Play-In Preview: Three Keys to a San Antonio Spurs Victory Over the Memphis Grizzlies

On Wednesday night, the San Antonio Spurs travel to Memphis to take on the Grizzlies in the NBA’s play-in tournament. If the Spurs lose, they’re eliminated and their season is over. If San Antonio wins, they’ll stay alive in the tournament and will need one additional victory to officially advance to the playoffs. 

At first glance, the Spurs (33-39) and the Grizzlies (38-34) appear to be two completely different teams heading in opposite directions. The Spurs have lost four straight games and have ten losses in their last 12 games. The Grizzlies, on the other hand, had a five-game winning streak snapped on the final day of the regular season. 

However, a closer look at the numbers shows these two teams are remarkably similar. The Grizzlies have a slightly better offense (112.0 points per 100 possessions) than the Spurs (111.0 points) and a slightly better defense (111.0 compared to 112.8). 

When it comes to how the teams score, the similarities are even more striking. Both teams are near the bottom of the league in three-pointers made per 100 possession and both teams shoot approximately 35% on threes. Free throw shooting is nearly the same in terms of attempts and percentage. When it comes to two-pointers, the Spurs are first in the NBA in two-pointers attempted per 100 possessions and the Grizzlies are second in that category.

Furthermore, the Spurs and the Grizzlies were both better on the road than they were at home. In fact, the Spurs were better on the road (19-17) than the Grizzlies were at home (18-18).

San Antonio is considered the underdog in this single elimination game — and that’s fair. Derrick White was San Antonio’s most impactful player this season, particularly after the All-Star break, and he’s still sidelined with an ankle injury. It’s no coincidence that the Spurs went from winning five of six games with White to losing ten and 12 to end the season without him. San Antonio had a record of 31-29 when White got hurt.

What was the Grizzlies record through 60 games? Yes, they too were 31-29.

Even without the services of White, the Spurs can still win this game. The gulf between these two teams is still relatively small, especially when you’re only talking about a sample size of one game. To win and advance in the play-in tournament, the Spurs will need to focus on three areas.

1. Defensive Rebounding

Historically, the Spurs have almost always been a great defensive rebounding team under head coach Gregg Popovich. Even after Tim Duncan retired and the team’s defensive prowess took a nosedive that would have made Mike D’Antoni blush, defensive rebounding remained a strength. Until this season. 

With undersized starters such as DeMar DeRozan at small forward and Keldon Johnson at power forward, it’s not a big surprise that the Spurs ended up being the 21st best defensive rebounding team in the league. Unfortunately, that could really hurt the Spurs against the Grizzlies. Memphis is first in the league in second chance points and, in a related statistic, first in the league in points in the paint.

If the Spurs don’t make it a priority to gang rebound, things could go south in a hurry. Jonas Valanciunas, specifically, is a beast on the offensive glass. His 4.1 offensive rebounds per game is second in the NBA.

In addition to being extra focused on corralling defensive boards, the Spurs need Jakob Poeltl and Dejounte Murray to stay out of foul trouble and play big minutes, as they’re the most important players when it comes to defensive rebounding. As a team, the Spurs grab 73.3% of available defensive rebounds. That rises to 74.9% when Poeltl is in the game and 74.6% when Murray is in the game. If they’re both on the court, that number jumps to 76.2%. To put that elite number in perspective, only one team this season had a better defensive rebounding percentage. 

2. Taking Care of the Ball

Another aspect of the game where the Grizzlies excel is forcing turnovers and scoring in transition. Memphis is top two in the league in steals, fast break points and points off turnovers. As a young team playing at home, expect the Memphis to turn up the intensity on the defensive end and look for steals to energize the arena and get easy buckets. If the Spurs start turning the ball over in bunches, it could turn into a blowout early on.

The good news is that the Spurs have been remarkably meticulous about taking care of the ball this season. San Antonio’s turnover rate was the second lowest in the league. For a while, they were on pace to set a new NBA record for lowest turnover rate in league history.  

With Murray running the show, the Spurs turn it over 11.0% of the time. When he’s off the court, the team’s turnover rate rises, which is another reason why the Spurs will need to lean on Murray this game. 

If the Spurs can limit their turnovers and take care of business on the defensive glass, that would cut off two avenues in which the Grizzlies rely on to get easy points. If the game comes down to execution, San Antonio would have to like their chances of pulling off an upset. DeRozan has proven to be adept at closing out hotly contested fourth quarters, while youngsters like Johnson and Lonnie Walker IV give the Spurs enough unpredictability to be dangerous down the stretch. 

3. Bench Production

The X factor for the Spurs is very likely to be the play of their bench unit. When the bench has performed well, the Spurs have looked like a good basketball team that’s deserving of a spot in the playoffs. On the other hand, when the bench has played poorly, any team — no matter how ragtag — is capable of dismantling San Antonio.

When it comes to bench production, the play of Patty Mills is the bellwether. In games the Spurs won this season, Mills averaged 12.9 points with a true shooting percentage of 64.9%. In losses, he averaged 9.1 points with a 49.9% true shooting percentage.

Unfortunately, Mills’ play fell off of a cliff after the All-Star break. Prior to the break, he was averaging a career-high 13.3 points on a true shooting percentage of 60.1%. But since the All-Star break, his scoring is down to 8.6 points and his true shooting percentage is down to 53.3%. 

There have been glimmers of hope, though. Mills had 20 points in San Antonio’s last win, a blowout victory over the Milwaukee Bucks. He then followed that up with 15 points against the Brooklyn Nets. 

If Mills can have a big game and get some help from Rudy Gay and the rest of the bench, that could be enough to swing the game to San Antonio’s favor — especially if the good guys are taking care of the ball and the defensive glass.