Saturday, May 18, 2013

NBA West Finals: Memphis Wins Ugly

Warning to the casual NBA fan. Steer clear of the Western Conference Finals, between the Memphis Grizzlies and the San Antonio Spurs, which start Sunday in San Antonio. This series isn't for you.

 The casual fan zeros in on the NBA at playoff time, looking for glamor, flash, high-speed offense and dazzling dunks. Naturally, that casual fan favors the conference glamor boys, like Kobe Bryant, Blake Griffin, Kevin Durant, Chris Paul and Stephen Curry--the stars who bring in the TV ratings.  But these guys got bounced in the first two rounds. The most entertaining team in the league, the speedy, high-flying Denver Nuggets, didn't even make it past the first round.

What's left in the west is two of the most boring teams in the league, all blue-collar-grit and old-fashioned sweat. Their slow, deliberate, grind-it-out style triumphed over razzle-dazzle. This series is for the die-hard NBA fans, those who appreciate intricacies like rugged, relentless defense, smart screen-setting and bruising, under-the-basket play.

The most exciting player on the floor will be Spurs' point guard Tony Parker. But he's not all that flashy, lacks star-quality and really isn't an A-list attraction.. Three of the top four Grizzlies--Marc Gasol, Mike Conley and Tony Allen--are defensive specialists, among the top ten defenders in the league. The Spurs are defense-oriented too, but not as good at it as Memphis. In this series, offense--and glamor--will take a back seat.

There's been no change in the NBA mantra. Defense does win championships. The best defense in this series and, actually, the best in the league, belongs to Memphis. So look for the Grizzlies to win the west. But it's not going to be easy. And it's definitely not going to be pretty..

It's going to be ugly ball, often closer to wrestling than basketball.  These games will be played at a crawling pace, with not much scoring and a minimum of fast-break, transition baskets. The center of the action will be under the basket, where two Grizzlies, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, who play like angry bears, will be on patrol, battering aging Spurs' center Tim Duncan, swatting away shots and clobbering hard-driving Spurs.

Nobody scores many points on the mean Memphis defense, which held teams to a league low 89.3 points per game. San Antonio won't be any different.  The Spurs are especially adept at ball movement and finding the open man. They'll need these skills, which can pay off in minimally-contested jumpers. The Spurs will rely on accurate outside-shooting. With giant Grizzlies clogging the inside, the only way the Spurs have a chance is if Parker, Danny Green, Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard score consistently from the outside.

On offense, Memphis belongs in the lower half of the league. But they're so good at squashing offenses that they don't have to score a lot. All they really need is clutch shooting in the last few minutes. They count on Gasol and Conley for that and, nearly all the time, they come through.

Though these two teams split their regular-season series, 2-2, right now the Grizzlies are the better team. They blossomed late in the season, partly due to the developmental surge from point guard Mike Conley, who's turned into a terror..But the Spurs will put up a good fight. They do have home-court advantage and an edge in coaching, being guided by Gregg Popovich, the league's finest. But the Grizzlies' bruisers will beat up on Spurs' big man Tim Duncan, who'll be worn down later in the series, paving the way to a Memphis triumph.