After the Memphis Grizzlies flailed through a second straight overtime loss to the San Antonio Spurs, Lionel Hollins' team landed on the brink of playoff elimination. Considering that no NBA team has ever rallied from a 3-0 series deficit, the Grizzlies' odds of coming back appear slim. Still, Hollins can coach hope into this grindy bunch.
Not much is going well for the Grizz in their first trip to the Western Conference Finals. Their offense has been unproductive. Tony Parker is scoring with ease. San Antonio is exposing Zach Randolph on defense.
However, not every aspect is cause for dismay. Quincy Pondexter has often bailed his teammates out with his outside shooting. The Grizz have mostly played good defense. They're forcing turnovers.
Here are a few areas in which Hollins should push his players in order that the Spurs don't grind the Grizz out in the "Grindhouse."
Stop giving away points at the line
The Grizzlies were solid at the free-throw line in the regular season. They placed 10th in the league with a 77.3 percent mark. Marc Gasol placed 19th with an 84.8 percent clip.
Against the Spurs, the Grizz have struggled to knock down free throws. They're shooting 65.6 percent at the line. In each game, they've shot 70 percent or worse. Zach Randolph, who's never been a charity-stripe hero for the Grizz, is shooting 43.8 percent from the line.
Tony Allen cost Memphis in the fourth quarter of Game 3 by splitting two pairs of free throws in the last two minutes and 22 seconds of regulation. That includes one set with 34 seconds left that would have given his team the lead if he'd have hit both.
Free throws play a significant role in the playoffs, especially one filled with close games like this. When a team misses more than a quarter of its gifted attempts, it's essentially giving away points.
As the Grizz are tossing points down the drain at the line, they add obstacles to their comeback trail. Hollins must ensure that his players devote time at the line as they tread close to elimination.
Build on the defensive foundation
Memphis rediscovered its "grit 'n' grind" defense after an uncharacteristic Game 1 performance. After San Antonio coughed it up just 11 times in Game 1, the Grizz forced more turnovers. Memphis induced the Spurs to commit 13 in Game 2 and 17 in Game 3. Parker turned it over seven times in Game 3.
The Grizz had nine steals in Game 2 and 10 in Game 3.
The Grizz fueled the offense with the turnovers. In Game 3, they scored 25 points off turnovers.
They forced Parker into bad decisions in the past two games. He went 2-of-8 from the field and failed to dish out an assist in the fourth quarter of Game 2. The 12-year veteran committed seven turnovers in Game 3.
The Grizz defense is predicated on forcing opponents to make mistakes and thwarting them on the inside.
While they've managed to get turnovers, the Grizz haven't been able to trap Spurs shooters in the paint. Parker and Manu Ginobili have succeeded in penetrating for points. ProBasketballTalk's Kurt Helin pointed out how Memphis couldn't stop Parker's drives.
Tayshaun Prince made a habit of funneling ball-handlers to Marc Gasol in the regular season, but San Antonio's facilitation ability on the perimeter takes those opportunities away.
Part of the solution is disrupting the Spurs' pick-and-roll plays. In the aforementioned column, Helin noted how Randolph's been exposed by these sets. Marc Gasol should cover for Zach Randolph so that his frontcourt mate isn't abused on this front as their fundamentals-driven opponent opens avenues for scores.
Clogging the Spurs on this front could help slow them down. Combining that with a high number of forced turnovers will help keep the Grizz alive.
Awaken the offense
While defense will bring Memphis most of the way, they must hit shots to claim wins in this series. The Grizzlies can't survive if they don't recover their scoring.
The Grizz have been abysmal offensively in the conference finals. Along with their sleepy free-throw shooting, they're shooting 38.4 percent from the field and 34.7 percent from three-point range en route to 82.6 points per 48 minutes.
None of the Grizzlies' primary shooters are knocking down shots. Mike Conley, Randolph, Gasol and Jerryd Bayless are all shooting below 41 percent from the field.
With a 50 percent clip, Quincy Pondexter is the only player wearing the three shades of blue who is shooting well while taking more than five shots per game in the series.
Indeed, part of the problem is spacing. In the second half of the regular season, the Grizz played off the low-usage Prince to efficiently create buckets. The 33-year-old made smart passes and positioned himself well. The Spurs have rendered Prince a non-factor, ignoring him to collapse on shooters.
Also, spacing is difficult when Pondexter, who is hitting 47.6 percent from long range, is Memphis' only reliable three-point shooter. For the series, Conley is 4-of-13 from downtown, while Bayless is 1-of-12.
A lack of spacing hurts the Grizzlies' ability to do damage inside. The Commercial Appeal's Peter Edmiston noted Memphis' futility close to the rim via Twitter.
Besides spacing, the Grizz are missing inside due to a weak approach. Randolph may be pulling down offensive boards aggressively, but he's been anything but strong putting up inside attempts. Conley sometimes struggles to get to the basket.
Credit is due to Tim Duncan and other San Antonio interior defenders for shutting them down, but one cannot hand it to them for such series one in Game 2 in which the Grizz missed seven layups.
Next, Mike Conley can't get by playing as inefficiently as he did in the first three contests. He has a 1.6 assist-to-turnover ratio after posting ratios of five in the first round and 3.1 in the conference semifinals. In Game 3, he committed a playoff-high five turnovers.
While the Grizz have been generally clean, averaging 10.3 turnovers per game against the Spurs, Conley's struggling to start the offense. As he takes a more active role in the offense, the mistakes made by the six-year pro hurt more.
Conclusion: Memphis' troubles are generally offensive
The general consensus is that the Grizz are about to bow out. A Commercial Appeal panel unanimously declared that their home team would be unable to come back. Memphis TV analyst Brevin Knight spoke of "how well the Spurs are executing on both ends."
CBSSports.com's Gregg Doyel noted how Hollins can't draw up plays that fool the No. 2 team in the West.
As Doyel alluded, when the Grizz can't fool Gregg Popovich's men, they're doomed.
This is the issue that defense-oriented teams often encounter. Strong defense, which the Grizzlies showed in Game 2 and most of Game 3, that isn't matched by sufficient scoring results in playoff losses.
Memphis is in danger of suffering the same fate of the 2011-12 Boston Celtics, a strong defensive team that scored 79 and 88 points in losses in Games 6 and 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, respectively.
But the Grizzlies, like that Celtics team, improved offensively in the second half of the season.
If Hollins can't incite players like Conley and Gasol to gather the offensive magic that elevated their games after the Rudy Gay trade, this team could be remembered as a defensive squad incapable of supporting themselves with scoring.
Stats are current through Sunday, May 26.
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