Nobody buys a ticket or turns on the TV to see someone coach a basketball game, but those who watched Spurs-Grizzlies Game 1 certainly saw what Gregg Popovich just did.
The Western Conference finals may come down to a bunch of countermoves and adjustments, and let’s just say Pop left the starting blocks with Usain Bolt-like speed in this series. The Spurs’ gameplan was the most attractive part of a 105-83 game. They had the Grizzlies all figured out before the ball went up, and that’s one reason why the game got out of hand and was gobbled up by San Antonio rather easily.
The Spurs’ defense against Zach Randolph would be illegal in 49 other states. They were inside his head and his headband and forced him to miss seven of his eight shots. Randolph is a natural lefty and generates many points in that direction, so the Spurs made him go to his right. They also collapsed on him in the paint, and even better, denied him the ball. They made a 6-foot-9-inch power forward disappear, or you might say, put him to sleep. Zzzzzzzz-Bo.
“Obviously, he’s their best scorer, a beast inside,” said Tony Parker. “We know he’s not going to play like that every game. Sometimes it just happens.”
Preventing one player from establishing his comfort zone wouldn’t necessarily hurt most teams. But the Grizzlies are so starved for offense inside the post — their perimeter shooting is usually abysmal — that shutting down Randolph or Marc Gasol makes it tough on Memphis. In that situation, everything else must click for the Grizzlies, namely their defense and rebounding. The Spurs had answers for that, too, ripping Memphis apart with brilliant three-point shooting (14 of 29) and allowing Memphis only a two-rebound advantage.
And so a matchup that only a mother could love has started rather ugly and unexciting to everyone except those who worship the 210 area code. But don’t leap just yet to the conclusion that the series is already the Spurs’ to lose. Memphis dropped the first game against the Clippers and OKC and beat both of them, while San Antonio was up 2-0 on OKC last season and dropped four straight. Expect a tough if not long series, especially if Lionel Hollins finds a way to even up the score with Popovich.
Hollins is a solid coach — why Memphis has allowed him to reach the end of his contract is a big mystery — but good luck to him, matching wits with one of the best. Remember, Popovich was on his game in the previous round, against the Warriors. After watching Steph Curry and Klay Thompson run circles around his team, Pop made the necessary adjustments and suddenly, the Splash Brothers were all wet, shooting 41 percent combined in the last two games.
Once again the Spurs are up against another tandem, and a totally different one. Randolph and Gasol do their damage inside, and the Clippers and Thunder never did find a way to prevent themselves from being steamrolled. Pop instructed Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter to forgo offense for defense. He wanted them to spend their energy getting back on defense and serving as barriers, mainly for Randolph. Most of all, Pop wanted to limit Randolph’s touches and force others to beat the Spurs. Quincy Pondexter led Memphis with 17 points but if he keeps getting 11 shots to Randolph’s eight, the Spurs will live with those odds all day.
“They were disrupting my rhythm,” Randolph said. “It was just one of those nights.”
In the end, Pop tries to stay true to the gospel of all good coaches: Never let the other team’s best guy beat you, if at all possible. Gasol scored 15 points but really wasn’t much of a factor.
“Zach and Marc are a heck of a combination, probably the best low-post combination in the league, and guarding them on the block is tough,” said Popovich. “I thought we did the best job we could. You can’t be perfect at it. They’re too good. But I thought the effort was there for 48 minutes.”
Randolph has seen just about every defense imaginable. And for the most part, he figured them all out. He’s smart in the low post, uses his body well and knows how to clear space. He’s just playing against a team that’s also pretty clever as well. And a coach who knows what levers to pull.
He hasn’t won a championship since 2006 and with other teams in the West beginning to rise, you wonder how many more chances Pop will get. The Spurs are aging, gracefully so, but still. And even if they reach the NBA Finals, they’ll probably have to get past LeBron James.
At least the game hasn’t passed him by. You don’t hear any whispers like that from other players and other coaches. They know better. They know Popovich knows the other team almost as well as his own. After one game of the West finals, he’s already a Zach Randolph expert.