Just Tuesday morning the Grizzlies were at their lowest point since Zach Randolph's knee injury in a 40-point blowout loss at Chicago. They had lost a season-high four games in a row with the most recent being a deplorably listless home loss to the San Antonio Spurs the night before.
As a testament to how this compressed, lockout-shortened season is even more volatile than most, just 72 hours later the Grizzlies find themselves back at the top of the Ferris wheel, coming off their two best wins of the season — a rousing home comeback against the West's current second-place team, the Denver Nuggets, on Tuesday night. And then a blowout road win last night over an Atlanta Hawks team that was 16-6 overall and 8-1 on the road. It was the Grizzlies' first road win this season against a team with a winning record. (And those two wins are bundled with promising news Tuesday that Zach Randolph is still on track for a return to the court this season.)
Tony Allen demonstrates the best way to not miss a lay-up:
The common denominator of both wins is the thing that provides the Grizzlies their identity even in the absence of Randolph: At their best, they will get into you defensively and convert turnovers into points.
Against Denver the Grizzlies had 13 steals that fed into 20 fast-break points (and forced an enormous 25 Denver turnovers in all).
Last night against Atlanta, the Grizzlies had 13 steals that fed into 21 fast-break points.
Let's go back to something I wrote in my season-preview story:
Randolph and Gasol are probably the best offensive frontcourt duo in the league. Conley, Allen, and Gay aren't the best defensive perimeter trio — Conley gets overpowered by big, athletic guards and Gay has to confirm last year's defensive advancements over a full season — but they might be the most disruptive.
The Grizzlies were the 8th best defense in the NBA last season despite being middle of the pack — 14th in opponent field-goal percentage — when it came to guarding shots. Instead, the Grizzlies thrived in preventing shots. With Allen's chaotic, aggressive defense infecting the entire team, the Grizzlies were best in the league in steals and forced turnovers. Allen had the highest steal rate in the NBA in 17 seasons, with Conley (5th) and Gay (6th) also boasting among the highest steal rates at their positions last season. Additionally, Allen (3rd) and Gay (5th) had among the best shot-block rates for scoring guards and small forwards last season.
Assuming Allen can repeat last season's effort and Gay continues his upward trend defensively, the Grizzlies could be even better this season. An interesting wrinkle to last season is that, because it took Allen more than a month to fully work himself into the rotation and because Gay went down with a season-ending injury about a month and a half after Allen had established himself, this potentially dynamic duo didn't actually play together that much. There were only 13 games last season in which Gay and Allen both played at least 20 minutes. The Grizzlies were 9-4 in those games, including 4-2 against eventual playoff teams, and the team's steal average in those games jumped from their overall league-leading 9.4 to a blistering 11.9.
And, sure enough, after leading the NBA in steals (9.4) and opponent turnover (16.7) last season, the Grizzlies are leading the league in the same categories with even greater numbers this season. The Grizzlies' current 10.5 steals per game would be the highest team average in more than a decade if they can sustain it. And their current 18.3 opponent turnover per game is the highest since the ’06-’07 season. This team is kidnapping fools.
As the above quote attests, this is the kind of impact I suspect from the team finally putting a Conley-Allen-Gay trio together in the starting lineup. Conley is leading the league in steals per game (2.55) with Allen 8th (1.91) despite averaging fewer than 25 minutes and Gay 14th (1.68)
Allen and Conley, respectively, have the highest steal rates in the entire league — one team's starting backcourt! — while Gay is 9th among small forwards playing at least 20 minutes a game. And Allen and Gay are again among the top ten at their position in block rate.
Conley, Allen, and Gay alone have combined for 15 of 26 team steals in these past two games.
What's been different in the past two games is that the Grizzlies have combined that defensive-to-offense style with another grit-grind staple that was negatively impacted by Randolph's loss: Offensive rebounding. The Grizzlies had 17 offensive boards against the Nuggets and then 13 against the Hawks. And when the Grizzlies are able to combine the extra possessions gained from their turnover-generating defense with extra possessions gained from dominance on the offensive boards, that's when this team is at its absolute peak.
A perhaps overlooked factor in the Grizzlies' success the past two games — one I meant to write about in my Denver postgame but neglected in my weeknight overtime fatigue — has been the play of Dante Cunningham. With Denver and Atlanta both playing smaller than the norm, Cunningham's speed and activity at power forward was a better match-up than starter Marreese Speights' more traditional post game, and it was made more so with Cunningham also bringing much more intensity to the game.
Cunningham has been at his absolute best as a classic “energy guy” role player in these two games, combining for 51 minutes, 7-12 shooting, 16 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals, while perhaps covering more space on the floor than anyone.
A good night for the Grizzlies became even better with losses from three playoff contenders in the Clippers, Blazers, and Jazz — the last two losing to likely lottery teams.
With last night's win, this tough three-game road trip is already acceptable for the Grizzlies. If they can steal one of the next two — tonight in Oklahoma City or Sunday morning/afternoon in Boston — it'll be a big success.