-safe point-maker in the low post. Their unselfishness, spacing, ball and player movement are all exemplary, which makes the whole of their team-wide efforts add up to more than the sum of their individual parts.
The same is true of their team defense, which features perfectly choreographed baseline rotations by their bigs. Their strategy in defense of pick-and-rolls is classic—force the ball baseline or sideline and, once again, rely on perfect interior rotations.
The prime mover of all this is, of course, Gregg Popovich, who is simply the best coach in the NBA.
Where he once was stubborn, he now is flexible, and he remains a master of in-game and between-game adjustments. His expertise and ability to motivate his players should never be underestimated. I’d say, without scoring a bucket or making a pass, Pop is worth at least 7-10 points a game.
It says here that if they can remain healthy (this means TD and Ginobili), don’t be surprised if the Spurs peak in time to survive the conference playoffs.
On the other hand, Memphis lacks staying power and is merely a flash in the pan.