Through the first two games of their series against the Memphis Grizzlies, the San Antonio Spurs have found places they can attack the Grizzlies’ defense. They have also found themselves in several instances of the now-habitual lull in their offense. In game one, this offensive shortage was in effect during the first quarter, pretty much from tip-off until the three or four minute mark. In game two, the offensive struggle came throughout most of the second half, but especially in the third quarter. The Spurs averaged 21.7 points in these three quarters, while averaging 28.4 points in the other five quarters.
The version of the Spurs’ offense that shows up to the FedEx Forum will set the tone for the rest of the series. It is very likely that in front of a galvanized crowd in Memphis, the Grizzlies’ offense becomes crisper and their defense becomes tighter. If that’s the case, the Spurs cannot allow the Grizzlies’ defense to disrupt their offense as much on Thursday night as it did during the second half of the game on Monday.
Unsurprisingly, the Spurs’ series against the Grizzlies has registered the lowest pace of any playoff series this year at an average of 88.04 possessions per game. Playing at a pace this slow means that both teams have more than enough time to get their defenses set while the offense is having to take shots later in the shot clock often. Just over 30% of the shots that the Grizzlies are taking are coming in the final seven seconds of the shot clock, while the Spurs are taking just over 26% of their shots in that same time frame. The Spurs are shooting more shots in the 4-7 seconds range of the shot clock than any other team in the playoffs, with 20.3% of their shots coming in this time frame.
Those three seconds make up only 12.5% of the shot clock, but taking shots often in this range speaks volumes about the quality of the shots that are being taken. Early in the postseason, the Spurs are making 50.4% of their field goal attempts, the third highest mark of any playoff team. When the Spurs are attempting a field goal with 4-7 seconds left on the shot clock, however, that number drastically drops to 39.3%, and the Grizzlies are forcing them to take a shot in that time frame once every five times the Spurs shoot. Taking a shot with 4-7 seconds left on the shot clock generally means the Spurs were unable to find a good shot from the primary action they ran initially in the possession and had to resort to forcing a shot later in the shot clock.
Taking an even more granular approach to these numbers reveals something deeper. In Game 1, the Spurs took 30.0% and 35.3% of their shots with 4-7 seconds left on the shot clock in the first and third quarters, respectively, while only shooting 8.0% and 6.7% in that same shot clock range in the second and fourth quarters, respectively. This is a massive difference that speaks to the difficulty the starting unit had in creating good looks in game one. Game two told a different story. The starters came out in rhythm, taking shots before they had to be forced. They shot 5.6% of their shots in the defined time frame in the first quarter; however, that number jumped up to 25% in the second quarter, which is when their offense started to slow down. That number rose further still in the second half.
The reason that this is a consistent issue thus far in the series is that the Grizzlies are doing a good job of denying the passes the Spurs want to make. During the regular season the Spurs made 317 passes and collected 23.9 assists per game. So far in this series, however, the Spurs are only making 268 passes and 15 assists per game. Accounting for pace, during the regular season the Spurs made 3.29 passes and 0.25 assists per possession, versus 3.04 passes and 0.17 assists per possession in this series. These may seem like marginal differences, but they add up over possessions. In the series, the Spurs have had a 1.15 assist-to-turnover ratio, compared to 1.77 in the regular season.
The Grizzlies’ defense hasn’t been able to shut down every aspect of the Spurs’ offense, however. Tony Allen, who was supposed to be the Grizzlies’ primary defender on Kawhi Leonard, sustained an injury on the last night of the regular season and has not been able to suit up for the series. Leonard has averaged 34.5 points per game and has helped raise the level of intensity on the offensive end each time it has fallen into a lull. Parker has been able to provide a boost on the offensive end as well, spacing the floor with five three pointers so far, most on the Spurs.
While the Spurs have been able to find offensive rhythm long enough to win the first two games, they have their work cut out for them moving forward. Passing up open shots and holding onto the ball until late into the shot clock won’t work in Memphis in front of the Grizzlies’ home crowd. Facing up against their rugged defense may give the Spurs the answers they need to solve their sluggish spurts on the offensive end, or, if the Spurs aren’t careful, it may swallow their offense whole.
All stats obtained from nba.com/stats.