The San Antonio Spurs haven't reached the NBA Finals since 2007. To return, they must overcome the Memphis Grizzlies, who are playing in the Western Conference finals for the first time in franchise history.
Which players are under the most pressure? Which matchup is the most intriguing? Our 5-on-5 panel digs in for a grit-and-grind style series.
1. Who faces the most pressure on the Spurs?
Chip Crain, 3 Shades Of Blue: Tiago Splitter. He has to avoid foul trouble and play strong or the Grizzlies will pound the Spurs inside with the dual presence of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Tim Duncan will be fine, but he needs help. Boris Diaw, Matt Bonner and DeJuan Blair aren't the answer for long stretches. This is Splitter's moment to make his mark.
Dan Feldman, Piston Powered: Manu Ginobili. Quietly, Kawhi Leonard, and maybe even Splitter, have passed Ginobili as the Spurs' best player next to Duncan and Tony Parker. Ginobili is shooting just 37.7 percent in the playoffs, and if the 35 year old wants one more big contract as a free agent this summer, he must perform in this high-profile series.
Graydon Gordian, 48 Minutes Of Hell: Parker. After a lackluster Game 6 against Golden State, it's time for him to demonstrate why he was an MVP candidate for the second season in a row. The Spurs offense is his to run. When he's in control and nailing his jumper, the Spurs have as potent an offense as any in the league.
Andrew McNeill, 48 Minutes Of Hell: Parker. As Parker goes, so goes the Spurs offense. If San Antonio is to win this series, Parker will have to get good penetration and find open shooters, knock down his midrange shot and get a few good looks around the rim. If he's hobbled by any injuries, the Spurs could be in trouble.
Marc Stein, ESPN.com: Duncan. He has one of the toughest jobs in the series -- trying to score against Gasol -- and carries the burden of knowing that he's running out of cracks at ring No. 5. I'm not going to be the idiot who says that this is the Spurs' absolute last chance to make a title run with a Timmy/Tony/Manu core but the end is obviously closer than anyone wants to admit.
2. Who faces the most pressure on the Grizzlies?
Crain: Surprisingly, Mike Conley. He's had a breakout season and handled himself well against Chris Paul in Round 1 but has been inconsistent shooting the ball, especially from the perimeter. In the past, people questioned Conley's confidence. He has the talent, but he can't shrink from the pressure for the Grizzlies to advance.
Feldman: Gasol. Gasol is playing like a star, and he's on the verge of being recognized as one. It's a shame he was snubbed from the all-defensive first team after winning defensive player of the year, but the incident illustrates the crossroads he faces. A strong series would remove all doubt about Gasol's status.
Gordian: Conley. While not as heralded as the Grizzlies' D, the Spurs' defense is nothing to gawk at. The Grizzlies are going to need every bit of Conley's tenacity and brilliance to score consistently against the Spurs. And his defense will be critical to slowing Parker if Conley finds himself with that defense assignment.
McNeill: Conley. When the Grizzlies took down the Spurs in the first round a couple of seasons ago, it was in large part because Conley outplayed Parker. That will have to happen again if Memphis is to upset San Antonio. The Spurs will focus on stopping Randolph and Gasol, so the onus is on Conley to produce.
Stein: Conley. He's got to play Parker to a standoff for the Grizzlies to seize this opportunity. Memphis' lack of perimeter shooting threats also demands that Conley delivers from the outside when he gets his opportunities.
3. What's the most intriguing matchup in this series?
Crain: Which one isn't intriguing? I'm going to say the big-man battle. Can Randolph have a series like he did in 2011? Can Gasol continue to hit from outside and avoid foul trouble? Will Duncan hang in for 40 minutes against the Grizzlies' bigs? Can Splitter finally break out from under Duncan's shadow? So many valid questions, and both teams need to find the answers fast.
Feldman: Duncan vs. Gasol. Two of the NBA's smartest big men will match wits and skills on both ends, but I'm particularly interested to watch each defend. Gasol got my hypothetical defensive player of the year vote because he played 700 minutes more than Duncan, and it's easier to make a larger impact in more minutes. But per possession, Duncan still might be the NBA's top defender.
