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Breaking down the Memphis Grizzlies part-1: Defense

I am a huge believer of the fact that any NBA Franchise is always inspired by the beliefs, ontology and predilections of the city they represent. The legacy of such leagues can be considered a stark contrast to the hypnagogic yet superficial identity of the IPL in India. In the NBA, the teams are not built as a conglomeration of talent alone, as the game play and beliefs of the team are many a times a humble reflection of the city itself. This sense of identifying with the players representing the team, the city and their ideology, is the backbone that drives the passions, emotions, fealties and loyalties from the fans.

The Memphis Grizzlies validate the same on a pretty comprehensive and holistic level.

The city of Memphis is a representation of what the United States of America promise beyond the spangle and shine coronating the likes of New York or Los Angeles. Any commoner when quizzed about Memphis, would, in general talk, about the legacy of Elvis and Graceland. But such an observation is highly superficial and perfunctory, as the city banked on the confluence of the Mississippi and the Wolf rivers has a history and legacy much deeper and far more turbulent.

Beyond its significant and monumental contribution to the domains of music and art, the city derives its true identity and character from the resilience and hardships of its much tumultuous past. The city had to go through many a shambling philippic, be it the shackles of slavery or the civil strife. And from all these humbling repressions, the city has always come out stronger. Today, it is famous as the humble abode of some of the most hard-working citizens in the country, people who derive pleasure and pride from the sweat beads lining their brows, strength from the anguish and pain of the various ills prevalent in the city. The mantra of life is very simple: Work hard and if you still don’t win, just work harder. There are no free lunches in the world, and if you wish to have it go ahead and earn it.

If you put the character of the city into perspective, it becomes much easier to understand the mentality and the demeanor of the Grizzlies. The team which presently is on a rich vein of form, en route to recording a league best 9-2 start to the season. The Grizzlies aren’t pleasing to the eye and compared to the Thunder or the Heat don’t have much expectation riding on their shoulders. The pundits and savants were quick to discount their chances, labeling them as a team that didn’t have the offensive repertoire or the depth to make a significant challenge on the Championship title. Well, I don’t think that many would argue that and neither are the Grizzlies ignorant of the same. However, they were not ready to fret over it and chose to win the tougher way.

As Marc Gasol aptly summed it up: “We have to play hard to win games. We are not that good to just come out and be casual, make a shot, don’t run back and don’t rebound because we are not that good.”

And at the helm of this transformation stands their enigmatic coach, Lionel Hollins. Hollins is a modern-day coach who relies on statistics and designing plays off the boards. He understands the strengths and weaknesses of the team very well, and has charted out the roles of every player in team to suit the same. Overall, he is a coach on the lines of Pat Riley and Larry Brown who believe in the much prophesised philosophy that Offense wins rings, while Defense wins championships.

A look at the Grizzlies’ defensive stats this season goes a long way in establishing the eloquent coaching abilities of Hollins. To lose OJ Mayo in the off-season was tough, but the new additions into the roster have shown that maybe Memphis is far better off without the services of Mayo. Mayo could probably help them on the offensive end of the floor, but on the defensive end he was always a liability and in the Memphis team of today there is no scope for that.

 Here is a breakdown of what has been working for and against the Grizzlies:-

On the Defensive end

Strengths

The Grizzlies derive most of their inspiration and strength from their stifling defense, a novelty in the Western Conference that is highlighted by the offensive talents of a Kevin Durant and a Kobe Bryant. What the Grizzlies lack in ability, they more than make up in their intensity and size. The likes of Tony Allen, Mike Conley, Rudy Gay and the monstrous duo of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, have made the Grizzlies the most potent defensive unit in the league.

The backcourt duo of Allen and Conley in particular has continuously stifled the league’s best playmakers. The superlative talents of Westbrook and Durant combined was still not good enough to break down the perimeter defense of the Grizzlies as the duo went about harassing them, forcing them to the side-line and trapping them continuously.

