NBA Playoffs 2011: San Antonio Spurs' 5 Keys to Victory as They Hit the Road
The headline "Miller, Nuggets Shock Spurs," was appropriate.
It was 2005, and Denver had invaded the AT&T Center on April 24 and stolen the playoff opener from the Spurs, setting off panic alarms across the Alamo City.
Andre Miller scored 31 points to lead the seventh-seeded Nuggets to their first postseason win in 11 years, and George Karl looked liked a coach ready to stand toe to toe with a battle-tested Gregg Popovich.
The final score, 93-87, should look familiar.
No one on San Antonio's roster was injured that freaky afternoon, and even after the team with home-court advantage salvaged the series with a 104-76 blowout, the Nuggets knew they were heading home with an unlikely split.
The Spurs and Nuggets anticipated a raucous Pepsi Center atmosphere, and Mile High City fans brought volume and passion. Analysts then wondered if a title contender could harangue a precocious Carmelo Anthony and keep Miller away from the basket.
A few writers were brash enough to suggest San Antonio's age had become a hindrance. Tim Duncan was 29, Manu Ginobili was 28 and Tony Parker, in his early 20s, was just itching the surface of his potential.
The veteran rotation mainstays—Glenn Robinson, Robert Horry, Brent Barry and Bruce Bowen—endured the brunt of the AARP wisecracks. Revisionist historians conveniently forget that some thought the eventual champion that year would stumble in the first round after a surprising Game 1 result.
Karl's Nuggets were 19-1 at home since he assumed the head coach post.
The circumstances differed a bit between then and now. Duncan was still recuperating from an ankle sprain that sidelined him much longer than the one he suffered in March this year. Bowen and Horry had proven themselves as prime playoff performers.
Popovich's biggest adjustment in that series: he started Barry in the second contest and moved Ginobili to his now-legendary sixth-man slot. His lineup tinkering spurred four consecutive victories in the series.
The NBA's record books show San Antonio won in five. But how many picking against the top seed now remember how close Denver was in Game 3, or that the Nuggets forced overtime two nights later? Do they recall how a front line that included Kenyon Martin, Marcus Camby and a younger Nene trying to hound and hammer with hard fouls and bargain-bin cheap shots?
The 2010-2011 Spurs find themselves in a similar predicament tonight. Grab one at Memphis' FedEx Forum and they can steal back home-court advantage. Lose both, and a marvelous regular season ends with a premature playoff exit.
The Dallas Mavericks know how the latter scenario feels, and even the newest additions must pay for how that flameout stained an organization's reputation.
Shane Battier has challenged the Grizzlies' bigs to force Parker, George Hill and Ginobili to "pay the price" when they bombard the rim. A rare sellout crowd will howl. The game figures to start with a furious Memphis run.
The question that dogs these Spurs begs for an answer. Can they embrace the road warrior, Darth Vader image championship squads relished? Can they respond to that expected initial punch with an uppercut of their own?
If you're not quite sure how either team will perform tonight when a rarely sold-out arena hosts history-making bedlam, welcome to the club.
The Grizzlies start 7'1" Marc Gasol, 6'9" Zach Randolph and a sedulous, Bowenesque defender in Tony Allen. Battier has done more than lead a locker room. He also drilled the biggest shot of this series.
O.J. Mayo is an explosive scoring wild card, and even his coach cannot predict how the pressure will affect him. Mike Conley runs the show with the confidence a $45 million man should exude.
No one will know how this next round of a knockdown fight ends until the boxers enter the ring. The Spurs could lose by 20, or triumph by the same margin. The Grizzlies might levy a thrashing, or they could get routed.
Ginobili could bury another game winner, or maybe Zach Randolph dials long distance with one second remaining.
If the Spurs want to seize back control, here are five keys to escaping a gruesome death in Memphis' grind house.
1. Keep the Gear Shift Stuck in Drive
Parker compared the 46-win Grizzlies to Jerry Sloan's roughneck Utah Jazz. The Spurs can take advantage of that apt connection.
The 2007 Jazz outfit the Spurs ousted in the Western Conference Finals led the league in fouls committed. The Grizzlies, in the same vein, can become hack happy.
