When the Western Conference’s 2-7 first-round playoff matchup was announced, not many people expected the Memphis Grizzlies to give the San Antonio Spurs too much trouble.
Once the news that Memphis’ resident defensive specialist, Tony Allen, would be out indefinitely with a calf injury, the Grizzlies’ chances at a win got even smaller.
The Spurs’ Game 1 blowout win on Saturday was a perfect example of Allen’s value. San Antonio superstar Kawhi Leonard got everything he wanted on his way to 32 points on 11-of-14 shooting to go with five assists against just two turnovers.
Oh yeah — the MVP candidate didn’t even play in the fourth quarter.
San Antonio has several areas where it has the advantage over Memphis in this series, but it became abundantly clear in Game 1 what the biggest mismatch is. Without Allen, the Grizzlies simply do not have a guy who can cover Leonard without a double-team.
That is a massive problem for a team going against a top-10 offensive player in the league.
The evidence of Allen’s defensive value from the season series shows itself in Kawhi’s performances. Leonard has played in four games against Memphis this season, counting the postseason — The Grindfather played in two of them, and sat due to injury in the other two contests.
Leonard averaged 32.0 points, 4.5 assists and just 1.5 turnovers per 36 minutes on a 70.4 true shooting percentage in the games without Allen. When Tony played, Kawhi’s averages regressed to 19.9 points, 3.4 assists and 2.9 per 36 minutes with a 55.3 true shooting percentage.
These numbers aren’t surprising at all. When Allen sits, the Grizzlies have usually resorted to guarding Leonard with Vince Carter, James Ennis and Wayne Selden:
Carter is 40 years old. Pitting him one-on-one against Leonard when he’s on his last legs as a professional just isn’t fair. Leonard can easily lose the probable future Hall of Famer with any halfway decent ball screen:
Kawhi is also too fast for Carter in isolation. Vince is a smart defender, but he’s pretty poor when he has to move a significant distance laterally:
The other two options, Ennis and Selden, are decent stoppers, but not ready for an assignment of Kawhi’s magnitude.
Ennis struggles to toe the line between being too aggressive and too conservative on the defensive end. He averaged 4.0 fouls per 36 minutes this season, which suggests he favors the former approach, but he also makes plays like this:
Ennis is too nonchalant to recover as Kawhi runs past a pair of screens. Leonard feels he has enough space to drain the 3 after receiving the ball, and then he promptly does just that.
Selden actually did an excellent job in limited minutes against Leonard late in the Spurs’ overtime win from a couple weeks ago:
However, the undrafted rookie’s lack of experience and length (at least relative to Leonard) are causes for concern. The Grizzlies likely feel the same way, which is why Carter and Ennis got more reps on Kawhi in Game 1.
Meanwhile, feast your eyes on four separate plays of strong defense from Allen throughout the two matchups in which he and Leonard both played this season. Note, these are all plays where Leonard ends up making a nice play despite excellent defense, but look how much harder things are for him:
Allen works harder off the ball, has quicker hands and feet and is a smarter defender than all three of the Grizzlies’ current best options to cover Leonard.
It’s hard to see Memphis making this much of a series if none of its individual perimeter defenders raise their play significantly. Right now, the Grizzlies will have to send double-teams often if they want to keep Leonard in check.
But Kawhi has also become a more competent distributor as the season has progressed. Without any player who can reasonably imitate Allen’s value, the Spurs look poised to make this a short series.