After 82 games of playoff posturing and a pair of grueling rounds of best-of-seven series, the mighty Western Conference has been whittled down to just two teams.
In one corner stands the proud, proven San Antonio Spurs. An opening-round sweep of the Los Angeles Lakers and a six-game series defeat of the Golden State Warriors has Gregg Popovich's team in the conference's biggest dance for the second straight season and eighth time in the last 15 years.
On the opposite side of the ring (and perhaps the basketball spectrum) lies the Memphis Grizzlies. Their 56 victories during the regular season made them the winningest team in franchise history. And Lionel Hollins' grit-and-grind group carried over that pioneering success into the postseason. Their six-game ouster of the Los Angeles Clippers and five-game dismissal of the Oklahoma City Thunder have pushed this club further into the playoffs than it had ever been before.
It's a small-market battle for the chance to compete for NBA gold, and one that promises to provide elite-level play over the course of the series.
Regular-Season Series: Tied 2-2
Playoff Seed: Grizzlies No. 5, Spurs No. 2
Playoff Records: Grizzlies 8-3; Spurs 8-2
- Game 1: Sunday, May 19, 3:30 p.m. ET (ABC)
- Game 2: Tuesday, May 21, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)
- Game 3: Saturday May 25, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)
- Game 4: Monday, May 27, 9 p.m. ET (ESPN)
- Games 5-7: TBD
What Everybody's Talking About
Even without direct championship implications in the series, this Spurs-Grizzlies clash has prize fight written all over it.
"It's not going to be pretty," Tim Duncan said, via Art Garcia of Fox Sports Southwest. "Sorry, it's just not gonna be. It's going to be two teams (that) are going to try to impose their wills on each other."
The Spurs (96.2) and Grizzlies (99.9) are the only two Western Conference teams with a top-six defensive rating in the postseason. Considering the powerhouse offenses each team has defeated to get this far (the Clippers, Warriors and Thunder each had a top-six playoff offensive rating), their commitment to the defensive end of the floor has truly been a sight to behold.
That's why Popovich has braced his team for the offensive challenges that now lie ahead.
"I do know (Memphis) had a heck of a year, along with Indiana and Miami, you can argue who is the best defensive team," he said, via Garcia. "They're gritty, talented. (It will) be a heck of a challenge, I know that."
Their four regular-season matchups yielded a total of two 100-plus-point outings, one for each team. And that's with two of the four needing an extra session to determine the outcomes.
What Nobody's Talking About
If you caught that collective groan at the end of the Spurs' series-clinching victory on Thursday night, then you heard all you need to know about the thoughts of broadcasting executives when it comes to this series.
Both the Grizzlies and Spurs have established their position among the league's elite throughout the season. Both teams enjoy rabid fanbases that anxiously await the opening of the AT&T Center and FedEx Forum on game nights.
But that hasn't translated to national appeal for either franchise. The Spurs' team-first approach underrates the star treatment afforded to lesser players on opposing clubs, while the Grizzlies' best could fill an instructional DVD without producing a single highlight.
Neither team saw a single entry in the league's top 15 for jersey sales, while the Spurs were the only team in this series to crack the top 10 in merchandise sales, sneaking in at the ninth slot.
At some point, the casual fans will come around and kick themselves for grossly underappreciating San Antonio's dominant era (four titles since 1999). The Spurs have participated in three of the six lowest-rated NBA Finals in league history and produced the least-watched championship battle in 2007, despite LeBron James' finals debut.
Key Matchup: Mike Conley vs. Tony Parker
This is a microcosm of the series as a whole. The wars soon to be waged at the point guard position will pit an established, decorated veteran against a blossoming, unheralded star.
Tony Parker has the decisive edge in hardware (five All-Star selections, three championship rings and an NBA Finals MVP Award, 2007). And the 31-year-old has powered the Spurs through these playoffs, setting postseason team highs in scoring (22.4 points per game) and assists (6.3).
But for the second straight series, Parker will be trying to fend off an up-and-coming floor general.
Despite some trouble finding his shooting form (38.5 percent shooting from the field in the second season), Mike Conley has found his way to 17.6 points while tossing out 7.6 assists a night (against 1.9 turnovers) and swiping 1.6 steals. He's mastered the pick-and-roll sets with Marc Gasol, and he's kept the rest of his teammates satisfied with their touches.
Truth be told, though, this is just one of many enchanting matchups (Tim Duncan vs. Gasol and Zach Randolph, Manu Ginobili vs. Tony Allen, Kawhi Leonard vs. Tayshaun Prince) that will be well worth your attention.
This marks the second postseason meeting between these teams in the last three seasons.
In 2011, Memphis etched its name in the history books with a shocking upset of the San Antonio Spurs. That season, the Grizzlies became just the second No. 8 seed to eliminate a top seed since the league expanded its first-round series to seven games in 2003.
Granted some of the faces have changed since that time.
Just a sophomore, Leonard was still suiting up at San Diego State when that series took place. Tiago Splitter was then just a rookie, largely reduced to mop-up duties. Those two players have produced two of San Antonio's top four win-shares ratings (6.2 and 8.2, respectively) during the postseason.
Memphis has added to its own arsenal as well. The Grizzlies added an accomplished veteran to their starting five weeks before the 2013 trade deadline in Prince. Then they found a pair of steady offensive hands for the second unit in Jerryd Bayless (8.9 points per game in the playoffs) and Quincy Pondexter (6.5).
Prediction: Spurs in 6 Games
The Grizzlies have a way of keeping their opponents far from their comfort zone. It's a grueling exercise, but it's one made capable by a first-team All-Defensive performer on the perimeter (Allen) and the reigning Defensive Player of the Year manning the middle (Gasol).
The challenge for the Grizzlies, though, lies in identifying the Spurs' top option.
Stopping Parker's penetrations is key, but it can't come at the detriment of exposing the defense to their horde of perimeter threats. Ginobili and Leonard can both create off the dribble, and straying too far away from the paint leaves Duncan and Splitter free to attack.
Slow the tempo, and the Spurs can ratchet up their defense. Force the issue, and they are more than willing to enter a track meet.
Save for a complete Memphis transformation in style, points will come at a premium in the series. San Antonio's scoring depth will ultimately prove to be the deciding factor.
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