As all of you are aware, we here at 3 Shades of Blue enjoy hearing the thoughts of others on our team, their opponent, and just basketball in general. With the Memphis Grizzlies set to face a long-time nemesis in the San Antonio Spurs as the Western Conference Finals tip-off in Texas on Sunday at 2:30 PM on ABC, we turned to Jesse Blanchard of ProjectSpurs.com and ESPN San Antonio, formerly of TrueHoop Network’s 48 Minutes of Hell. Also, it bears mentioning that he’s an incredibly talented artist.
3 Shades of Blue: The Spurs are old, but they just keep winning. What is the secret of the fountain of youth in San Antonio?
Jesse Blanchard: Two years ago, when the Spurs and Grizzlies met, Duncan appeared closer to retirement than he did All-NBA candidate. At that time, in the first round of the playoffs, he was making his way back from a late season ankle sprain with his knee bothering him like never before and almost no help alongside him in the front court.
The secret to the Spurs sustained success has always been, and continues to be, Duncan. Since that Memphis series Duncan has continued to alter his body and his game, dropping both weight and jumpers. While it’s amazing how much his statistics continue to mirror his career averages per minute, how he’s gone about it is rather boring. There have been no summer excursions to secret German medical facilities (that we know of) for vampire blood treatments that Kobe Bryant has made all the rage. Off the court he’s simply taken care of his body, eating better and working hard and intelligently the entire year to keep his body in peak condition.
On the court, Popovich continues to manage his minutes and the way he’s used. Throughout the regular season Duncan has avoided the grind of the low post, primarily operating at the elbows, scoring in the flow of the offense, and working as a facilitator. He picks and chooses his spots now, which keeps him pressure.
R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich have helped Duncan out in finding younger pieces and greater depth, and Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili have taken Duncan’s lead in how they prepare themselves each season.
3SOB: Tim Duncan is one of the greatest big men in NBA history, but the Grizzlies have two big men that can play. What is the Spurs’ philosophy going to be to slow the Grizzlies interior game?
Blanchard: So, it’s no secret that in 2011 the Memphis Grizzlies big men ran roughshod over the Spurs. They beat them so bad that it’s a stigma that continues to stick with them two years later even as the Spurs have largely addressed this weakness. I’ll just say this: the Spurs are no more vulnerable to the Grizzlies vaunted interior attack than any other team in the NBA. Yes, the Grizzlies are going to be a handful inside, but they are to everyone. This isn’t a specific weakness to the Spurs as it was two years ago.
In the starting lineup the Spurs have great size and length in Duncan and Splitter, who have anchored some of the NBA’s best defensive lineups this year. Duncan deserved more talk as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate (though I think the right guy won it), and while Splitter isn’t an elite defensive force, he makes post players work to shoot over the top of him without being so overwhelmed that he requires a double team on every possession. Add Boris Diaw into the mix and the Spurs have two more capable big men then they had in 2011.
All that being said, I think the most underrated aspect of the Spurs improvement is their upgrade in size—not up front, but along the perimeter. In 2011, the Spurs ran multiple three guard lineups at the Grizzlies with Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, George Hill, and Gary Neal.
With Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard, these Spurs are much bigger on the wings. They consume space, narrow passing and driving lanes, and compete on the boards. They’re outstanding at digging on post players at the right time and recovering to shooters. And without the perimeter threats that the Warriors posed, the Spurs defense is fantastic at collapsing and clogging interior passing lanes. Again, that’s not to say Memphis won’t hold an advantage here, but on paper it’s not as one-sided as it was then.
3SOB: Kawhi Leonard has dealt with a lingering knee problem most of the season, and it seems to have flared up once again. After his strong level of play in the postseason, how important is it to have him at full health right now?
Blanchard: The knee has been a quiet concern all season, though Gregg Popovich and the Spurs staff felt comfortable enough with it that they let Stephen Jackson go–that appeared to be the issue anyways, the Spurs plans were to rely on Leonard for 35+ minutes a night throughout the playoffs and Jackson balked at how much that would reduce his role. It’s essential that the Spurs be able to rely on at least 40 minutes a night from Leonard going forward for several reasons.
3SOB: Manu Ginobili has only had one good shooting game since Game 3 of the first round against the Lakers, but has found other ways to contribute. Do you expect him to return to form against the defensive pressure the Grizzlies’ wing defenders will provide? What kind of production is necessary from him in order for the Spurs to win this series?
Blanchard: At this point in his career Ginobili’s contributions as a playmaker are more significant than his scoring. When he’s connecting from deep he remains as dangerous a scoring threat as there is, but it’s not something you want to consistently rely on. What he is, is an excellent passer who can bend and misshape a defense so that his teammates can attack. In the second unit the Spurs surround the Manu-Tiago pick and roll combination with three other shooters and force defenses to make a decision. Splitter gets off his screens faster than Duncan and Ginobili passes better out of the pick and roll than Parker, meaning that the threat of Splitters dives can work like dribble penetration in how they collapse the defense. From that point, the Spurs have enough shooters and spacing to find a vulnerable spot. The Spurs have players that can score, but only two players in Parker and Ginobili that can create shots for themselves and others consistently. They can get by with 14-15 points a night and seven or eight assists from Ginobili, but more than his numbers it’s about his process and whether he can force the Grizzlies into defensive rotations so that others can produce.
