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Monday, May 20, 2013

Spurs Tame Grizzlies in Game One of the Western Conference Finals

Yes, it's only one game--though game one winners advance roughly 80% of the time in the NBA playoffs--but the first game of the Western Conference Finals went almost exactly as I predicted the series will go based on the skill set strengths and weaknesses of the respective teams. The San Antonio Spurs' 105-83 rout of the Memphis Grizzlies exposed a lot of Memphis' flaws--flaws that went unmentioned in most "expert" analysis of this series:

1) The Memphis Grizzlies were not able to slow the game down; I said that for the Grizzlies to beat the Spurs the final score would have to be in the low 90s but Memphis neither reached that total nor held the Spurs below that total.

2) I wrote that Memphis would struggle to score 40 points in some halves and that it would be interesting to hear what Bill Simmons says at the halftime of the first game when Memphis has scored less than 40 points. Memphis trailed 51-37 at halftime and only surpassed the 40 point barrier in the second half by tacking on eight meaningless garbage time points in the last 1:47. Simmons called the first half the "worst scenario" for Memphis but said that Memphis "still kind of hung in a little bit." No, it was not a "worst scenario"; it was a predictable scenario for anyone who understood the matchups--and since when does trailing by 14 after scoring just 37 points count as hanging in a little bit? The game showed all the signs of the blowout that it eventually turned out to be; I don't expect every game of the series to be a blowout but anyone who watched the first half with understanding would have expected the Spurs to win by at least 20 even after the Grizzlies made a brief third quarter run: the Spurs were completely outexecuting the Grizzlies at both ends of the court and thus Quincy Pondexter's third quarter three point shooting barrage only delayed the inevitable.

3) "Stat gurus" praise the Rudy Gay trade as if it cured world hunger, solved the energy crisis and conclusively proved that anyone who does not swear permanent allegiance to "advanced basketball statistics" is hopelessly ignorant. The Grizzlies dealt Rudy Gay--their leading scorer who is also one of the top rebounders at the small forward position--and received in exchange Tayshaun Prince, Austin Daye and Ed Davis. If Daye or Davis appear in a game you can be pretty sure that someone is getting blown out and/or the Grizzlies have lost players due to injury/foul trouble. Prince took over Gay's starting small forward position and has become the 6-9 version of the Invisible Man; Prince was a key contributor to Detroit's championship team--in 2004--but he has lost a step (or two or three) laterally and he was never a big-time scorer. As Memphis' offense died on the vine in game one, Prince contributed six points on 2-5 field goal shooting, one rebound and two assists in 29 minutes. The Spurs felt free to sag off of Prince to protect the paint. I don't know what kind of impact Rudy Gay might have had in this series but I'm willing to bet it would have been more than six points in 29 minutes and I suspect that the Spurs would not have sunk his defender into the paint. Daye and Davis shot a combined 3-8 from the field in game one, mainly during what Marv Albert would call "extensive garbage time."

4) The Grizzlies shot .432 from the field as the Spurs fronted Memphis' post players and also collapsed perimeter defenders into the paint, daring Memphis' non-shooters to shoot and not providing any room for Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol to operate. Randolph made just one of his eight field goal attempts and posted a -28 plus/minus number in his 28 minutes. One third quarter play symbolized Randolph's utter frustration: Randolph committed an offensive foul by pushing Tim Duncan, the officials did not call the foul and Randolph still missed the wide open layup.

5) While Memphis' offense sputtered, San Antonio executed flawlessly and did exactly what I expected: spread the floor and kill the Grizzlies with dribble penetration leading both to layups and wide open three point shots. Tony Parker led both teams in scoring (20 points) and assists (nine), putting on a clinic while he ran circles around Memphis' defense. Neither Tim Duncan (six points, 3-9 field goal shooting) nor Manu Ginobili (eight points on 2-6 field goal shooting) did much offensively but Duncan anchored the Spurs' defense, controlled the glass with a game-high 10 rebounds and distributed the ball well (four assists, second on the team to Parker).

