NBA Playoff Preview - San Antonio vs. Memphis

The San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies are familiar playoff rivals.

It was just two years ago when the Grizzlies became the third No. 8 seed in NBA playoff history to upset a No. 1. That top-ranked team was the Spurs.

Fast-forward two years later and these teams clash in the Western Conference Finals, starting Sunday afternoon in San Antonio.

Their paths to this point, both this season and as organizations, are wildly different.

The Spurs are the benchmark franchise in the NBA. They've captured four NBA championships since 1999 and have made the Western Conference Finals eight of the last 15 years.

The Grizzlies are competing in their first Western Conference Finals in team history, a history that started in 1995 in Vancouver, British Columbia and eventually landed in Memphis in July 2001.

The Spurs swept a severely undermanned seventh-seeded Los Angeles Lakers team in the first round, then chased around the spectacular backcourt of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson to beat the No. 6 Golden State Warriors in the semifinals.

Memphis bested the Los Angeles Clippers in six games during the first round. The Grizz toppled the top-seeded and reigning Western Conference champion Oklahoma City Thunder, who played without All-Star guard Russell Westbrook, in five games in Round 2.

"We're happy to be here, but we're still focused on bigger things," said Grizzlies guard Mike Conley. "We've got another tough opponent."

Defense is Memphis' calling card. The Grizzlies led the NBA in opponents' scoring during the regular season and were third in opponents' field-goal percentage.

The Spurs weren't slouches defensively during the regular season. They finished 11th in opponents' scoring and eighth in field-goal percentage.

Both teams have held their opponents under 94 ppg during the postseason.

"It's going to be a rough one," admitted Tim Duncan after the Spurs' Game 6 win over the Golden State Warriors. "It's not going to be pretty, sorry. It's just not going to be."

The teams split their four regular-season meetings with each defending its home court. The Grizzlies are 5-0 at home during the postseason and 3-3 on the road. San Antonio is 4-1 in Alamo City during the playoffs and 4-1 away from the AT&T Center.


BACKCOURT: Tony Parker is going to the Hall of Fame and is averaging 22.4 ppg during the playoffs. He's handing out 6.3 apg, but despite shooting 45 percent from the field, has struggled at times. Parker went 3-for-16 from the floor in Game 6 against Golden State, but buried two late 3-pointers to seal the win. Danny Green is close to his season average in points with 10.0 per game. He is shooting 41 percent from long range in the playoffs.

Tony Allen and Conley both made All-Defensive teams for Memphis with Allen on the first team and Conley on the second team. Allen is scoring almost 3.0 ppg more in the postseason and Conley has really emerged with a 17.6 ppg average. Neither is a 3-point threat.


FRONTCOURT: Duncan has enjoyed a career resurgence this season with averages of 17.8 ppg, 9.9 rpg and 2.7 bpg. He made the second-team All Defensive and his numbers, except for blocks, are right around that for the playoffs. Kawhi Leonard has blossomed, increasing his scoring and rebounding from the regular season. Tiago Splitter missed time early in the playoffs, but he will be needed to offset the size of the Grizzlies' front line.

"We're a different team then when we faced them a couple years ago," said Duncan. "With Tiago and the size we have that's going to be big for us. It's going to be a big-man series."

Marc Gasol, the Defensive Player of the Year, and Zach Randolph are combining for almost nine more points per game than they did in the regular season. They control the paint and represent the best big-man combination in the world. They've mastered the high-low game and both are above-average passers. Tayshaun Prince is a playoff-tested, defensive-minded, sneaky-good shooter.


BENCH: Manu Ginobili has struggled shooting the basketball, especially against the Warriors. But, he's averaging 12.1 ppg and handing out 5.7 apg, which is 12th in the postseason. Gary Neal, Matt Bonner, Corey Joseph and Boris Diaw all contribute significantly.

The Grizzlies basically play three bench men -- Jerryd Bayless, Quincy Pondexter and Darrell Arthur. Bayless' scoring is essential off the bench since Allen isn't much of a scorer.


COACHING: Gregg Popovich is going to the Hall of Fame. He's brilliant and knows his roster better than any coach in the league. What other coach would have the guts to get in the face of Parker and sit Duncan for a crucial late stretch in a playoff game like he did in Game 6 against Golden State?

Lionel Hollins preached defense and his congregation listened. He is calm and poised and his team reflects that. Memphis doesn't lose its cool, doesn't beat itself.


PREDICTION: Experience becomes a huge factor in this series. Those numbers relating to Western Conference Final appearances are hard to ignore. The Spurs are so battle-tested and Popovich has done a masterful job this season of giving the core (older) guys rest.

But the Grizzlies have been tested much more severely during this postseason. They beat two of the five best teams during this regular season so far in the playoffs and have done so as the road team in both series.

However, the Memphis roster, save for Prince and Allen, are devoid of playoff experience at this level.

"We're in a position that I've never been in, a lot of these guys, and the organization (has never been in)," said Randolph. "We fuel from that. We want to win. We want to get to that championship."

The Splitter factor is another big plus for San Antonio. Antonio McDyess, at the end of his career, was the starting center for the Spurs against Memphis two playoffs ago. Splitter can match up with either Randolph or Gasol much better than McDyess could.

Parker can be neutralized a bit by either Allen or Conley. Leonard and Green have to perform well for the Spurs to prevail.