True to their word, the Memphis Grizzlies don’t bluff. It’s an admirable, if limiting, quality. There’s something we find noble about a person that tears straight forward at an opponent, all hustle, heart, grit and grind.
But the thing about not bluffing is that sometimes the cards just aren’t there to play straight up. What then?
The NBA playoffs are a giant spotlight. The further a team advances, the brighter the spotlight; the brighter the spotlight, the more glaring a team's flaws become. The magnifying glass can reveal enough without a team laying all their cards on the table.
Matchups play an important part in all of this because when teams of equal talent or esteem face off in the shortened confines of a playoff series, all too often the team that can best exploit a team’s vulnerabilities walks away the winner and into the NBA finals.
Two years ago when the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs met the eighth-seeded Grizzlies the Spurs had two key vulnerabilities that swung the matchups in Memphis’ favor.
With line-ups that often included three guards and DeJuan Blair, and a declining Richard Jefferson as their only size on the wings, the Spurs were severely undersized from the point guard through center positions. A limited Duncan and rarely utilized Tiago Splitter were the only modicum of size the Spurs had to counter a bullish Grizzlies team.
Worse, those Spurs committed a cardinal sin in that if you’re going to be small, you can’t also be immobile. It was the first year the Spurs actively pursued an accelerated pace, but playing fast and being mobile were two different things.
The Spurs had a litany of shooters to space the floor, but Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker were the only players capable of shooting on the move—though Parker lacked three-point range and Ginobili lacked the full use of his right arm. For the most part, those shooters were also chained to the corners (Matt Bonner and Gary Neal had range extending beyond this, but at the time presented so little a threat off the bounce it was easy enough to chase them off the three-point line).
Knowing these two flaws, the Grizzlies physically overwhelmed the Spurs. And when their defense collapsed on Parker or Ginobili, tracking and recovering to stationary shooters proved to be simple enough tasks.
But that was then, and reviewing the intricacies that decided that series is pointless considering both teams are drastically different than the ones that met in 2011.
The Memphis Grizzlies in 2011, for example, could field shooters on the court without sacrificing their defensive principles thanks to players like O.J. Mayo, Shane Battier, and an athletically livelier Darrell Arthur.
Given two years to refine their processes on both sides of the ball, the Grizzlies are undoubtedly better than the team that upset the Spurs, even as they are genuinely more flawed.
For all its continued grit and grind, Memphis had two flaws they simply couldn’t overcome against this elite Spurs team: a lack of perimeter shooting and Zach Randolph’s inability to defend anything in open space.
The Spurs ruthlessly used one flaw to augment the other. Throughout the series Ginobili, Danny Green, and Kawhi Leonard completely ignored shooters in the weak side corner while the Spurs big men fronted Randolph and Marc Gasol, making quality entry passes almost impossible.
With the Spurs clogging the paint, every interior pass was challenged, and every spin or counter move in the paint provided an opportunity for a defender to slip into Randolph or Gasol’s blind spots for another turnover.
On offense it’s not enough to say the Spurs spaced the floor and attacked Randolph head on. After all, the Grizzlies don’t bluff, and taking their defense head on is rarely a recipe for success. They exploited Randolph’s defense to great effect, but they did so intelligently.
You see, Tony Parker does bluff, even when sitting on pocket Aces; if only to keep his options open. Parker is a master of feigning one way and going the other, using sleight of hand and feet around a screen to keep defenses guessing as to which spot he intends to get to on the floor.
It wasn’t enough to space and isolate Randolph in pick and rolls–first the Spurs got him and his help moving, running Parker through a series of baseline screens and curls from side-to-side before getting him the ball with Randolph on the move and Parker’s defender out of position.
By connecting these two flaws and capitalizing on them relentlessly, the Spurs were able to create schemes that deprived the basketball audience of how good these Memphis Grizzlies actually are. They transformed the Grizzlies strength (Randolph’s size) into a weakness (his lack of mobility).
And in a best of seven series this is all it takes for one team to gain a decided advantage over another, even if talent and performance history suggests these two teams are closer than a 4-0 sweep would indicate.
Earlier in these playoffs I compared the Spurs to a river and the water analogy still applies if you consider the Grizzlies defense a dam. Water crashing into a dam doesn’t knock it over all at once; it applies constant pressure searching for structural deficiencies until the dam springs a leak. From there water simply travels the path of least resistance until the pressure applied at that spot becomes so great the dam bursts.
That’s what sealed Memphis’ fate this season. With the Spurs no longer stationary around Parker and Ginobili—Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard are capable shooters on the move and fantastic cutting into open spaces off the ball—the Grizzlies defense sprung too many leaks overcorrecting for the first one.
Championship rings are encrusted with diamonds and even the smallest flaw can ruin the entire set.