Memphis Mauling

The Grizzlies’ pressure defense, wing grinders and pair of aces has given Memphis another winning hand

The griff and gruff pioneer, founder of the unforgiving tundra, was forced to venture into new lands, having run his course with his original troupe, and the cult hero, once holding the reverence of a commemorative statue, was dispensed by the wayside, his unrefined gospel outdated. The exodus of Zach Randolph and Tony Allen from Memphis was pegged as the death of Grit-n-Grind, the organization’s blue-collar ethos that resonated with fans and battered the league, but was deemed retrograde in a new league paradigm.

But, while two pillars of the Grizzlies’ core consturct have been whisked away, that old rugged, black-and-blue mentality still lingers. Memphis is once again abiding by its customary grimy style this season, operating at a glacial pace while beating the hell out of people, foiling fancy preseason projection models for the 612th straight year in the process.

The Fizz Grizz (Grizzlies under coach David Fizdale) have become more modernized on the edges, slotting in defensively-versatile wings who spot up and slice into openings as they orbit within the Mike Conley-Marc Gasol solar system. Memphis is launching more 3s this year (and still not making any) and are even pushing it a bit more in transition after live-ball turnovers, no small adjustment considering the gobs of turnovers they create, a trend that has continued post peak Grit-n-Grind as an earmark of the Grizzlies’ always-reputable defense.

Since the 2010–11 season, the Grizzlies have been in the top 10 in turnovers forced in eight of nine seasons. Stats table via cleaningtheclass.com

The Grizzlies’ roster construction and pick-and-roll scheme hasn’t and doesn’t seem tailored to strangling opponents into such a high turnover rate, though. There’s not a passing lane con artist like John Wall and Russell Westbrook on the roster, and they generally utilize a more conservative over-and-drop or zone up pick-and-roll coverage with Gasol stationing himself around the elbow while the guard fights over the screen.

But my god, true to their name, the Grizzlies maul folks otherwise. They pressure the ball with utmost zeal and deny the ball like a bouncer does a club entrance. Pick up your dribble and they’ll suffocate you. Give up the ball, and they’ll make you work really damn hard to get it back. Set a screen to alleviate some congestion, and they’ll either bump and bang their way through it or just switch it to prevent even a sliver of breathing room.

Intuitive off-ball play designs are blown up when the ball handler can’t even deliver a clean pass to a guy darting off a screen or slipping to the hoop. Forced switches where a big goes into “mouse-in-the-house” post up mode aren’t so fruitful when the guard fronts the behemoth and the ball handler can’t execute an entry because he’s overwhelmed by arms and hands.

The kind of pressure Memphis dispenses on a possession-by-possession basis is enough to jack up the timing, rhythm and positioning of any offense. If you want to bandy the ball around versus Memphis in the halfcourt to rev up player engagement and ball movement, exercising caution is a must. And those leisure plays to get a star the ball after failed initial actions don’t come with a signed concession by the Grizz. You’re going to have to battle for the right to get the ball back, possibly conceding preferred position to do so.

All of those handsy grabs to delay a cut, extended arms to thwart a passing angle and body bumps to force a scorer off their spot add up. Avoid a turnover through it all, an even tougher proposition considering the wealth of reach ins and dig downs from Grizz help defenders, and an offense still suffers, working frantically as the shot clock winds down with Memphis being among the best teams for years in forcing opponents deep into the clock.

Such an indefatigable defensive strategy requires energy, effort and some doggedness from all five guys to toggle between assignments, scrap against theoretical mismatches and remain locked in no matter where they are on the court to provide help. Gasol, mostly a bystander to all of the strains of perimeter defense under such an ideology, is the perfect backline overseer to it all, barking out instructions and verbally diagramming the court for his teammates. Of course, part of the reason Gasol can sit back and take it easy compared to the constant clawing of his teammates is because he’s so darn smart, vaporizing angles and muddling corridors into the paint.

