Stopping the San Antonio Spurs offense, one of the league’s three best over the last three seasons combined, is always going to be a chore. Smart defenses can construct wonderful theoretical game plans centered on limiting the Spurs to midrange jumpers off Tony Parker pick-and-rolls by cutting off Parker around the foul line and staying home on San Antonio’s unfair army of deadly shooters. And some of those smart defenses are good enough to actually execute that kind of game plan over long stretches, or even entire games.
But the Spurs have top midrange shooters at key positions, and they are so good that over time they're going to find cracks in even the most well-meaning team defenses. Parker and Manu Ginobili, even this aging and limited version, are brilliant ball handlers who can slice through the gut of a defense with wily crossover dribbles, tiny bits of misdirection, and pinpoint passing. The constant whirring of the Spurs system often gives them a head start by putting their defenders through all sorts of off-ball movement before Parker or Ginobili finally catch the ball in position to attack — and with their defenders off-balance and/or fatigued. And no group of NBA big men is better versed in the art of setting screens in tricky little ways that disguise which direction the Spurs’ ball handlers might jet around those picks.
Together, they’re the best frontcourt in basketball, but in last night’s 103-93 Game 5 win, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph did it one at a time. It started with Gasol, just after the second half began. Memphis had a six-point lead by the end of two quarters, but it was in the third that the Grizzlies took control, on the shoulders of their Spanish big man. Starting at about the 10-minute mark, Gasol touched the ball on the low block on seemingly every possession. He either scored or assisted the next four Grizzlies baskets, and in three minutes, Memphis built a 10-point lead it would never relinquish.
From the start, it was clear each team knew this game was probably it. For the Clippers, a loss meant having to travel back to the Grindhouse and a frothing Friday-night crowd looking to seal the series. And for Memphis, it would mean that, at best, it would be heading back to Los Angeles for a Game 7, in a building where it couldn’t seem to win. The result was an edge from the opening tip. Chris Paul, normally content to wade his way into a game by creating offense for others, took the ball to the rim from the start, and the amount of contact in the paint never seemed to subside. By game’s end, Gasol’s shoulders were a collection of scratch marks, and it was in part because of that style of play (and in part because of a terrible call) that he left the game after picking up his fifth foul with more than 10 minutes remaining in the fourth.
When Memphis acquired Tayshaun Prince in the blockbuster deal that sent Rudy Gay north of the border, there was very little excitement upon his arrival. The trade itself was largely about helping the Grizzlies' financial situation for the future — not exactly the area where the average fan channels his or her excitement. Prince was simply considered a stopgap — a solid player with his best years behind him, brought in to improve the team’s spacing on offense and allow the Zach Randolph–Marc Gasol frontcourt duo to take center stage.
On the surface, Prince’s contributions have been in line with that expectation. The veteran forward has a PER of just 10.6 with averages of just 8.7 points and 3.7 rebounds per game on a ho-hum 43.4 percent from the field. At 37.5 percent since arriving in Memphis, his 3-point shooting is a marked improvement from the departed Gay, but Prince attempts only one per game. There are two stats, however, that really stand out when evaluating what the ex-Piston has brought to his new digs — the Grizzlies' 11-3 record and their stifling 90.8 defensive rating when Prince is on the court.
What makes the Grizzlies-Raptors-Pistons blockbuster so exciting is the air of mystery about the long-term, on-court implications of the deal. And those issues almost all surround Rudy Gay: Just how good is he? Within what sort of roster might he jump up a level as a player and become something closer to the All-Star he probably thinks he is? And can Toronto provide that roster?