'Pop' gives San Antonio tangible edge vs. Memphis


Suddenly, the San Antonio Spurs don’t look so old and slow. It certainly helps that the team’s senior citizen, coach Gregg Popovich, has experience and wisdom on his side.

The NBA’s version of The Most Interesting Man in the World, Popovich once brought a knife to a gunfight, just to even the odds, to steal a line from the commercial.

A couple of weeks ago, the Spurs were driving 45 mph in the fast lane, getting their false teeth kicked in and seemingly nearing retirement age.

Not so fast.

The Golden State Warriors were put to sleep early, and then on Sunday, San Antonio sent a wake-up call to the Memphis Grizzlies, who showed up late for the Western Conference finals. It was classic Popovich, making chess moves against a checkers player.

Lionel Hollins has done fine work with the Grizzlies this season, and this series is far from over after one game, but the Spurs’ 105-83 victory in the opener was a lesson in handicapping the importance of a coaching matchup.

“Popovich has a huge edge over Hollins,” said handicapper Jim Kruger of VegasSportsAuthority.com.

“Throughout the season, Hollins’ in-game handling of personnel and lineups on the floor was baffling at times.”

The Grizzlies were most baffled on the defensive end in Game 1, and since defense is their strong suit, that was a bad sign. The failure to contain point guard Tony Parker off the pick-and-roll was the first problem that led to more problems.

The Spurs had open shooters camped out all over the floor, and the result was 14 3-pointers in 29 attempts. Everything looks prettier when the shots are falling, but it was a basketball coaching clinic, and the bottom line was a 22-point blowout.

I picked San Antonio to win the series — on local radio and on Chad Millman’s “Behind the Bets” podcast on ESPN.com last week — because I believed in the Spurs’ experience and Popovich’s strategic edge. But that was not necessarily the popular side.

San Antonio opened as a minus-120 series favorite at the LVH sports book, and the line moved to minus-135. So, while money did show on the Spurs, plenty of sharp bettors preferred the Grizzlies.

“I lean to the Spurs. You can’t go against Popovich. I thought that price was cheap,” LVH oddsmaker Jeff Sherman said. “But it was cheap because there are so many people in love with Memphis.”

There is a lot to like about the Grizzlies, though they probably came in a little overrated after knocking out a short-handed Oklahoma City team. Mike Conley is maturing into an elite point guard, and big men Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph can score inside and out. Still, this is Memphis’ first trip to the West finals, and Popovich’s first time was a long time ago.

Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are showing signs of old age, yet San Antonio has young talent (Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, for example), better perimeter shooters (Matt Bonner being one) and a deeper bench.

I expected a long series — wagering on the Spurs at minus-135 and taking 3-1 odds on them to win in seven games — and we still might see one. Randolph will bounce back, after shooting 1-for-8 and scoring two points Sunday, and the Spurs won’t hit 14 3s very often.

While perceptions of fans and the media can fluctuate wildly, oddsmakers are not into knee-jerk reactions. The Grizzlies were 4½-point underdogs in the opener, and they remain 4½-point ’dogs in Tuesday’s Game 2.

Two games into the Golden State series, Popovich adjusted, pushed the right buttons and eventually made the Warriors’ young guns look old and slow.

David Stern’s biggest fear, aside from another Tim Donaghy scandal, must be an Indiana-Memphis matchup in the NBA Finals. A pair of small-market teams with no stars to promote.

Stern can relax, as the odds are against it. Miami is a minus-750 series favorite over the Pacers in the East finals, which begin Wednesday with the Heat as 8-point home favorites.

It’s surprising the series price is not a little higher, but Miami struggled to put away the Chicago Bulls’ gritty junior varsity. The Pacers play with similar toughness, even though Paul George, Roy Hibbert and Lance Stephenson might never be called the Big Three.

“Miami and San Antonio rank No. 1 and 2 in field-goal percentage. Way down the list are Indiana (No. 28) and Memphis (No. 22),” Kruger said. “I place a very high value on good shooting. Since the 2006-07 playoffs, the team that shot better in a playoff game won 81.2 percent of the time while covering the point spread at a 76.7 percent rate.”

Kruger detailed a grocery list of key statistics, factored in the absence of the Pacers’ Danny Granger, and concluded, “I cannot see Indiana winning the series.”

Sherman agreed, saying, “I don’t think the Pacers can beat the Heat in seven games, but they can make the games very competitive and make it a challenging series. Indiana does have a lot of young talent.”

In the playoffs, young teams learn and wait their turn. The Spurs are headed back to the Finals, and LeBron James will be the favorite. Then it gets really interesting.

Contact sports betting columnist Matt Youmans at myoumans@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2907. He co-hosts “The Las Vegas Sportsline” weekdays at 2 p.m. on ESPN Radio (1100 AM, 98.9 FM). Follow him on Twitter: @mattyoumans247.