Conley, Gasol Are Key to Pace of Western Conference Finals

 Photo by T. Taormina-USA TODAY
Photo by T. Taormina-USA TODAY

By Joe Manganiello

Tony Parker remains the cream of the crop in terms of point guards driving and finishing at the rim. His 65.5 percent eFG% from close range is ridiculous (that number also increases during crunch time). He has a knack for using whatever space is available to him and firing like a rocket to the rim.

After nearly getting trapped in the corner, Parker sets up on the wing, spacing out the entire offense. Being guarded (I use the term loosely) by Jerryd Bayless, Parker keeps the ball on his left side until teammate Boris Diaw sets the screen to the right. Parker comes hard off the screen, pulling an out of control Zach Randolph much further out from the basket than he’d like. The end result is a San Antonio bucket.

San Antonio is very dangerous on offense because Parker constantly pulls opposing forwards off their assignments, setting up spot-up shooters on the perimeter. The Spurs shot 14 of 29 from behind the arc on Sunday, and most of their looks were wide-open, and a byproduct of the attention that Parker demands from multiple defenders in the pick-and-roll game.

While Memphis lacks the array of jump shooters of San Antonio, they do have their own weapon at point guard. Mike Conley has developed into one of the game’s most exciting young players (although he has to be the oldest 25-year-old I’ve ever seen – beside his buddy Greg Oden) and is arguably the most important piece to the Grizzles run to the Western Finals.

Conley was up to the task of dueling with Chris Paul in the first round, and swung the series against Oklahoma City. But in game one against San Antonio, Conley was simply outplayed by Parker. San Antonio did a good job of attacking Conley early in the game and affecting his timing on the pick-and-roll.

The Spurs began the game with the more nimble Tiago Splitter guarding Marc Gasol, allowing the Spurs to bring a second defender high to disrupt the pick-and-roll. Historically, when Duncan’s man is the screener, he plays back on the pick-and-roll to avoid getting caught in no-man’s land. Splitter, however, has enough athleticism to stay with the play from 16-18 feet away from the basket.

On this play, Conley looks up and notices Splitter blocking his path to the basket, causing him to stall. His moment of hesitation enables Parker to make an aggressive play on the exposed basketball. Conley had four turnovers in 31 minutes on Sunday. Giving San Antonio extra possessions is an ill-fated formula for Memphis.

What’s even more crucial for Memphis is controlling tempo. The Grizzles like to choke the pace of their games, stressing their own advantages, which are clearly in the half-court offense. The Grizzlies allowed 93, 82, 83 and 93 points respectively in games two through five against the Clippers, which set up their game six victory. Oklahoma City managed just 93, 93, 81, 97 and 84 points respectively in games one through five against Memphis.

While Memphis did lose game one in both of those series, neither of those games looked or felt like game one in San Antonio. The Spurs played as fast as they wanted too, consistently finding the open man behind the arc in transition and even winning the rebounding battle for most of the game. It goes without saying that Memphis will have to shoot above 43 percent in future games if they want to avoid fueling San Antonio’s transition game. But what the Grizzlies really need is to come up with creative ways to feature Conley/Gasol pick-and-roll play from the start.

San Antonio only outscored Memphis 63-58 from the second quarter until the 5:14 mark in the fourth when the starters were pulled on each side. The game was a lot more competitive once the Grizzlies stopped trying to feature Zach Randolph (who was blanketed by Duncan most of the game) and instead ran the offense around the high percentage Conley/Gasol tandem.

Once Conley uses the Gasol screen to enter the lane, he is presented with two options: (1) take the ball to the rim or (2) dish the ball to Gasol for the jumper. On this play, Conley reads that Splitter is out of position (he managed to both give Conley a clear lane to the basket AND leave Gasol with space to get a jump shot off) and takes it to the rim.

Here, Conley reads that the defender, this time Duncan, is overplaying his drive. Conley makes a bullet pass to Gasol, who anticipates the play well, takes a step and finishes at the basket. Gasol is not great with the dribble, so any play where Gasol doesn’t have to put the ball to the floor is a plus for Memphis.

This play is gold. Gasol catches at the elbow, where he is deadly with the jumper. The Spurs know this, and immediately come out on him. Conley comes around on the curl and uses Gasol as a shield. Within two dribbles, Conley has separated himself about ten feet from Gasol, drawing both his and Gasol’s defender, and keep in mind, Gasol hasn’t had to move ONCE.

Gasol catches the ball ready to shoot, and enters his motion, drawing Manu Ginobili off Tony Allen, his assignment on the wing. Gasol pump fakes Ginobili with ease, steps up to the foul line and strokes it. This play is going to be very affective for Memphis as San Antonio’s big men get worn down over the course of each game and the series. This set also seems like San Antonio’s best chance to create perimeter shots (although it is important to note that San Antonio had Bonner in the game instead of Danny Green, which is unquestionably always going to be in the Grizzlies offense’s favor).

This is the rare play where Gasol can confidently put the ball on the deck. He is stronger going to his right than his left. If Conley draws his defender away, giving Gasol a lane, and his defender rushes out at him to take away the jump shot, Gasol does a good job of earning trips to the line on the right-handed drive (see: Oklahoma City series).

San Antonio has an incredible home court advantage, a winner’s attitude and the knowledge of being on this stage before. Much of the basketball universe got ahead of themselves assuming that Memphis would push and body around Gregg Popovich’s team the same way it did to a young Oklahoma City team (sans its second best player) and a poorly coached Los Angeles Clippers team. The Spurs will score a lot of points on the run if the Grizzlies do not dictate tempo, slow down the game and feature its two best offensive weapons.

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