AT&T CENTER–Two years ago, when these two teams last met in the playoffs, the San Antonio Spurs were in the midst of an identity crises, transitioning from a style of play Tim Duncan's body could no longer sustain and finding themselves again through Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and a bevy of shooters.
In 2011 the defensive foundations that have held the franchise up for over a decade were sacrificed in the name of offensive brilliance. The offense took quickly, earning the Spurs the top seed, but implementing a new system on the run also meant that execution was far from second nature. Hit the Spurs hard enough and those offensive principles–not quite yet a part of players' muscle memories–were quickly abandoned.
These Spurs are different. If 2011 marked the beginning of the rebuild, these Spurs are at last complete and comfortable in their own skin. The system has been installed and hardwired into the DNA of the team, while the hardware has been upgraded to provide the same defensive excellence once expected of a team coached by Gregg Popovich. This rematch, set in the Western Conference Finals, would be the perfect opportunity to see how far the team has come.
In dismantling the Memphis Grizzlies with a 105-83 victory, the San Antonio Spurs landed the first blow, and it was Tony Parker–so disappointing in 2011–directing an offensive clinic that resulted in a Spurs playoff record 14 three-pointers, and 28 assists on 40 made field goals.
"I knew before the game that they are great at moving the ball. Today, they really got into our defense and in the paint, which is the sweet spot on the court," Grizzlies guard Tony Allen said. "It caused a lot of kick-outs because we over-helped and that's what caused them to fill it up from the three-point line. They just played hard and played together, they threw the first punch early."
Driving an offense designed around him for the first time in 2011, Parker wasn't yet familiar with all the nuances of his system. He could be goaded into over-penetration and traps, inviting him in before cutting off his preferred angles. In Game 1 Parker (20 points, 9 assists) showed how much he's grown since then.
Still quick but no long hurrying, Parker consistently got to his spots on the court, reading the defense along the way. When the defense didn't react to his liking, he patiently took a step back and let the screen come at a new angle, forcing the Grizzlies to adhere to their own principles as the Spurs varied their looks.
"I think Tony [Parker] is playing really good basketball right now," Green said. "It's what started it, it's what ended it. In the Golden State series he did a good job of facilitating, finding open guys, and trusting us to knock down shots. It's continued on to now."
The game opened on Parker finding Kawhi Leonard (18 points, four three-pointers) for a corner three, the first of four they would hit in a 31-point first quarter. It was a night of brutal efficiency as the Spurs rained haymakers from the wings with Leonard and Danny Green repeatedly got loose in the corners.
They isolated Zach Randolph from Marc Gasol, positioning Tim Duncan, Boris Diaw, and Matt Bonner in ways that prevented the Grizzlies big men from working in tandem and nullifying the impact of Gasol, the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year.
Particularly effective was stationing Matt Bonner at the top of the key for pick and pop and spot up opportunities. As Parker or Manu Ginobili navigated across each screen they peeled Bonner's defender away, freeing him up to hit 4-7 three-pointers and netting 12 points.
"Well, it starts with [the defense] breaking down, and first somebody makes a mistake so somebody has to help," Gasol said of the Grizzlies' defense. "That creates another help, and you see, we're scrambling. When you're scrambling against a good team like that they're going to find an open guy because they have a lot of patience and they know where the shots are coming from."
Two years ago that statement simply wasn't true. The Spurs knew where they wanted to get shots from, but patiently working the system to produce those looks were an entirely different matter. In Game 1 it was the Grizzlies searching for their offense as the Spurs pushed them out of their comfort zone, testing the resolve of an offense the Grizzlies have constructed since trading Rudy Gay at the deadline.
With Duncan and Tiago Splitter starting, defending the low post is no longer a point of weakness for the Spurs. As they did in the first round against the Los Angeles Lakers, the Spurs pushed the Grizzlies big men off their spots. They fronted the post with the weak-side defense completely ignoring non-shooters in the corner, waiting to pounce on any lobs thrown into the post.
Direct entries were not going to be allowed into Randolph or Gasol, and any quality looks were going to have to come from a patient offense that ran through multiple reads before the Spurs defense allowed an opening.
"They did a great job of 'storming'," Allen said. "They forced [Randolph] into a front position and the bigs were coming from the baseline hard. It just caught him by surprise, but I'm pretty sure he is going to bounce back in the second game and we will make the adjustments."
Some of those adjustments were made in the second half, such as placing a better shooter–Quincy Pondexter–on the weak side corner, keeping defenders honest. This remains a heavyweight fight capable of turning at any point.
The Memphis Grizzlies are no longer a surprise team on the rise. They too are comfortable in their ways and confident in their processes. The Spurs will be "punched," or tested, and the series will be dictated by their response. Now fully-formed, the Spurs won't be shaken as easily.
"Our mindset was pretty simple, respect the game plan," Parker said. "We talked about it yesterday, what we wanted to do on offense and defense. The game plan worked pretty good."