Monday night, the San Antonio Spurs completed a sweep of the Memphis Grizzlies, securing a spot in the NBA Finals while also leaving Memphis to join the 26 other teams watching the Conference Finals on TV.
Though Games 2 and 3 were decided in overtime, the Spurs appeared to be in control throughout the series. They dispatched the Golden State Warriors in the second round, but appeared to struggle in the process, losing two games and overcoming a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter of another.
San Antonio scored 104.4 points per 100 possessions against Warriors in Round 2, and allowed 99.7, per NBA.com. In the four games versus Memphis, the Spurs scored 105.3 points per 100 possessions, and allowed 93.4. During the regular season, the Grizzlies allowed only 100.3 points per 100 possessions, second only to the Indiana Pacers, and scored 104.9.
As was expected, Memphis affected San Antonio’s offensive production. They had been scoring at a top ten rate after the Rudy Gay trade, and likely needed to maintain at least average offensive production to beat San Antonio. Instead, San Antonio held Memphis to an offensive rating 6.8 points per 100 possessions worse than the league-worst Washington Wizards’ season production.
Despite the drastic difference in performance versus San Antonio, the Warriors’ success relative to Memphis should not be perceived as superiority. While teams work to become versatile, performance in the NBA is often dictated by match-ups, and the Spurs were better equipped to overcome Memphis’ strengths and take advantage of their weaknesses than the Warriors.
Led by Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, Memphis finished 15.7 percent of their offensive possessions with a post up, according to mysynergysports.com. The post up itself is not a very efficient offensive weapon. The eighth ranked Grizzlies scored 0.86 points per play off post ups and 0.9 points per play overall. However posting up, especially if it forces the defense to double team, as Randolph and Gasol often do, forces defenses to adjust, drawing help defenders, forcing rotation and opening other opportunities for the offense.
The removal of David Lee skews the data, but the Warriors allowed 0.85 points per play to post ups this season, which was 19th in the league. Andrew Bogut, as he showed against Tim Duncan, is a very good post defender, but the other Warriors defenders lack the size, strength, mobility or defensive intelligence to be effective versus Randolph and Gasol. San Antonio, conversely, allowed only 0.76 points per play to post ups, best in the league.
The more significant difference is between the two teams help strategies against post ups.
Here, the Warriors allow San Antonio to make a clean inbounds pass, leaving Duncan isolated in the post against Carl Landry. Only after Duncan has established deep post position, Klay Thompson leaves Manu Ginobili at the top of the key to help on Duncan. hompson’s help defense is not aggressive enough to affect Duncan’s move, but leaves Ginobili wide open from three-point range one pass from the ball.
The Grizzlies’ spot-up shooters are far less of a concern than San Antonio’s, making this defense still unacceptable defense less damaging. Even against Memphis, surrendering decent spot up opportunities is poor defense. Though they ranked 28th in the league in spot-up points per play, the 0.9 points per play scored by Memphis of spot ups is equally efficient to their overall offense and more efficient than a post up field goal attempt.
Tiago Splitter and Duncan give San Antonio the ability to defend post-ups without double-teaming. Also, San Antonio’s pre-post up defense is generally more effective than the Warriors. The Spurs’ wing defenders, especially Kawhi Leonard, are very good at harassing inbounds passers and helping on to posting big men prior to an entry pass. Entry passes are made even more difficult by San Antonio’s commitment to fronting the post.
At 31 percent, the Grizzlies have the second-highest offensive rebounding percentage in the league. Memphis has the league’s 3rd least-efficient offense off offensive rebounds, scoring 1.01 points per play according to mysynergysports.com. But as with spot ups, the Grizzlies’ inefficiency relative to the rest of the league does not mean plays ending in a shot off an offensive rebound are inefficient relative to Memphis’ own offense. Of the categories tracked by Synergy, offensive rebounds is the third most efficient source of offense for the Grizzlies, trailing only cut and transition opportunities.
With Lee off the court, the Warriors allowed a 58.6 percent offensive rebound percentage to shots by the opponent generated off offensive rebounds, compared to only 43.9 percent off a made field goal or free throw (to clarify: after the Warriors made a field goal or free throw, the Warriors allowed their opponents to shoot 43.9 percent adjusted field goal percentage) and 46.8 percent off a defensive rebound (meaning after the Warriors missed a field goal or free throw attempt, and the Warriors’ opponent rebounded, the Warriors opponent shot a 46.8 percent adjusted field goal percentage), according to nbawowy.com. The Spurs allowed only 51.0 percent effective field goal percentage shooting after offensive rebounds.
Given the limited sample size of the Warriors’ production without Lee and with a healthy Bogut, it is difficult to predict the results of a hypothetical Memphis-Golden State series. Perhaps the injuries to Stephen Curry and Bogut that affected their performance versus San Antonio may not have occurred, but given the injury history of those two players, that cannot be guaranteed.
Mike Conley and Tony Allen are elite on ball perimeter defenders and a threat to the Warriors’ hypothetical offensive production. However, despite his on-ball prowess, Allen is not a consistent off-ball defender, often straying off his man in misguided attempts to wreak havoc on opposing offenses. ad Lionel Hollins chosen to defend Curry with Tony Allen, the Warriors use of Curry off the ball may have had more success than it did against the Spurs. However, had Curry not injured his ankle, he may never have shifted into this off ball role, in which case Allen and Conley may have drastically decreased his offensive efficiency.
While the Warriors would not be guaranteed a loss versus the Grizzlies, they would not be able to target their weaknesses and limit their strengths as effectively as they did against the Spurs.