3SOB: Tony Parker and Mike Conley should be a classic matchup. Who do you see having the advantage overall?
Blanchard: I don’t think I’ve seen any point guard make as big a leap as Mike Conley has over the past few years, and Parker has made a fairly significant one. I remember even Matt Moore, a huge Grizzlies fan, kind of snickering at Conley’s contract extension. But that 2011 series was an eye opener in regards to Conley. Even though he’ll likely never be an All-Star, he’s an absolutely fantastic player.
That being said, Parker remains a better player (he was in First Team All-NBA talks at the point guard position before spraining his ankle in March) with more responsibilities and built-in advantages. The Spurs have better shooters, better spacing, and they run more, all things that are beneficial to a point guard. On paper the Spurs should have the advantage, though it’s not like Conley is going to be overwhelmed by any means. The only concern I have with the matchup is that while good, Kawhi Leonard isn’t the same class of stoppers as Tony Allen is, and Parker’s health appears to be a concern at this point. Allen and injuries are two significant factors that could swing this matchup decidedly in the Grizzlies favor.
3SOB: Gregg Popovich and Lionel Hollins are both known as tough coaches to interview. What makes them successful with their teams in your eyes?
Blanchard: I can’t speak for Lionel Hollins other than, generically, both coaches have set an identity for their respective teams—a culture if you will. What makes Gregg Popovich successful as a coach, other than he’s both humble and brilliant, is that he’s empowered by the organization. Everything about the team runs through Popovich, and none of that would be possible without the support of ownership (Peter Holt) and Tim Duncan.
He sets the tone by coaching Tim Duncan the same way he would Matt Bonner, and because of this everyone else has no choice but to buy in. Hell, what other coach in the league would have the temerity to bench a player like Duncan with four minutes left in a closeout game the way Popovich did in Game 6?
I could go on forever about all the qualities Popovich has as a head coach, but that might be the most underrated part of his success. Other than that, he genuinely cares about his players, has his finger on the pulse of his locker room at all times, steals schemes and plays from all over the world, and scares reporters so much we’ve all developed a sort of Stockholm syndrome.
3SOB: Boris Diaw averaged over 20 mpg in the Spurs’ 4 wins against the Warriors, but only 20 minutes combined in their 2 losses. What makes him a vital part of the Spurs’ continued success?
Blanchard: Last season Boris Diaw signed with the Spurs and almost immediately lifted the Spurs offense to historically efficient levels. His individual production is rarely great, but he acts as an amplifier of sorts for everyone else around him. He has a tremendous basketball IQ, passing ability, and just enough of a scoring threat to matter. What he does is move into the open seams of a defense, where he can make quick decisions on how to attack a defense once he receives the ball (when he’s not hesitating to shoot, which happens). Against defense determined to keep the ball out of Duncan’s hands or hard hedging to keep Parker out of the paint, Diaw acts as the perfect release valve by further distorting a defense once it’s already been broken down. Against a set defense–if a team can guard Duncan or Parker without committing too much help–he become less effective.
3SOB: What are the X factors in this series? What matchup is going to be important that most people don’t expect?
Blanchard: Health is always the most important X-factor when it comes to the Spurs. Not saying the Spurs would’ve won back in 2011, but Ginobili was playing with a broken arm. It was a concern then, it’s a concern now. This series is probably going to be a battle of attrition, and I fear the longer the series goes the more it favors the Grizzlies.
If you’re looking for me to list specific players, I’d say that these two teams are evenly matched enough of that top of their rosters that it comes down to whether players like Gary Neal, Danny Green, or Jerryd Bayless make plays.
3SOB: Two years ago the Grizzlies beat the Spurs in the playoffs. What is different this time?
Blanchard: The difference is these Spurs are bigger, younger, and are an elite defensive team. They’ve proven they can be a stingy defense against any style of offense you want to throw at them.
In Game 6 versus the Warriors, the Spurs closed with Tiago Splitter, Danny Green, and Kawhi Leonard on the floor. Splitter and Green were available in 2011, but rarely used and a summer away from breaking into the rotation. Kawhi Leonard wasn’t even in the NBA. Like the Grizzlies, the Spurs can field lineups without a weak defensive player on the floor without losing a thing on the offensive end.
Duncan is better than he was then and Ginobili is relatively healthy. I’m not sure the Spurs will win, but I have every bit of confidence the loser of this series doesn’t walk away perceived as overwhelmed as the Spurs were two years ago.