Gordian: Duncan vs. Gasol. In the Golden State series, Duncan clearly showed that he intends to be an offensive force no matter the caliber of defender. When he caught the ball against Golden State, his first instinct was to score. But the only thing tougher than working on the low block against Andrew Bogut is doing so against Gasol. It's going to be interesting to watch.
McNeill: Tony Allen vs. Parker. I expect the Grizzlies to put Allen on Parker defensively, as the blueprint to stopping Parker is to put a bigger wing defender on him. Whoever gets the upper hand in this matchup will probably reflect who wins this series. Who that is is anyone's guess.
Stein: PTI-style tossup between Duncan vs. Gasol and Ginobili vs. Allen.
4. Who or what is the X factor in this series?
Crain: Foul calls. If the Grizzlies are allowed to pound inside and avoid foul trouble along the way, they will have a huge leg up on winning the series. If Gasol and Randolph get into foul trouble early, the series could be over fast, as well. The calls early in the game will determine who wins late.
Feldman: Splitter's defense. When the Grizzlies upset the Spurs in 2011, Randolph (21.5 points per game, 50 percent shooting) and Gasol (14.2, 53.3) dominated inside. But Splitter should provide better post defense than Antonio McDyess, who was then on the verge of retirement, and Bonner.
Gordian: Ginobili. The last time the Grizzlies and Spurs played in the postseason, Ginobili fought through a broken arm. Now he's healthy, but that didn't equate to an especially good series against Golden State. Whether or not he steps up could easily be the difference in this series.
McNeill: Three-point shooting. If the Spurs are getting open 3-point looks, it means their offense is clicking and the Grizzlies are having trouble stopping penetration. If the Grizzlies are hitting their open 3-point looks, well, it means hell has frozen over and the world's about to end. But it also might mean a trip to the Finals for Memphis.
Stein: The Spurs are bigger and better on the front line with Splitter playing alongside the rejuvenated Duncan than they were in 2011 when they lost to the Griz in the first round. Couple that with the Spurs' determination to avoid what happened in the 2012 conference finals -- to get back to the big stage one more time -- and those who've picked against them are (gulp) nervous.
5. Who wins this series and in how many games?
Crain: Grizzlies in six. Memphis has redeemed past playoff failures against the Thunder and Clippers. It feels like a team of destiny this season, and they are the only team that stands even a small chance of upending the Heat in the Finals.
Feldman: Grizzlies in seven. No. 5-seeded Memphis would be the lowest-seeded team to reach the NBA Finals since the eighth-seeded Knicks in 1999, but this isn't a classic underdog pick. Since Tayshaun Prince joined the team as part of the Rudy Gay deal, the Grizzlies ranked as the Western Conference's third-best team -- and ahead of the Spurs.
Gordian: Spurs in seven. This isn't 2011. Both teams have evolved. Gasol and Conley are far better players nowadays. Green, Leonard, Diaw and Splitter -- all significant contributors currently -- were either not on the team or a peripheral part of it. That depth is the bedrock of the Spurs' consistency on both ends, and that consistency is why San Antonio will prevail.
McNeill: Spurs in seven. These are two different teams than the ones that faced off a couple seasons ago. While Memphis is a difficult matchup for San Antonio, the Spurs are better equipped to handle the punishment that the Grizzlies dish out. It won't be fun to watch, except when it is, but the Spurs will squeak by in the end.
Stein: Grizzlies in six. Memphis is a harder place to win than San Antonio is. And the Griz (Z-Bo, Gasol and Prince) stand to benefit as much from the three days off between Game 2 and Game 3 as the older Spurs. Those factors, combined with the Grizzlies' withering D and age advantage, make them the favorites on this scorecard. Slight favorites.
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
Marc Stein covers the NBA for ESPN.com. Chip Crain, Dan Feldman, Graydon Gordian and Andrew McNeill contribute to the TrueHoop Network.
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