With their 112-104 victory over the Phoenix Suns on Friday night, the San Antonio Spurs clinched the top seed in the Western Conference.
Now they wait.
The eighth seed could be anyone of three teams: the Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies and Phoenix Suns.
There are a few reasons we shouldn't worry ourselves too much about the Mavericks. They're currently slotted as the seventh seed if the playoffs started today. According to Hollinger's 2013-14 NBA Playoffs Odds, they also have the highest probability of the three teams to make the playoffs—and thus the best chance of remaining the seventh seed.
The other reason we shouldn't be too worried about the Mavericks is that the Spurs certainly aren't. San Antonio swept the Mavericks 4-0 this season, leaving little doubt about who would be heavy favorites in the event that first-round series comes to fruition.
So the real question is whether Phoenix or Memphis ranks as a more formidable challenge for the Spurs.
The Spurs are 3-1 against Phoenix this season and 4-0 against Memphis. At first glance that might suggest that either scenario will be a walkover.
Don't be so sure.
Each challenger has a strength that could pose difficulties for the Spurs—and any other opponent for that matter.
A Grizzly Interior
But we need to be careful about oversimplifying their prowess. This isn't merely a question of size. It's also a question of skill and—more precisely—the damage that's done when this kind of size and skill coexist.
You can (and probably should) admit that Tiago Splitter is underrated. You should certainly be of the mind that Tim Duncan hasn't regressed nearly as much as his numbers sometimes seem to indicate. Even so, Memphis' bigs pose challenges.
San Antonio typically starts with Splitter guarding Zach Randolph. His length can bother Randolph, and neither gets very far off the ground. The matchup has actually favored San Antonio in at least one sense—Randolph hasn't produced up to his standards against the Spurs, averaging just 10.8 points on 33 percent shooting in the teams' four meetings.
That said, we all know Z-Bo can do a lot of damage on any given night. The Spurs can't take anything for granted against him. But, they've proven they can mitigate his impact. That's one less thing to lose sleep over.
What about Gasol?
He's actually been even less productive against the Spurs, averaging just 7.3 points in three meetings. Some of that is a testament to Duncan's defense, but a lot of it also has to do with San Antonio's swarming help-defense, the kind that tends to make Gasol's life difficult when he sees touches in the high post.
More than any particular Grizzly, the Spurs may have to guard against overconfidence. This is a dangerous team to sleep on, one that's beaten good teams—Miami, Indiana, the Clippers and Houston (twice).
And it would also be a mistake to assume Memphis' bigs are ineffective just because their scoring has been down. Much of their contributions come on the defensive end. Combined with perimeter quickness in Mike Conley, Tony Allen and Courtney Lee, the Grizzlies boast an imposing defense that could keep San Antonio pick-and-roll heavy attack in check.
The Spurs aren't worrying, but this would be a better matchup than the regular-seasons series suggests.
Sunny Side Up
Now it's the Suns' turn. This could be more of a danger zone for San Antonio.
The Suns' lone win against the Spurs was a 106-85 thumping that never got very close. San Antonio was outmatched by Phoenix's perimeter quickness, giving up 15 points to Ish Smith off the bench. But the more significant problem on the perimeter wasn't the Suns' guards—it was the Suns' bigs, Channing Frye and Markieff Morris.
Both can shoot, and the Spurs seemed ill-prepared to step out and put hands in their faces.
Even in the Spurs' most recent win, Phoenix led by as many as 21 points. Though the Spurs were playing without Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, the jolting start to the game still should serve as a wake-up call. After all, the Suns got out to that lead with Goran Dragic nursing a sprained ankle.
At full strength, Phoenix has a deadly outside attack. Dragic can score from virtually anywhere, adeptly pulling up off the dribble and executing pick-and-rolls like a poor man's Steve Nash. On the season, Dragic is averaging 20.5 points and 5.9 assists per contest. He could certainly keep Tony Parker's hands full, potentially even forcing the Spurs to send longer defenders like Kawhi Leonard or Danny Green.
The other big story in Phoenix has been shooting guard Gerald Green, a guy who seemed to come out of nowhere and is garnering plenty of attention as a Most Improved Player candidate. Green is averaging 16 points this season, 15 in his four meetings against the Spurs.
The good news for San Antonio is that a full dose of Leonard could help keep Green under control. He ranks as a more significant offensive threat than P.J. Tucker, so San Antonio will spare no defensive attention.
Add it all up, though, and the Suns seem to pose more of a problem than Memphis. They've had the Spurs number at least once and almost got the better of them a second time. This isn't a series San Antonio wants to see.
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