Gasol isn’t exactly zipping to and fro here, but he makes the entire possession happen. He lags off Clint Capela as Andrew Harrison fronts Harden, close enough to dissuade a pass over the top. On the triggered high-low attempt, he backs off Capela further to prevent an entry. When Harden gets it, he walls off the middle and clogs up the passing lane to Capela. Finally he tips away the post entry and blocks Capela’s desperation 3.

Gasol may be a basketball brainiac, but the brawn and athleticism of Memphis’ wings are needed staples of the team’s defensive model. Dillon Brooks is just one of a number of rookies in this year’s class waging a war against the “rookies are bad at defense” stigma. The dude competes nonstop, knows the patterns of weak side defense, fights his way over screens and oozes gawky, yet effective lateral quickness to stay in front of guys on the ball. Brooks has spent a lot of time on Harden in the 34 times the Grizzlies and Rockets have played each other so far this season, and he’s defended speedy point guards like Kemba Walker and Damian Lillard for stretches as well. James Ennis is a freaking dog defensively, tussling or sliding with anyone, Tyreke Evans has been physical, Jarell Martin has gone from rumored cut to having his rookie option picked up and even Chandler Parsons, yes, handsome, Instagram-famous partier Chandler Parsons is getting it done on D. Ben McLemore is back from injury, Wayne Selden will eventually follow and JaMychal Green should return by at least the end of November from a sprained ankle to open up more lineup flexibility.

There’s a clear tradeoff that comes with Memphis’ smothering defensive archetype, however. They hack people…a lot.

The Grizz get whistled amply for mixing it up too much with screeners and jockeying away from the ball. They get caught with their hand in the cookie jar plenty and are prone to biting on pump fakes. Heck, sometimes they bulldoze through opponents just for getting in their way.

In worse cases, the Grizz just straight up get beat, a risk any team runs when trying to crowd the world’s most exquisite ball handlers, react step for step with foudroyant athletes and prey on elite basketball minds.

Sometimes teams with top notch pick-and-roll duos will bypass all the moving parts of the offensive cog knowing Memphis is likely to throw an element out of whack. Instead they’ll simplify their attack, spacing the floor around a lethal pick-and-roll partnership primed to hoist an off-the-bounce 3 as Gasol camps out at his elbow command post.

Memphis has been among the league’s cellar dwellers for the past half decade in giving up off-dribble 3s from above the break. Help-drawing penetration in such scenarios has also seen teams dump buckets of corners 3s on the Grizz.

For as much basketball intuition as there is filed away in the noggins of Conley and Gasol, the 3-pointer trend could become even more crippling as the twosome loses steps. Gasol simply won’t be able to cover as much ground, retreating even further toward the rim in pick-and-rolls and requiring more outside help against driving ball handlers. Conley has already shown some slippage this season in his on-ball defense against jitterbugs (though possibly a result of a nagging and petrifying Achilles injury), leaving Brooks to take on more of those assignments.

Such setbacks aren’t going to happen in a day, however, and Memphis is right in line with its usual stinginess, ranking sixth in the league in defensive rating, according to cleaningtheglass stats, which filters out garbage time.

Per usual, it’s the slogging offense that garners greater trepidation in Memphis, hovering right around league average while mining every gram of value possible from the harmonious Conley-Gasol duet. The cagey pairing is as fun as ever, seamlessly fox-trotting their way to a flurry of altered screening and passing angles on the fly amidst an oscillating pace to scrounge buckets.

For whatever the partnership lacks in athleticism and pop, they make up for in guile and synergy. Gasol’s incessant ball fakes, screen flips and whizzing pitches seem to dupe everyone except Conley, who swindles defenses with his patented hesitations, in-and-out dribbles and ambidextrous floaters.

The duo’s collective potions are stocked ready to cook up some advanced-level sorcery primed to boggle defenders who are a bit too relaxed or a tad overzealous with perfectly-timed blind pig backdoors or silky give-and-gos.