San Antonio may not make 14 three pointers in a game again the rest of the series and Zach Randolph will play better but--barring injuries or serious foul trouble--this series is on course to play out like I expected, much to the surprise of all of the "experts" who considered Memphis to be a heavy favorite.

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posted by David Friedman @ 7:58 AM



At Monday, May 20, 2013 12:28:00 PM, Blogger Kion Stephen said...

A question though:

If Memphis had Rudy Gay, would they be favoured to beat San Antonio? Or more specifically, would you expect them to beat San Antonio?

If his presence does not swing the series Memphis' way, then having traded him did not really affect them in a basketball sense (they would lose to San Antonio with him, they would lose to San Antonio without him).

His absence via trade makes a world of business sense though - instead of paying the luxury tax and starting the counter on the repeater tax (the tax that kicks in if you are in the luxury tax 3 out of 4 years), you gain some real life money (via luxury tax payouts from other teams), some roster flexibility to build around your core 3 (or 4 depending on your opinion of Tony Allen) players, and delay starting that repeater tax countdown for another year.

On other other hand, if you believe having Rudy Gay right now would swing the series in Memphis' favour, that's a different argument. However, there's little to no evidence to actually support that theory, since Memphis' offense was not noticeably better with Gay (it was actually just slightly worse on a points per possession basis, which accounts for differences in ppg due to pace)

At Monday, May 20, 2013 3:44:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


You are missing the point--or, to be precise, several points--on a number of levels. I have explained most of these points before, but I will briefly do so again one last time:

1) I believe that if a team in the 45-plus win is going to make a deal then the deal should have the primary goal of bringing the team closer to winning a championship in the short term. Trading Rudy Gay for spare parts did not make it more likely that Memphis would win the 2013 (or 2014) championship.

2) If the Grizzlies had Rudy Gay instead of the spare parts they absolutely would have a better chance to beat the Spurs than they have now.

3) The Dallas Mavericks engaged in exactly the kind of thinking that you are proposing, getting rid of Chandler, Kidd and Barea--and the result has been a much worse team in the short run and no long term gains so far (no Dwight Howard signing, no Deron Williams signing, etc.).

4) You vastly overrated the importance of Memphis' "offensive efficiency" in half a season's worth of regular season games after the trade. The point is that without Gay on the court, teams can sag into the paint and completely shut down Memphis' offense; this is what I predicted--Memphis struggling to score 40 points in a half versus San Antonio--and this is exactly what happened in game one. Game two will not go quite as smoothly for the Spurs but I expect that the themes I mentioned will be the dominant themes over the course of the series.

If the Thunder had been at full strength then Memphis would have lost in the previous round; the Grizzlies struggled to score against OKC--and would have struggled even more with Westbrook guarding Conley--but OKC's offense sans Westbrook was even worse than Memphis' offense sans Gay.

It makes no sense to justify the Gay trade based on speculation about the future and/or because the Grizzlies beat a depleted Thunder team.

Again, I understand completely why the Grizzlies made the trade and why you support the move; I just think that you are the Grizzlies are wrong.

At Tuesday, May 21, 2013 6:25:00 AM, Anonymous DanielSong39 said...

Not sure who these "experts" are. I'm pretty sure that the Spurs should be the favorite in the series - probably about a 2 in 3 chance.

Of course, their chances went up significantly with a great Game 1 performance. Still a long way to go.

At Tuesday, May 21, 2013 9:01:00 AM, Blogger Kion Stephen said...

To address your specific points:
1. I agree - the trade did not make it more likely that they would win the 2013 championship. i also agree that a 45+ team should make a trade to win a championship in the short term. But short term does not mean this year only. Short term can also mean in the next year or 2. They weren't winning with Rudy Gay anyway, so might as well try something different.

2. Does better chance mean they would be favoured to win? If they were favoured to win, then keeping Gay makes sense. If they are not favoured to win, then besides the feel-good story, what difference it makes between losing in a sweep or losing in 5 or 6?

