By Michael Wallace
Grind City Media
MEMPHIS – Two takeaways from the Grizzlies’ Game 5 loss in San Antonio and a look ahead to Thursday’s showdown at FedExForum for a shot to force a winner-take-all Game 7 against the Spurs.
TAKE ONE … Bigger boost needed from Gasol to lift Grizzlies
Considering how Marc Gasol has already dropped a playoff career-high 32 points in the series opener and delivered the game-winning dagger in Game 4, it might seem unfair to suggest the Grizzlies’ franchise center isn’t doing enough to assert himself at an elite level against the Spurs.
But if the Grizzlies have any shot to extend this series to a decisive seventh game – let alone execute what would be the biggest first-round upset of these playoffs – even more is needed from Gasol. It’s not necessarily about stats. That’s a completely sore subject for Big Spain. The only thing he despises more in this series than seeing his big brother, Pau, score on the Grizzlies is being asked an analytics-driven question about a particular player’s impact on the team’s overall success or lack thereof.
There’s nothing about Gasol’s production that suggests he’s struggling. Despite leading all players in the series with 14 total turnovers, Gasol’s scoring (19.6), rebounding (6.8), assists (3.8) and shooting percentage (47.9) are all on par with the regular-season production from his third All-Star season.
But during a series in which point guard catalyst Mike Conley has gradually elevated his performance to an elite level to essentially counter and offset the imprint of Spurs’ MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard, the Grizzlies won’t get by with complementary good Gasol on either end of the floor.
They need greatness from Gasol.
Offensively, Gasol’s shot attempts have decreased each game of the series, dipping from 18 in Game 1 to 15, 14 and 12 in each of the past two contests. Defensively, the Spurs are scoring 115.8 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor and the minus-8.2 net rating so far this postseason is the second-worst of his playoff career.
To Gasol’s defense, it hasn’t been the Spurs’ interior players dominating the series. LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol and David Lee have been marginal and manageable. Instead, it’s been a series of breakdowns with the perimeter defense that have caused residual miscues in rotations and coverages for the Grizzlies. In their 116-103 loss in Game 5, the Grizzlies allowed the Spurs to shoot 52.5 percent from the field and knock down 14 of 18 three-pointers. Their 42 made baskets came on 23 assists.
Even when the Spurs initially missed, they wound up converting. In what has otherwise been a relatively evenly played series, the Spurs held an edge in second-chance points in all five games, including Tuesday when the outscored the Grizzlies 20-10 in that department.
In other words, the Spurs delivered their peak offensive performance in the most pivotal game of the series so far. Gasol has spent much of the series addressing defensive coverages as the Grizzlies look to rally from a 3-2 series deficit in Game 6 on Thursday and force a Game 7 in San Antonio on Saturday.
“I don’t think it was us not doing our job – it is more the discipline and consistency required,” Gasol said. “Probably every possession, there are going to be three, four, five actions that you’ve got to take away. And then, you’ve got to finish plays with rebounds. Nobody said it was going to be easy. We’ve got to go home, regroup and do what we’ve got to do to come back (to San Antonio). Then, it’s for all the chips.”
TAKE TWO … Kawhi’s cat-and-mouse tactics confounding Grizzlies
It’s been a standing offer from Grizzlies coach David Fizdale throughout the series.
“If anyone has any suggestions, send them my way,” the first-year coach has repeatedly responded when asked how the Grizzlies plan to limit Leonard. “I’m listening. I’m open to ideas.”
After scoring a playoff career-high 43 points in Game 4, Leonard shifted his focus on Tuesday to impact the game as a facilitator to break down the Grizzlies’ double-teaming, trapping defense. Leonard essentially shared the point guard duties with Tony Parker, with the duo combining for 12 of the Spurs’ 23 assists in the Game 5 victory.
For the series, Leonard is now averaging 31.6 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 1.8 steals while shooting 57.6 percent from the field, 54.2 percent on threes and 97.9 percent from the free-throw line.
“They’ve (double-teamed) him the whole series – he’s just gone through the ceiling improving every year with all parts of his game,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said of Leonard adapting to whatever the Grizzlies throw at him. “This is one of the things that he has had to work on this year more because people come after him. He’s doing a great job of finding people, and that’s how you get uncontested shots. He understands it. He’s a facilitator as well as a scorer.”
Leonard dished five of his six assists in the first half, then scored 16 of his 28 points in the second half. The Grizzlies have rotated as many as four different primary defenders on Leonard in the series, and have sent each one of them help, often without much consistent success.
“He’s done a good job between passing and scoring,” Parker said of Leonard’s evolution. “Other guys know they have to be ready. If you’re wide open, you have to knock down shots. Some nights, he’ll score 43, but (Tuesday), he only scored 28. But he’s still doing a lot for us. That’s our main guy, so we’re going to need him to play like that.”
TAKE THREE … Grizzlies viewing Game 6 as ‘Our Game 7’
Counting the regular season, the Grizzlies and Spurs have met nine times this season.
Neither team has yet to lose a home game. That trend would seem to bode well for the Grizzlies, who are facing elimination in Game 6 at FedExForum on Thursday. Conley and his teammates have embraced the underdog role since the playoffs opened and pitted two teams with the three longest active streaks of postseason appearances.
We’re treating every game like it’s the last game. That’s our mindset, so we have to do whatever it takes to get Game 6 at home.
Despite the fact that they are taking on the 60-win, five-time NBA champions, the Grizzlies have gained confidence as the series progressed. Memphis has gotten to this point with a rotation that includes two rookies, two undrafted players and two projected starters who have been sidelined by injuries.
To advance, the Grizzlies must win two consecutive games for the second time in a week.
“We expected it to be a long series,” said Conley, who is averaging 24.4 points, a series-best 7.4 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 1.8 steals while shooting 50.6 percent from the field and 48.3 percent on threes. “We’re treating every game like it’s the last game. That’s our mindset, so we have to do whatever it takes to get Game 6 at home.”
“We’re not going to back away from this,” Fizdale said. “The good part is that I’ve got a locker room full of guys that want to get back and play Game 7. Well, Game 6 (first) is obviously our Game 7.”
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