In the NBA for the most part players have to be big or quick (a few, Hakeem Olujawon comes to mind) are both), and teams mirror these characteristics. Big teams play slowly to let their size advantage manifest, and small teams play uptempo ball to take advantage of their quickness.
We’re in the habit of thinking of the San Antonio Spurs as a slow, big team in large part because they have one of the best interior players of this generation in Tim Duncan. Also for the most of the tenure of coach Gregg Popovich, they have played at slow tempi, prefering to grind it out against teams relying on their rugged defense and resourceful offense. It’s worked; they have won four titles since 1999, and the last time they weren’t a playoff team, Lauryn Hill was still a member of the Fugees.
This year looked to be different; the Spurs went small; 6’7” Dejuan Blair started 65 games at power forward, a position he was giving up 3-4 inches to his counterparts. And the Spurs ran. They played at such an uptempo pace that fans of a certain vintage might have wondered if the ball was red, white and blue. It worked; by the all star break, the Spurs had assured themselves the best record in the Western Conference, and only a furious 24-4 finish by the Chicago Bulls denied the 61-21 Spurs the honor of having the best record in the league. Yet during the latter stages of the season, the Spus began to revert to their old style of playing slowly. It diminished their effectiveness, after the break they outscored opponents by just three points a game after having an average margin of seven earlier in the season.
All this matters tremendously in their first round matchup against the Memphis Grizzlies. The Griz are a big team, both their center, Marc Gasol, and power forward Zach Randolph are as big if not bigger than Duncan. The Griz typically play at a slow pace.
In Game One of the series, a 101-98 victory, the game was played at the Grizzlies tempo, slow, about 92 possessions. Game Two, a 93-87 Spurs win, was played uptempo, nearly 100 possessions. A lot has been written about the presence of Spurs guard Manu Ginobili and the difference he made by playing in the second game after missing the first with an elbow injury, and it’s true he was a big help to the Spurs offense. However the Spurs and Grizzlies have met four times during the regular season and Ginobili played in all four. The teams split, each winning two. The Griz won the two at slower pace an the Spurs won the two uptempo games.
The message couldn’t be clearer as the series moves into the middle stage. To beat the bigger Grizzlies the Spurs will need to push the tempo. Meanwhile the Griz may want to do what they can to play as methodically as possible.