If the San Antonio Spurs want any chance to slip into that final playoff spot, they need to take advantage of this matchup with the Memphis Grizzlies.
There’s a long and storied history of the San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies battling for supremacy in the Southwest Division. Most of those clashes were headed by the Spurs’ Big Three and the grit-and-grind Grizz, but today, two very different versions of those teams face off at the Visa Athletic Center at the Walt Disney World campus.
Coming off of an emphatic victory over the Sacramento Kings, San Antonio has a full head of steam and newfound confidence. Running a small-ball lineup that mostly consisted of DeMar DeRozan playing the four, the Spurs managed to close out the fourth quarter of that last matchup in what was certainly a game of runs. They cannot afford to let Memphis go on runs because this is a team that’s less likely to let San Antonio recover.
Memphis is one of the more efficient teams in the league, ranking near the top of the competition in terms of assists and rebounds per game. It’s an old-school team with extraordinary modern talent that has proven to be more than a fluke at the No. 8 spot in the West.
That said, the Grizzlies have deficiencies that San Antonio could take advantage of. They’re not the best shooting team, relying mostly on Dillion Brooks and Ja Morant to take the brunt of the floor-spacing duties while playing without any standout perimeter defenders to note. Morant himself is pretty good in that area and Brooks can hold his own, but the Spurs shouldn’t have too difficult of a time beating their opponent off the dribble in this one.
Easier said than done, but some key components will swing the pendulum in this one.
Next: 1. DJM needs to bounce back
1. San Antonio Spurs starting point guard Dejounte Murray needs to be better against Morant than he was against Fox.
How do I put this lightly… Spurs starting point guard Dejounte Murray had a rough time matched up against De’Aaron Fox in the last game. The combination of speed and skill that Fox boasts at the guard spot is very difficult to keep up with and Morant is cut from the same cloth. The surefire Rookie of the Year is going to attack Murray just as Fox did and this time, the players around that star player will be less forgiving than the Kings’ cast of characters.
Therefore, it’s crucial to the Spurs’ hopes that Dejounte Murray can limit his foul trouble and keep up with Morant throughout the game. It’s unacceptable for a starting point guard to get played off of the floor by a guy who’s younger and less experienced than he is, which is why I suspect Dejounte will enter this game with even more of a chip on his shoulder.
That doesn’t necessarily equate to winning plays and quite frankly, the Spurs might’ve been even more successful in that Kings matchup had Murray stayed on the floor. Dejounte had nine points in the first quarter and came out of the gates looking like the player Spurs fans hoped he’d be as a scorer, but he can’t lose his identity in the process. There’s no denying that as Murray’s offensive game has improved, his defense has taken a bit of a step back.
While Murray is still one of the best in the league at deflecting passes and pestering opponents, he hasn’t been the shutdown defender that he was in the past. For San Antonio to pull out this win and more soon, they need him to get back to his winning ways.
Next: 2. Dictating the pace of the game is crucial
2. Just because the San Antonio Spurs can keep up with the Grizzlies doesn’t mean that they should.
Part of what makes the Grizzlies a successful offensive team is that they create extra possessions by pushing the tempo. With Morant at the helm, Memphis gets out in transition and finds easy baskets based solely on the fact that they get out and run whenever possible. The Grizzlies are seventh in pace as a whole and get even faster when the second-unit comes in.
With their new small-ball lineup and shifting identity, the Spurs are better equipped to keep up with opposing teams. However, that’s not necessarily a good thing! When these Spurs slow it down and play a methodical style based on ball movement and execution of strategy. Whichever team dictates the pace is going to have an easier time asserting themselves.
An underrated tool in the Spurs’ hopes for this game is Derrick White‘s magnificent fastbreak defense. No one man can do it alone, but as highlighted in his All-Defensive Team case, White is a great chase-down block artist and charge-taker. If he’s willing to put his body on the line, San Antonio can force a few turnovers when Memphis tries to push up the court on the fastbreak.
The Spurs are already at a statistical disadvantage because they average 4.3 fewer fastbreak points per game than the No. 4 ranked Grizzlies. Cutting those down, or at least keeping the margin close, will pay dividends. Memphis won the last meeting between these teams by 13 points. They just so happened to outscore San Antonio by 13 on the fastbreak. Take away their buckets in the open-court and it should be a different ballgame.
Next: 3. Maintain consistency in the paint
3. Despite a size disadvantage, the San Antonio Spurs need to assert themselves in the paint and on the glass.
San Antonio’s frontcourt was featured heavily in the last matchup and still, Memphis outscored them by 20 points in the paint. That’s going to be a major emphasis for them again and this time, they have a colossal size advantage. With that in mind, San Antonio needs their guards and wings to be extra mindful of boxing out, hustling for loose boards and helping on defense when an opportunity presents itself.
A brunt of the responsibility falls on the shoulders of Jakob Poeltl, who consistently sets himself apart from the competition as an elite rim protector, rebounder and hustle player. Poeltl is your quintessential big man who doesn’t command the ball much and isn’t a go-to scorer but makes himself invaluable by doing all of the dirty work. His matchup against Jonas Valanciunas is one to highlight as these former Raptors teammates will compete on the glass once again.
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Having Poeltl to swat some interior shots and defend the backline gives the Spurs a better chance to limit those inside shots by the Grizzlies. He better be ready to fend off the high-flyer Morant in his pursuit of another deadly poster because its bound to happen at some point.
Rookie Keldon Johnson has been a shining star in his breakout campaign in Orlando. Between his 21-point outing in the scrimmages, blistering defense, constant energy and game-clinching assist against the Kings, it’s obvious that the Spurs stuck gold with Keldon. His fearlessness as a defender both on the ball and on the weakside makes him a tremendous asset in this matchup.
Not only can he clean up on the glass, but Keldon can make some of those inside shots even more difficult for a team that leads the NBA in points in the paint.
No one said it was going to be easy, but it’s certainly doable for this Spurs squad when engaged.