Battier's decree is a veiled admission that Memphis cannot keep Ginobili, Hill or Parker from knifing through picks and massive bodies en route to the rim. If the Grizzlies want to mangle and mash, let them.
Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol might rethink that strategy if it keeps them glued to the bench in foul trouble.
Few opponents have been able to stop Parker's lethal penetration. Ginobili, too, can create his own path to the cup whenever he chooses. The Spurs must emphasize drives more than contested jump shots.
The three San Antonio guards cannot allow the promise of bumps and bruises to intimidate them. That could become difficult if Ginobili or Parker thinks too much about recent injuries sustained at Memphis' venue.
If the Spurs keep coming, at some point the hard fouls will stop. The Grizzlies are not deep enough to survive extended doses of Randolph, Gasol or Conley riding the pine.
Count on Ginobili, Parker and Hill hitting in the mid-80s from the charity stripe for the duration of this skirmish.
2. Look for Baskets Before Fouls
Tony Allen applauded the officials for allowing the teams to play in the first two games.
The Spurs will encounter substantial trouble if Parker, Ginobili and Hill, in the search for contact, continue to misfire at the rim. The first priority: make the shot.
Duncan, too, has been caught before trying to coax a whistle when he should have been focusing on the ball's trajectory. Referees are wont to let some flops and minor brushes go, as the intensity and the stakes rise in the NBA's second season.
This key is short and sweet. Look to score when driving, and the tweets will come sooner or later. Botched upfakes and wild attempts, however, will allow the Grizzlies to amass monster runs.
3. Don't Forget About Duncan
Duncan remains one of the league's finest low-post scorers, even as the years and mileage on his odometer reach dangerous levels.
Popovich rested his franchise anchor as much as possible in the regular season to keep him fresh for a clash like this.
The Spurs need Gary Neal, Matt Bonner, Ginobili and Hill to land downtown punches. Parker, Ginobili, Hill and Neal must also convert around the basket. No one argues this.
The shift in the offense's focus does not excuse, though, overlooking a three-time NBA Finals MVP. He scored 16 points in each of the first two contests and hauled down 13 boards in the opener. If he does not have prime position, repost him. Wait for him to establish his preferred spot.
Yes the Spurs want to run, but patience with Duncan is also essential.
4. Happy Birthday, Dejuan Blair
Dejuan Blair turned 22 Friday, and he should celebrate tonight by outplaying Sam Young, his former college teammate at Pittsburgh.
Another courageous display by Blair against a beefy Memphis frontline would boost the Spurs' chances. Blair has thus far earned his NBA paycheck by outhustling and outplaying centers and forwards many inches taller than him.
He has been a non-factor in this series. That size disadvantage is nothing a heavy dose of gumption would not cure. Popovich can only hope Blair has one of those awesome double-double exhibitions in him.
The 6'9" Randolph, after all, became a dominant, fearsome interior scorer thanks to his determination. Memphis' top scorer, with Rudy Gay out, isn't tall or athletic. Could Randolph even jump over a phone book?
Blair would do well to copy one of the best undersized bigs in the sport. Now would be a great time to fire up that Xerox machine.
5. Withstand the Initial Run
The Indiana Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers opened a pair of must-win contests at home with blistering starts. The Sixers, who now trail the Miami Heat 0-3, began Game 3 with a 9-0 run. The Pacers face the same deficit.
Memphis will utilize that blueprint in the first five minutes. Expect the Grizzlies to surge ahead early with an onslaught of dunks, three-pointers and acrobatic layups. How the Spurs respond to that machine-gun-like spurt will determine whether they can win this game and maybe the series.
The San Antonio squads that employed Bowen and Horry, along with the Big Three, went there and did that. The Spurs of late, however, carry a revolting 3-13 playoff road record to FedEx Forum.
Those three wins, though, were all notable. The first, in 2008, was a Game 3 rout at Phoenix that allowed San Antonio to advance to the second round in five games. The second was a Game 7 triumph at New Orleans. The third, last year in Dallas, set up the Spurs' ouster of the second-seeded Mavericks.