Headed into Game 6 between the Memphis Grizzlies and the Golden State Warriors, the chess match between Dave Joerger and Steve Kerr is coming to an end. The Grizzlies made the first adjustment of the series when Mike Conley came back in Game 2, changing the tempo of the game and getting out to a 2-1 series lead. Kerr responded in Games 3 and 4, altering defensive assignments to put Klay Thompson on Conley and Andrew Bogus on Tony Allen. With Bogut playing off Allen and crowding the lane, the Warriors prevented the Grizzlies from scoring in the paint and forced Allen out of the game. In Game 5, with Allen dealing with a hamstring issue, Joerger went with Jeff Green at small forward to put another shooter and scorer on the floor.
Without Allen, the Grizzlies were afraid of putting Courtney Lee on Thompson, since he could shoot over the top of the smaller Lee. That put Green in the uncomfortable position of chasing Thompson on screens and forced Lee to guard Harrison Barnes, a guy he was giving up three inches too. Barnes is the X-factor for the Warriors - the Splash Brothers are their main two offensive outlets while Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut are primarily passers and defensive players. Barnes is going to be the guy defenses help off in the halfcourt and he’s going to get the easiest defensive assignment on the perimeter. When he’s knocking down shots efficiently - 14 points on eight shots in Game 5 - Golden State is hard to beat.
Both Green and Barnes serve as their team’s primary swing forward, sliding between either the SF or PF position depending on the line-up. When Barnes is playing as a 4, he often has to match up with Zach Randolph in the post, a tough assignment for any smaller player. Where he can get him back is on the other end of the floor, as Randolph has little chance of sticking with him on the perimeter. When Green is playing as a 4, Memphis is trying to open up their offense with only one big man on the floor. He doesn’t get the luxury of trying to take slower guys off the dribble in this series - the Warriors have enough wing players to where they want to play small-ball all the time.
A good rule of thumb in the modern NBA is that guys who can play either forward position are more effective as power forwards. When their teams are going small, they have more space to operate on the perimeter and more driving lanes to attack the basket. When the Warriors and the Grizzlies have more traditional line-ups on the floor, Green and Barnes have to score in tighter spaces off the dribble and knock down three pointers. Barnes (3-5) got the better of Green (0-2) in that department on Wednesday.
As the series heads back to Memphis, there aren’t many more adjustments for Kerr and Joerger to make. A seven-game series between two elite teams is like a heavyweight fight - you get a feel for each other in the early rounds, each side tries to make adjustments in the middle rounds and by the final rounds you understand what you have and what the guy across from you has. The Grizzlies are going to try and control tempo and pound the ball inside while the Warriors are going to try to force turnovers and knock down 3’s. It will come down to who executes the game-plan better.
Even if Memphis gets Allen back, it’s hard to see Joerger putting him back in the starting line-up when you consider the trouble they are having executing against a stifling Golden State defense. There’s a place in the rotation for Allen to hound Curry or Thompson on the second unit when he can play with Green opening up the floor as a PF and creating room for a non-shooter. Given the struggles of Vince Carter, Beno Udrih and Nick Calathes in this series, Green is their only other option than Allen at SF. To win another game, they are going to need more than 10 points on 13 shots from him.
For Golden State, the emergence of Barnes gives them a lot more margin for error. He picked up the slack when Thompson was struggling early in Game 5 and he gives them another option to run offense through than the Splash Brothers. He had one assist on five turnovers but he was being aggressive, which is what they needed from him. When they are getting shooting from places other than the Splash Brothers, like they did with Barnes and Andre Iguodala on Wednesday, it forces the defense into a tough bind and allows Green and Bogut to stay within their roles on offense and not over-extend themselves.
Memphis is trying to get points from their big men and Golden State is trying to get points from their guards. The key for both teams comes at the wing positions, which don’t get a ton of offense run through them. The quality of the shots from the wing depends in large part on how well the ball is moving and everyone else is playing. As the series goes on, the team that can get more reliable production from the secondary spots in the line-up gains a huge advantage.
The Grizzlies gave up a quality 3-and-D wing (Quincy Pondexter) as well as a future first round pick for Green. He is on his third team in seven seasons and he has been plagued by inconsistency everywhere he has been but he has enough talent to where teams keep taking chances on him. On paper, he was the guy to replace Rudy Gay - a bigger wing player (6’9 235 with a 7’1 wingspan) who can stretch the floor, defend multiple positions and give them another shot-creator besides Conley at the end of the clock. Green hasn’t been great in Memphis but he has been efficient enough to where they can hope he can put it all together when they need him the most.
The Warriors have been waiting on Barnes ever since he was drafted. He’s the highest drafted of their four home-grown starters (along with Curry at No. 7) so there has always been a spotlight on him, one he has not always been able to live up to in part because he’s the youngest of the four. Barnes is still only 22 years old - if he had stayed four seasons in college (like Curry and Draymond Green) he would be a rookie. For all the ups and downs he has had in the NBA, you can see why he was so highly touted coming out of high school. He’s huge (6’8 230 with a 6’11 wingspan), he’s very athletic and he can dribble and shoot over smaller players.
Barnes' playoff career started off with a bang when he averaged 16 points and six rebounds a game filling in for David Lee at PF. As a 2nd-year player, his numbers dropped across the board when Golden State signed Iguodala and moved him to the bench. As a 3rd-year player, his percentages have bounced back and he’s started to figure out his role on the team. He’s being selective and he’s shooting 56.8% from the field against Memphis. He was drafted to be the third option on the perimeter and when he’s going all the pieces of the puzzle start to fall in place for Golden State.
The odds were against Memphis coming into the series and they are even more so now that they are down 3-2. To swing momentum and force a Game 7, they need a big offensive boost from somewhere in the line-up and Green is really the only guy on their roster with the capability to explode on a given night. If Barnes outplays Green again, there’s pretty much no chance for the Grizzlies. And if Barnes can consistently win his match-up, the rest of the league is in trouble.