By Eli Horowitz, assistant men’s basketball coach at Caltech & NBA/WNBA analyst
The Memphis Grizzlies have made the postseason seven straight years. They’ve done it with defense, rebounding, physicality and just enough offense. But with the losses of Tony Allen and Zach Randolph, the NBA Twitter community largely excluded this club from their Western Conference playoff lists. With the Warriors, Spurs, Rockets and Thunder as locks, there are only four spots for the Blazers, Nuggets, Timberwolves, Clippers, Jazz, Pelicans and Grizzlies. With Minnesota adding Jimmy Butler, Denver adding Paul Millsap, and Portland having a full season of Jusuf Nurkic alongside their talented backcourt, it’s understandable why many felt Memphis could fizzle out of the picture.
But so far, the Grizzlies are showing that with a healthy Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, they can play with anyone. They’re 3-0 with double digit wins over the Pelicans and Warriors, and an eight point road victory over the Rockets in which they held Houston to 33 second-half points. Memphis is currently sixth if defensive rating, per NBA.com, and they’ll need that to continue to nab one of those final four playoff spots.
But doubt about Memphis was never about defense; projections that have the Grizzlies in the playoffs assume they’ll finish top ten on that end. Last year, the Grizzlies finished seventh in defense and 18th in offense to earn the seven seed. Grizzlies pessimists might have felt that if the offense slips to 20, and the defense to 10 without Allen, the Grizzlies could be on the outside looking in. In an even more stacked Western Conference, the Grizzlies may need a top 10-15 offense to secure a playoff berth, even with a great defense.
So far, they’re 11th in offensive rating, starting the likes of Jarell Martin, James Ennis III and Andrew Harrison. With teams locked in on Conley, the Grizzlies are using Marc Gasol out in space to get easy baskets. Watch here how Gasol receives a screen from Conley and gets a dunk:
The Grizzlies set up in a Horns look with Ennis and Harrison in the corners. After Conley gets the ball to Martin, he cuts through and comes back up to screen Gasol at the opposite elbow. The Grizzlies wisely attack away from Trevor Ariza, who’s on Ennis in the strong side corner and can’t help. Watch and notice James Harden is in help, but won’t be effective at the rim against Gasol, whereas Ariza at least has some length. Clint Capela has to play up on Gasol due to his shooting ability.
As the play develops, Conley gets just enough of Capela on the screen to force Eric Gordon to have to bump Gasol. But rather that just switch, Gordon tries to fight over Gasol and switch back onto Conley. As that happens, Capela is trailing Gasol, who basket cuts away from the help to get the pass from Martin and an easy finish.
The Grizzlies take advantage of the Rockets here by running the screen inside the paint. Gordon and Capela are not used to communicating on an action on this spot of the floor. Additionally, by making Conley the screener and Gasol the recipient, Capela is in the precarious position of having to fight over a screen. Gasol’s ability to stretch the floor and handle the ball is forcing opposing centers out of the paint where Gasol can play with space.
When the Grizzlies go to a more traditional post-up, they’re getting switches that create easy looks for Gasol. Teams don’t want to switch, but Gasol will set a screen and then seal and bury the guards defender to force the switch. Here, Harden is on Harrison and Capela is on Gasol. Before the clip starts, Gasol seals Harden after screening him and gets the mismatch:
Not only do the Grizzlies get Gasol a paint look against a guard, but by getting the switch through a high pick and roll, Capela is now out at the three point line and in no position to come help when Gasol spins baseline. Ariza could be more aggressive in help, which means Ryan Anderson would need to drop to the level off the ball and prevent a pass to the weak side corner, but even if that happens, the Grizzlies have a three on two on the weak side and are getting an open shot.
The above play is completely different than the first clip, but in both cases, Marc Gasol starts operating outside the paint and without the ball in order to get a smaller defender onto him when he makes his move towards the rim.
Here is another look that gets the same outcome. This time Nene is in the game, and the Rockets sprint back on defense. Rather than find Gasol, Nene is ready in the paint. Normally, he could expect to wait and pick up the opposing center by the basket. But Gasol stops on the perimeter, forcing Harden to pick him up and sending Nene to the corner on Martin. Watch how Gasol immediately attacks off the catch:
As soon as Gasol catches, the paint is open as the Grizzlies are in a spread. With Harden standing upright, Gasol is able to easily get by him as he doesn’t put up much of a fight. As the drive happens, Nene is taking steps towards the corner, so he’s unable to get to the rim quick enough to contest Gasol.
In one quarter, Gasol gets three dunks; none from direct post-ups (the second clip doesn’t include the initial pick and roll Gasol uses to seal Harden). What the Grizzlies lack in traditional spacing garnered through shooting and driving, they’re getting from Gasol’s ability to operate on the perimeter and the elbow extended areas. Teams will have to pack it in against these actions and force the Grizzlies’ unheralded wings to make plays. If the Grizzlies aren’t able to knock down shots, it will be a struggle to score. But early in the season, if teams continue to play the Grizzlies straight up, Gasol will feast.
There’s not enough firepower for the Grizzlies to be an elite offense. Teams with new additions will improve their chemistry and move up the rankings. But even in a brutal Western Conference, if the Grizzlies can remain a top 15 offense, their defense can carry them to the playoffs.