They don’t exactly rely on their bigs to help, constantly putting pressure on the opposition’s best wingmen, throwing away multiple swipes and steal attempts, but all the time being vigilant enough to recover. As a result, they force the opposition team to get into more pick and roll situations, and force their better wingman to give up the ball. Ever active as a secondary defender, they are more than eager to help out their big’s, while always ready to close-out on a defensive rotation. Help the helper, or close-out, the Memphis duo bank on their defensive intensity to force turn-overs and get some easy transition opportunities at the other end.

Further on, the Grizzlies are a well-tutored unit and are in general very well prepared in their defensive assignments. Every opposition player is properly analyzed in the video room, and then the team comes out and plays accordingly. They force the opposition to take low-percentage shots, contest almost everything and are very particular about their close-outs and boxing out duties. The duo of Randolph and Gasol are also known for their abilities to rebound the ball, and very rarely give up a second chance opportunity. Against the Lakers they were able to limit Dwight Howard to only 4 rebounds. There can certainly be no better an example to prove their energy and commitment to defense and rebounding.

If you think that the Grizzlies defensive intensity is limited to their starters, you are in for a rude shock. The bench players like Bayless, Pondexter, Speights and Ellington have proved to be more than an effective back-up and keep up the Grizzlies’ defensive intensity and identity.

No wonder that the Grizzlies are among the league leaders in Field Goal attempts allowed and 3-point shots allowed. With teams not being able to find any clean and open looks, they start to force the shots against the Grizzlies who also do a pretty good job in avoiding getting into foul trouble and don’t allow the opposition many trips to the charity stripe. If you add all of these defensive efforts together, you get a team that allows a meager 93.1 points per game, the 6th best record in the league.

Weakness

Well, it isn’t actually an easy job to find fault with a defensive outfit as good as the Grizzlies. However, there is one particular area that they can work on and that is on their pick and roll defense. The duo of Conley and Allen do a great job in troubling the opposition wing players and generally force them deep into the shot-clock situation. Most teams then choose to get into a high-pick and roll set, and it is where the Grizzlies have seemed a little vulnerable. Randolph and Gasol aren’t exactly the quickest movers on the pick and thus it does allow a certain alley and window for the opposition to exploit.

The duo of Gasol and Randolph, despite being premier rebounders, aren’t exactly athletic enough to be able to anchor the paint as effectively like say a Dwight Howard or a Tyson Chandler. None of them can be regarded as premier shot-blockers and thus even though they do a great job in clogging the lanes, the rim can still have a better insurance cover. Gasol averages around 1.4 blocks per game, and Randolph comes in at 0.6; numbers that surely have a much greater scope of improvement.

And all of these were more than evident in the game against the Lakers. They defended the run-and-gun high tempo Laker basketball with a lot of conviction, and even though Kobe might have burnt them for 30 points, but he was only 7-23 from the field. They managed to negate the Lakers length, with Howard and Gasol only managing to score a combined 13 points on 5-15 shooting. Their size and strength was too much for the Laker big’s, who failed to assert themselves and were easily out-muscled and out-hustled. They also managed to notch up 10 steals and forced the Lakers to commit 18 turnovers, all the while forcing the Lakers into isolation traps and shooting low-percentage shots, as a result holding the Lakers to 44.3 % shooting.

The Grizzlies however, would not be too happy about their rebounding as they gave up 11 offensive rebounds to the Lakers and also could do better with their pick and roll defense. Also they could do better with their rim protection as Gasol remains their only legitimate shot-blocker.

But, on the overall level they did put in a great defensive shift, and was one of the major reasons why they could force the Lakers to take the many low-percentage shots that they did. If a Metta World Peace ends up with more shot attempts than a Gasol or a Howard then the team has played the smartest defense that any team can play against the Lakers.

In the first part of the article, I have tried to zero in on the strengths and weaknesses of the Grizzlies on the defensive end of the floor. The next part is an attempt to try and analyze the offense of the Grizzlies.

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