By Michael Wallace
Grind City Media
SAN ANTONIO – Three key adjustments the Grizzlies aim to make Monday entering Game 2 against the Spurs in an attempt to even the series.
TAKE ONE … Sleepless Conley needs Game 2 chess breakthrough
After struggling through majority of the lopsided Game 1 setback against San Antonio, a restless Mike Conley was the last Grizzlies’ player to leave the court after his team’s practice Sunday at AT&T Center.
Then, Conley was the first player to put the onus on himself to get the Grizzlies back on track as the try to regroup from a demoralizing performance by stealing Game 2 on Monday. Finding ways to shake Conley free of a Spurs defense that completely smothered the Grizzlies’ leading scorer and playmaker was the top priority for Memphis during Sunday’s two-hour film session and workout.
“I didn’t sleep really,” Conley said of how he processed Saturday’s 111-82 defeat. “It felt like the way we lost, like (it was a) we’re done for the year type of loss. That’s how confident I felt going in, how confident our team felt. And so, to lose that way, it was disappointing.”
The Game 1 effort wasn’t a total washout for the Grizzlies, who opened the game with a 22-9 run during which both Conley and Marc Gasol were nearly perfect offensively to complement a disruptive defense. Sustaining what Memphis started in the first five minutes of that game is Monday’s greatest challenge.
And that starts with Conley, who made his first four shots but then missed nine of his final 10 attempts to close with 13 points, seven assists, five rebounds, three steals and two turnovers in 30 minutes. Stopping Conley was clearly the Spurs’ top priority, and they threw multiple defenders and schemes at the Grizzlies’ catalyst after his hot start to the game.
Spurs’ coach Gregg Popovich was willing to live with Gasol’s scoring binge on a night when he had a playoff career-high 32 points on 11-for-18 shooting from the field. With Conley bottled up and unable to provide much facilitating, the rest of the team aside from Gasol shot 20-for-61 for the game.
“I’m ready for Game 2,” said Conley, who entered the series coming off a career season in scoring at 20.5 points a game. “Obviously, it’s frustrating the way we played, the way I played. But it’s just about trying to match the physicality of what they’re trying to bring. They did a good job of putting a fresh body on me, and I’ve got to be better mentally prepared for it and give my team something.”
Conley said Sunday’s film study showed how effective the Spurs were in forcing him to stay on one side of the court and cutting off lanes to the basket that would have allowed him to penetrate and create opportunities for teammates. In previous matchups with the Spurs in the playoffs, Conley saw San Antonio’s defense load up in similar fashion on either Gasol or Zach Randolph.
Now, Conley is getting the bulk of the attention. It’s both a compliment to his rise as an elite threat as well as a burden for Conley to overcome the tactics of the NBA’s top-ranked team in defensive efficiency.
“We knew coming in he was going to key on one guy,” Conley said of Popovich. “Over different years, it’s been different people. It’s my first time having to deal with it, honestly. I’m going to figure it out and find a way. It makes me angry. I’m just looking forward to tomorrow.”
Conley vows to remain aggressive, but also avoid trying to force matters. It’s a delicate balance he hopes to strike in what’s essentially a chess match within a playoff basketball game against the Spurs.
“They showed us what championship level basketball is,” Conley said. “And that’s something we’re still learning. Frankly, if we want to beat them, we have to get up another level or two.”
TAKE TWO … Fizdale must shrink leash on shaky youth
The development stage for the Grizzlies’ young and inexperienced rotation players is over at this point in the season. In this playoff series against the Spurs, it’s either deliver or face demotion.
Among playoff teams, only the Milwaukee Bucks, who start Malcolm Brogdon and Thon Maker, are relying more heavily on two rookies in their rotation than the Grizzlies.
But coach David Fizdale admitted Sunday that rookie guards Wayne Selden and Andrew Harrison were overwhelmed by the playoff stage in their postseason debut. With Tony Allen expected to miss the first-round series with a strained right calf, the Grizzlies started Selden at shooting guard and played Harrison nearly 20 minutes in his role as Conley’s backup at point guard.
Fizdale did not rule out shaking up the starting lineup or shortening his primary rotation if the two young prospects continue to struggle. Fizdale also said veteran forward Brandan Wright would have an increased role Monday after he played just five minutes Saturday.
Selden and Harrison combined to miss nine of 14 shots and contributed to team-wide defensive lapses that factored in the Spurs shooting 52.6 percent on threes and scoring 20 points off turnovers.
“It was their first playoff game and they’re walking into (a five-time NBA champion),” Fizdale said as he nodded toward the Spurs’ championship banners hanging from the arena rafters. “That’s not an easy thing. You either play out of your mind, or you struggle. And both (Harrison) and Selden were deer in headlights. And that’s OK. That’s just what it is. But you have to play every minute hard.”
Fizdale was then asked if he would limit their minutes if some of the issues persist in Game 2.
“It’s the playoffs now, man,” Fizdale quickly shot back. “I can’t leave them out there to die or drown out there if they’re struggling. I tried to get (Conley) quick blows and get him back in when Andrew was struggling. But at the end of the day, we need Andrew to step up and play, especially with Tony out.”
Harrison, who was the target in a heated on-court exchange with Gasol after a miscue in Game 1, said he dealt with some nervousness in his first playoff game. But he’s ready to settle down on Monday.
“It’s definitely a different atmosphere, and you felt it a little bit,” Harrison said. “Every play is intensified. Defenses play harder, they don’t let you catch the ball easy. It’s everything. You can feel the pressure, feel the crowd. But at the end of the day, it’s still basketball. I think we’ve made some adjustments and we’ll be ready to go in Game 2.”
TAKE THREE … Develop kryptonite for Kawhi
Stopping Spurs’ forward Kawhi Leonard is essentially impossible for the Grizzlies, especially with Allen, their All-NBA defender, in street clothes for this series. That defensive assignment now falls on a collection of players, with veteran Vince Carter getting the first shift at the start of games.
During the regular season, when the Grizzlies split the four-game series with the Spurs, Leonard told reporters that no team in the league defended him more aggressively and physically than Memphis. But Leonard faced a far more courteous team in Game 1, when he got anything and anywhere he wanted to finish with 32 points on 11-for-18 shooting along with five assists, three rebounds and two steals.
Carter’s challenge in defending Leonard is trying to limit his effectiveness entering Monday’s game.
“Finding something to take away is the tough part,” Carter said. “It can be demoralizing sometimes.”
If the Grizzlies are to extend this series, let alone execute and upset, they must take some facet of the game away from Leonard, who got into the lane, got to the free-throw line and got out in transition to create for teammates. The Grizzlies can absorb a productive game from Leonard, but they can’t allow the MVP candidate to set up LaMarcus Aldridge and Tony Parker for big performances, too.
Leonard, Aldridge and Parker combined for 70 of San Antonio’s 111 points in Game 1. That can’t happen again on Monday if the Grizzlies are to return to Memphis for Game 3 on Thursday with a 1-1 split. Leonard is the best player in the series. He’s going to get his numbers one way or another.
But the second, third and fourth best performances – starting Monday in Game 2 – must come from Gasol, Conley and Randolph for Memphis to have any shot to seriously compete in this series.
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