The Memphis Grizzlies got awful news before their first-round series against the San Antonio Spurs started: guard Tony Allen strained his calf and will be out indefinitely. This was particularly painful because Chandler Parsons, the Grizzlies’ major free agent acquisition last summer, had already been ruled out indefinitely with a meniscus tear in his left knee. Memphis isn’t exactly the deepest team in the league to begin with, but it had survived stretches where it was shorthanded in the regular season. Doing so against a team with the depth of Spurs, however, is different.
The Grizzlies lost Game 1 to San Antonio 111-82, and the way it went down revealed how little margin for error they have in this matchup. Their starting lineup built an early 22-9 lead with stars Mike Conley and Marc Gasol playing almost perfectly, but as soon as they started making substitutions things started to fall apart. The Spurs cut that lead down to three points before the end of the first quarter, and they dominated after that. Memphis scored just 33 points after halftime, and Conley finished with 13 after scoring 10 in the opening frame.
Memphis coach David Fizdale said that this will be a short series if Conley doesn’t come up big, and that’s true. Even if he and Gasol are firing on all cylinders, though, they will need more help. San Antonio outscored Memphis 39-25 in bench points, but that doesn’t even paint the whole picture. Big men Pau Gasol and Zach Randolph play similar roles for these teams, and their plus-minuses tell the story: Pau was plus-22; Randolph was minus-40.
“They chip at you,” Fizdale said. “That’s what they do. They chip at you and they wait for you to break on little areas and they take full advantage of it. They kept chipping, kept chipping and eventually it broke open.”
The Grizzlies didn’t fully break until late in the third quarter. It was 74-64 with less than two minutes to go in the third when Kawhi Leonard hit a hook shot on a broken play. Then Manu Ginobili stole the ball from Gasol on a drive and Patty Mills hit an open 3-pointer. Memphis called timeout to try to stop the bleeding, but Randolph had his shot blocked on the next possession and Leonard finished a 3-point play off a pick-and-roll. Conley then turned the ball over, Leonard did a stutter step into a jumper and all of a sudden it was a 20-point game.
Randolph, who anchored the Grizzlies’ second unit all season on offense, scored six points on 3-for-13 shooting. Vince Carter, Wayne Selden and JayMychal Green, the three players who started next to Conley and Gasol, combined for 12 points and shot 5-for-17. Troy Daniels played 16 minutes off the bench and missed three 3-pointers, finishing scoreless.
“We gotta find a third scorer, whether it’s Z-Bo, who struggled tonight, Troy Daniels or Vince,” Fizdale said. “Or maybe a little bit of all three.”
The special thing about the Spurs is that it almost doesn’t matter who’s on the court throughout a game. Gregg Popovich makes sure everyone in his rotation has chances to play major roles throughout the regular season, and the statistics show that they don’t depend on one star in particular. Leonard, who scored 32 points on 11 for 14 from the field and looked like the MVP candidate he is, is clearly their best player. San Antonio, however, still outscored opponents by 6.6 points per 100 possessions this season when he was on the bench. It also outscored opponents by 10.2 points per 100 possessions when LaMarcus Aldridge was on the bench. Unsurprisingly, its bench comfortably led the league in net rating, per NBA.com.
All of that is to say that Memphis has an extremely difficult challenge ahead of itself. If it doesn’t figure out how to get more contributions up and down the roster, it will be in deep trouble.