In Round 1 of the 2011 NBA Playoffs, the eighth-seed Memphis Grizzlies soundly defeated the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs in six games.
This event was surprising, to say the least, to most who follow the NBA. The Spurs finished with the best record in the league and looked poised to make another run at a championship. The Grizzlies were the last Western Conference team to clinch a playoff spot and were missing star forward Rudy Gay due to a dislocated shoulder.
Many questions immediately emerged: How did the Grizzlies manage to win this series? What impact did Gay's injury have on the team? How will they fare against the Oklahoma City Thunder?
The answer to all three starts with defense.
Memphis was able to take control of the series because of its strong defensive presence and physical play. In the regular season, the Spurs had an incredibly efficient offense that was fifth in the league in FG%, first in 3FG%, sixth in PTS/G and first in the adjusted eFG% statistic.
The Spurs take a lot of jump shots, though, and the strong perimeter defense of Mike Conley and (especially) Tony Allen were able to contain San Antonio's guards. This shows in the statistics, as their 3FG% fell by more than 10 percent to .294, which was 14th out of 16 playoff teams.
Another facet of Memphis's defense leading to its victory was the rebounding prowess of big men Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Gasol averaged 12.3 rebounds per game with a 17.8 TRB percentage during the six-game series, while Randolph grabbed 9.2 per game with a 14.3 TRB percentage.
San Antonio, meanwhile, had only one player—Tim Duncan—pull down more than five rebounds per game. Gasol and Randolph took advantage of Duncan's age by running around him and getting into better position. DeJuan Blair—who looked like a top rebounder in the regular season despite not always receiving starter's minutes—could not use his physicality to his advantage against the Grizzlies, as he became a non-factor in the playoffs due to the strength of Memphis's forwards.
The biggest factor that led to the Grizzlies' success, however, may have been Gay's injury.
I know, sounds crazy. Hear me out.
When Gay was healthy, he played a lot of minutes—and deservedly so. In the playoffs, those minutes went to Allen, who may have been the most important player for the Grizzlies this series with his outstanding defense. Would Allen have played as much or have had the same impact if Gay was playing most of his minutes? I don't think so.
The loss of Gay helped Memphis find their identity—a lock-down team on defense that spread the ball around on the opposite end. In the regular season they were 30-24 with Gay, 16-10 without him (not including two games at the end of the season in which Memphis played their backups for the majority of the game.)
While not a huge difference, there is a significance in the disparity between winning percentages. Just as it always is with this team, it's because of defense. Replacing Gay with Allen makes Memphis a much tougher team defensively, which was exactly what they needed to be in order to beat the Spurs.
I believe the Grizzlies will miss Gay more in the upcoming series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. The Thunder are simply better on offense than the Spurs, and Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are more difficult to defend than anyone currently on San Antonio's lineup.
The Thunder will score no matter how well Memphis's defense plays, which makes every offensive possession important. Here is where the Grizzlies will really lament Gay's absence. Gay, in the regular season, had strong shooting percentages (.471/.396/.805) and is more capable on offense than anyone else his team can send out as a replacement.
In addition, as most of the Grizzlies' scoring is coming from their forwards, they will struggle due to the Thunder's big men, who may be the best set of defensive forwards in the league.
Durant can defend multiple positions, Kendrick Perkins—perhaps the most under-appreciated player in the Western Conference—can stymie both physical and finesse centers, Serge Ibaka improves more and more each game and most of his contributions come on the defensive end, and Nazr Mohammed, who was a large part of the reason the Bobcats had a great defense during his time in Charlotte, is capable of marking any big man that the Grizzlies have.
Because of this, I think the Grizzlies' run ends in Oklahoma City. Memphis will come out running, play incredibly tough defense and display more energy than they have ever shown before, and they will probably come away with one or two wins in this series.
However, it remains to be shown that their offense is efficient enough to stay with the Thunder, and whether their point production can come from the same sources. My pick is Oklahoma City in six.
You can contact Tucker Warner by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at http://twitter.com/twarner50