3. Dallas is a lesson in what can go wrong if you try to retool. Boston is a lesson in what happens when you don't. Neither team is in a great place, except at least Dallas has a way out this summer with their cap room. Boston is now starting the process to figure out how to rebuild their team. And if your goal is championship, losing in the first round is not something to boast about vs missing the playoffs by a few games. Both are horrible outcomes. (Just to be clear - i'm not stating that Dallas is in a better place than Boston. But i am stating that Boston is no better off than Dallas, and they held onto their core when that core wasn't good enough instead of trying to retool when they had a chance.)

4. I never once said Memphis had 'offensive efficiency'. I have said, time and time again, that Memphis was bad offensively before the trade, and bad offensively after. I mentioned that there was a slight uptick in their points per possession simply to draw emphasis to to the point that they were not significantly worse offensively without Gay, which is what you have been stating in each article, without any proof of that statement actually being true. However, there has been noticeable evidence that your statement may actually be false.

In addition, if the trade was made with the intention of going for a championship in the future and not this year, then it only makes sense to judge the success of the trade on its intended goal.

I understand all your points about trades, which i generally agree with.

However, the crux of the matter is that you believe Memphis is significantly better offensively with Rudy Gay, and i'm saying that over the last season and a half, there is little evidence to show that statement to be true.

And if he is not improving their offense in a noticeable way, then he's not worth his contract.

It makes sense to state that having him improves their offense because he is a scorer, but the reality is that there has not been any evidence to show that they are much better offensively when he's there.

You say that his presence would open up the paint because ppl would have to stay on him instead of sagging into the paint. But he's a scorer, not a shooter. He needs (or wants) the ball to be effective, so instead of ppl sagging into the paint to stop Gasol and especially Randolph, they would be sagging into the paint to cut off Gay's drives and post ups, cuz he's going to have the ball in his hands. He doesn't really help their spacing because of the type of player he is. About the only thing he makes them better at offensively is end of shot clock bailouts because he's long enough to get his shot off over anyone, but quite frankly, he has a knack for causing a lot of those bailouts to be necessary because he holds onto the ball too long, and he's actually not that good a shooter to be all that effective on those bailouts.

He is not a floor spacer. He's a midrange one on one scorer who occupies the same sort of spaces that make Gasol the most effective.

At the end of the day, you have your belief that he improves their team significantly offensively - yet, there hasn't been any statistical evidence to support that fact.

At Tuesday, May 21, 2013 1:15:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Daniel Song 39:

Almost every prediction that I saw/heard prior to game one favored the Grizzlies to win the series.

At Tuesday, May 21, 2013 1:27:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I believe that the Grizzlies made a bad trade that worsened their chances to win a championship in the short term; you believe that the Grizzlies wisely saved money. It will be interesting to see how things turn out.

The Grizzlies have performed exactly as I predicted in each playoff series. The offensive statistics you have cited, whatever term you use to describe those numbers, are not relevant; what matters in the playoffs is how teams match up with each other. If you really believe that there is no drop off from an 18 ppg scorer (who also rebounds well for a small forward) to a single digit scorer plus two end of the bench guys then there is nothing I can say to improve your understanding of basketball matchups.

Regarding Boston, the Celtics made it to the ECF last season even while rebuilding and they could have perhaps repeated that performance this season if Rondo had not suffered a season-ending injury.

At Tuesday, May 21, 2013 6:58:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


One more point:

Your attitude seems to be that unless Memphis was guaranteed to win a title with Gay it made sense to trade him and get virtually nothing in return. I disagree with that. I have never suggested that if Memphis had kept Gay then the Grizzlies would have been guaranteed to win the title or even be favored to do so but I am convinced that Memphis had a better chance to win with him than without him--and a 45-plus win team should be trying to maximize their winning chances as opposed to doing anything that minimizes those chances.

Saving half a season of Gay's salary is not worth reducing Memphis' chances of winning the title; the Grizzlies should have played the season out.

I also disagree with the idea that any improvements made by Randolph, Gasol and Conley are in any way attributable to trading Gay. Those players could have made the same improvements with Gay; due to various injuries, those players had not had enough time to play and grow together.


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