Memphis came into this series with a ton of much deserved hype, they just dispatched the (albeit very hobbled) Western Conference favorites and their grit and grind approach, while not exactly aesthetically pleasing, holds a certain type of everyman appeal. Combined with what seemed to be a bevy of matchup advantages and the still fresh wounds of the 2011 upset against the Spurs, Memphis entered the series as something of a favorite.
And then game one happened and the Spurs not only blew them out, they did so in a fashion that promptly ended any wave of momentum that the Grizzlies had been riding going into the series. So what happened? What went so wrong?
The Zach Randolph Killer (Spacing)
ZBo had a horrific game, going 1-8 from the field, getting boxed out with ease, and was so abused in space by Tony Parker that he may have to demand financial compensation. It was a drastic change from 2011, where Randolph more or less served as the engine that powered that Grizzlies chainsaw of a team to an upset of the Spurs. San Antonio made life difficult for Randolph by spending almost the entirety of the first quarter sending a hard double team his way.
They were repeatedly successful at doing this because the player San Antonio abandoned, usually Tony Allen, to double Randolph failed to make them pay. While single game plus/minus is a tricky creature, the team-worst -22 that Tony Allen and ZBo were in the 19 minutes they played together is a very telling story.
Danny Green completely ignored Tony Allen for the majority of the first quarter and the double team on Zach provided the dual effect of ball denial and limiting his offensive rebounding. Hollins eventually wised up and limited the two players’ time on the court together (a decently obvious Grizzlies adjustment for game two is going to be putting in Pondexter over Allen in the starting lineup to mitigate an immediate spacing disaster like with what happened here) but the damage was already done.
When the Grizzlies had enough spacing on the court, San Antonio started fronting both Randolph and Gasol, and nobody on Memphis outside of Conley seemed to be able to effectively pass over it. It got to the point, however, that Randolph was just in his own head and the Spurs didn’t have to do much of anything but watch him implode.
In a telling sequence, Zach uncharacteristically sprinted out in transition, blatantly fouled Duncan to create space, blew the open layup, needlessly fouled again to try to get the offensive rebound (this time it was called), and yet still failed to get the ball.
The Tale of Tony Parker and the Porous Pick and Roll Defense
Tony Parker feasted on Memphis’ porous pick and roll defense to the tune of 20 points and 9 assists on 9-14 shooting, and did it with relative ease. The Grizzlies grew so panicked by Parker’s dribble penetration that they switched up their pick and roll coverage three times throughout the course of the game, and all three failed in increasingly spectacular fashion.
1. Switch and Drop Back
This was Memphis’ initial foray into guarding Parker, and probably the one that is most fundamentally sound in theory. Parker is the elite type of player that can beat you in any number of ways but it’s always wiser to force him to beat you with a jumper, and not a drive that could lead to a layup, foul, or open three.
As you can see Parker has little problem creating with space, whether it be drawing a foul, hitting a jumper, or using it as a passing lane. In the last clip he decides to pass on the open jumper Randolph is ceding him and blows past him for a layup, just because he can.
Changing your defensive scheme this early in the game is usually an unwise and overly panicked move, but Memphis made it all the worse by changing it to perhaps the worst scheme you can employ when facing the Spurs. Tony Parker laughs in the face of a trap he can split with ease and when the screener you’re abandoning happens to be Tim Duncan at the elbow or Matt Bonner behind the line, you are doing something wrong.
That last clip is an especially egregious example, as Bayless and Arthur both thought it more prudent to double team Gary Neal 30 feet from the basket than to stick with Matt Bonner behind the three point line.
3. Not Switching (like at all)
I don’t know whether it was just a crazy overreaction to the failures of the trap or if it was just Memphis giving up after San Antonio brushed off their final run late in the third, but for whatever reason the Grizzlies just stopped switching. Memphis’ big stayed glued to the screener whether the ball handler’s defender was properly screened or not. What ended up happening was the San Antonio ball handler would just run free, wrecking havoc in the paint or pulling up wide open, while Gasol or Davis would stubbornly cling to the stationary screener.
You can see a bit of this in the pick and roll clips, Memphis’ defense was just not on the same page. In transition they would lose their man and then switch onto the wrong guy, this is why Matt Bonner was so open on most of his three point attempts. The usually astute Gasol would call for a switch at the wrong time, the dutiful Grizzlies would follow his orders, and this would usually result in an open three or a layup for the Spurs.
This play serves as a nice microcosm for Memphis’ communication problems, as Arthur loses Bonner in transition and then fails to get back to him in time because Gasol tells him to switch prematurely on a screen.
Now that we know what went wrong, the question now becomes can it be fixed. Memphis has been battling their spacing issues going on three years now so that probably won’t be solved by Tuesday but there are some adjustments they can make.
As stated before, putting Pondexter into the starting lineup eliminates some of the most costly spacing issues and could help free up Zach Randolph. It was no coincidence that Memphis’ biggest run came when Pondexter was on the floor, draining threes and giving the bigs room to breathe.
Memphis has no where to go but up when it comes to beating fronts and Zach Randolph especially will likely not have another game this poor in the series. History tells us that Matt Bonner is unlikely to win his matchup with ZBo again.
Stopping Tony Parker is something that Memphis (and really not many teams) may just be unable to do but scrapping their ill-advised trapping scheme and shoring up some of their communication problems will probably help. In the end this is only game one and Memphis still has time to make the proper adjustments, but they better do them quickly because the Spurs are not known to give up a stranglehold on a series once they have one.