However, Memphis has finagled just 101.5 points per 100 possessions the tandem has shared the court together this season, according to nba.com stats. It could be a byproduct of small sample size heavily skewed by dreadful outside shooting from Conley to start the season as he’s hitting a morbid 31 percent from 3. In fact, the Memphis offense (and defense for that matter) as a whole has plummeted with Conley on the floor this season, a trend that belies the rest of his career with some very streaky midrange shooting when he’s off the floor possibly being the culprit.

Gasol and Conley are bearing more of an offensive burden than ever when they’re on the floor as both are using possessions at the highest rate of their careers (Likely another reason Conley has siphoned more defensive responsibilities onto others). Everything runs through them.

Gasol is the queen of the chessboard and Fizdale isn’t shy about displacing Big Spain in a smorgasbord of different roles and actions to uplift a Memphis offense that has faired well in the halfcourt this season. Gasol has long been a screening cognoscenti, nimbly twirling about for rescreens in some instances and bludgeoning two dudes at once in others, like a nose guard hogging up blockers in football.

He’ll always own plenty of real estate at the elbows, and the Grizz will make him point center at the top of the arc as well to zing passes to slipped screeners and shooters bolting off pindowns, flares or floppy sets. If nothing materializes, Gasol goes into dribble handoff pitchman, playing catch with ball handlers to keep the tempo humming.

Then of course there’s the post ups, often aided by a rip or cross screen and sometimes both to wrangle prime position on the block, where Gasol waves the ball around like he’s directing traffic in search of a passing crevice. If he doesn’t find anything enticing, he’ll yank his face up rip through driving hook or silky fadeaway from his bag.

And with Gasol’s 3-point shooting range, Fiz has even whipped up some luxurious specialty items for the Grizz in the halfcourt.

With Gasol acting as the fulcrum and Fizdale dabbling in dual point guard lineups, Conley has been freed up to work a bit off the ball, where he’s among the NBA’s most willing screening point guards. A particular favorite is when Conley gives up the ball and darts to set a flex screen on the weak side before popping out for a 3 himself or pulling a U-turn for floppy action back to the strong side.

Intertwined in Conley-Gasol roaming about are those Memphis wings, ancillary grinders who do little things off the ball to add some kick. Ennis and Evans are thick bodies who’ll hunt for scraps crashing the glass, and Brooks has been tutored by Ennis in the art of looking out for cutting lanes and mixing in some impromptu flare screens on the weak side. Neither of the Brooks-Ennis combo offers much in the way of shot creation, but Evans and Parsons, for now, have quenched the Grizzlies years-long thirst for a third playmaker alongside Conley and Gasol.

Evans, a drive-and-kick enthusiast from the Daryl Morey Shooting Academy, has brought some explosiveness and a sprinkle of berserkness to the Grizzlies, both of which are welcomed qualities in a sometimes stodgy Memphis offense. He’s booking it in transition every chance he gets, and has been tossing flames from 3, particularly late in the clock as a life preserver for the Grizz. Evans is leading bench mobs — lineups sans both Conley and Gasol — that are actually ransacking opponents so far this season; Memphis has the second-best bench net rating in the league, via nba.com. Mario Chalmers’ and Brandan Wright’s resurrections have been a tremendous boon as well. Surrounding Wright’s slinky-like hops with four shooters, the second unit has a consistent pathway to somewhat sustainable offense, deploying enough capable ball handlers to initiate and sustain drive-and-kick sequences until something yields, whether a crevice or a favorable matchup.

Chalmers is the latest player Memphis has restored from the junkyard, a prickly defender who can spot up off the ball and create against a scattered defense when rotations force a shift.

The revival has been needed for a Memphis team that has been sapped of projected rotational pieces in Green, McLemore and Selden in the season’s infancy, one in which the Grizzlies are once again in the meat of the Western Conference playoff picture.

That’s the thing with Memphis. Even after an offseason that was projected to summon sizeable change, the Grizz are actually just like they always are — whisking opponents from the glorified, flowing space of the modern game and into an alley for an old-fashioned bruising.

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