Spurs, Grizzlies renew rivalry in Alamo City

(SportsNetwork.com) - The San Antonio Spurs begin their Western Conference championship title defense on Wednesday night when they host familiar rivals, the Memphis Grizzlies.

The Spurs swept the Grizzlies in last season's Conference Finals en route to a gut-wrenching, heartbreaking, soul-crushing defeat in the NBA Finals to the Miami Heat.

In Game 6, Ray Allen chucked in a wild three-pointer with five seconds remaining on the clock. The Heat prevailed in overtime, then won a hard-fought Game 7 for back-to-back NBA championships.

The Spurs were gutted.

"Suffice it to say, I've thought about it every day," admitted head coach Gregg Popovich, speaking more than three months after the shot. "I'm wondering if it'll go away. I'm anxious for it to happen, but it hasn't happened yet."

That was on media day before training camp began in earnest. He and the Spurs have worked hard to prepare for the start of another season with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili at the helm.

Most believe that this season will be a breakout one for Kawhi Leonard, who stepped up his scoring and rebounding in the Finals. Leonard is a leading candidate for Most Improved Player.

"Everybody's ready to go," Popovich said after practice Tuesday. "Preseason is over with and everybody on every team is anxious to play."

The Spurs certainly figure to remain in the picture for the Western Conference championship and Memphis should be right there with them.

After the Spurs sweep, Lionel Hollins was let go as head coach. Most reports indicated that Hollins did not like the analytics approach of the front office, but he was replaced by longtime assistant, Dave Joerger.

The calling card for both Joerger and the Grizzlies has been defense. Marc Gasol won the Defensive Player of the Year award last season and Tony Allen received the most votes for the All-Defensive team.

Gasol is a stud and shares big-man responsibilities with Zach Randolph, an All-Star last season. Mike Conley has blossomed as a point guard and the front office brass addressed a problem last season - depth.

Memphis traded for Kosta Koufos, who will back up both Randolph and Gasol, signed Mike Miller for a long-range threat, and Joerger will figure out how to use Ed Davis, who showed a ton of promise in Toronto before coming to Memphis in the Rudy Gay/Tayshaun Prince trade.

"We feel that one of our strengths this year is depth. We want to see guys do more in less time. Not to say guys don't play hard, but we want to keep them from getting slow," Joerger said.

But defense is what takes the Grizz deep the playoffs. Last season, Memphis led the NBA in points allowed (89.3) and finished third in opponents' field- goal percentage (.435).

The Southwest Division foes split their four regular-season meetings in 2012-13. The Grizzlies have lost six in a row in Alamo City during the regular season, but did win in San Antonio during the 2010-11 playoffs.