Note: I've been out taking care of a new baby and in the meantime, I've asked some of my Griz blogging friends to fill in with stuff that's different from what you might normally find on Beyond the Arc. Today's guest post is by Joe Mullinax of Grizzly Bear Blues. A big thanks to Joe, Kevin Yeung, and Matt Hrdlicka (and also a big thanks to Flyer editor Bruce VanWyngarden) for their help this week and last.
After a season of despair and determination the Memphis Grizzlies recovered from a 10-15 start to go 40-17 the rest of the way en route to their 2nd straight 50 win season, a first in the history of the franchise. After all of that, it is hard to fathom that their reward for such a feat is the 7 seed in the playoffs and a date with the Oklahoma City Thunder. It speaks to the depth and talent that the Western Conference harbors from the top to the bottom of the playoff standings.
All is not lost for the Beale Street faithful, of course. History shows us the Grizzlies are certainly capable of competing with the Thunder (cue memories of triple overtime games and Tony Allen free throws) and great players are more likely to fall than great systems a la the Spurs. However, this OKC team is different than those of the past. The obvious difference from last year’s series, where the Grizzlies beat the Thunder in five games, to this year is a healthy Russell Westbrook. When at full strength, a legitimate argument can be made for him being one of the top fifteen players in the entire NBA.
Other differences in the Thunder roster are vital to this playoff run for them. Gone is Kevin Martin, noted Grizz killer, but Steven Adams and Caron Butler are key pieces of a roster that is deeper on the bench than OKC was last season. Kevin Durant is playing at an even higher MVP level, winning his fourth scoring title while breaking Michael Jordan’s 40 game streak of scoring 25 or more points in a game. Anytime you are breaking a record held by His Ariness, you’re playing in another stratosphere. This Thunder team is deeper, more sound defensively and a deserving 2 seed in the loaded West.
Every season has ebbs and flows, and the sample size of 82 games can help identify what areas of the game Memphis can take advantage of, and which they can be taken advantage of in. What must Memphis continue to do well, and what must they improve, in order to defeat the improved Oklahoma City Thunder?
The pick-and-roll isn’t just a Dallas Mavericks thing, although they did pick apart the Grizzlies’ defense utilizing the Dirk Nowtizki/Monta Ellis version. It isn’t just a San Antonio Spurs thing, despite the fact they are arguably the best at it. It also isn’t just for the Thunder, who can run perhaps the most terrifying version of it with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
It’s just as much for the two most versatile offensive players the Grizzlies can throw at opposing defenses, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley. Zach Randolph is a scoring machine, but his game is better served in the post and mid-range areas. The Gasol/Conley pick-and-roll offers a world of opportunity all over the court. Take this series of clips from the Mavericks game this past Wednesday.
Marc passes to Mike and prepares for the pick. Conley and Miller’s low screen creates a mismatch with Conley being guarded by Shawn Marion on a switch, and in addition Marion is out of position. He is about to run into a big Spanish wall.
In other pick and roll exchanges, players will fight over the top and hedge on Conley, leaving Gasol open for a drive to the lane. Once again, this will allow for options. If the other big helps off of Zach Randolph, Gasol has the passing skill to put the ball in a tight space for a Z-Bo lay-in. If he stays back, Gasol has an open look at the rim.
Against a team with the length and athleticism of the Oklahoma City Thunder, forcing them to pick their poison will be quite important. The book on the Grizzlies is to collapse the paint and force them to beat you outside the lane; the best way to try to take advantage of this is having choices and making smart plays. Sometimes those right plays will be a Tayshaun Prince jumper, and while that often results in a “clank” other times, like against the Mavericks, it can be a makeable shot that forces defenses to honor the range of the Grizzlies just a little bit more.
The smart play will continue to be the right play for the Memphis Grizzlies, and one of the smartest is the Gasol/Conley pick-and-roll. Keep it rolling, and watch the options and efficiency continue to increase.
Even with the options, and even with the skill sets of the “Three Grizzly Kings” being on full display at various times during this end of season five game winning streak, disturbing trends have surfaced involving waste that Memphis cannot afford. Against a team as efficient and explosive as the Thunder, the more you lose chances to score the basketball, the more likely you are to be outgunned.
The Grizzlies won the last five games in spite of their inability to convert free throws and protect the basketball. On the season, Memphis shoots 74% from the free throw line and turns the ball over about 14 times a game. Over this winning streak? 70% and almost 17 turnovers a game. The missed free throws are coming from unlikely sources, like Mike Conley (last second heroics excluded) and Marc Gasol, who shot 6-11 combined from the charity stripe against the Mavericks. The turnovers are occurring on simple entry passes at times, with players tipping the pass both from in front of and behind the post player. Careless passing is creating opportunities for the other team they shouldn’t have so easily.
Say the Grizzlies convert on half those possessions, feasible considering they shot 51% over that five game win streak, that are lost and that additional missed free throw? That is five or possibly six points that can make all the difference in closely contested playoff games. Oklahoma City can be slowed down, but not stopped completely. Memphis must get back to their season averages or better and be more efficient with their opportunities.
One of the reasons the Grizzlies struggled so mightily while Marc Gasol was injured is because he is so valuable as a screener, not just for size and strength but for timing and basketball intelligence. Gasol understands the angles and tactical positioning that getting his teammates open requires, and it isn’t just on the perimeter. His “brother from another mother”, Zach Randolph, has had struggles at times with the Oklahoma City bigs. Serge Ibaka’s length and athleticism and Nick Collison and Steven Adams’ ability to body up with Zach in the lane have all forced Zach to shoot far too often inefficiently and away from the rim against OKC.
Here is Zach’s shot chart from the four games against the Thunder this season from NBA.com/stats.
Almost 16% below his season average in the paint. It is safe to say that this will not get the job done against the Thunder. A big part of the reason Zach struggled this season with OKC? Marc missed one of the games due to injury, and returned from said injury in the second game and was limited. Zach needs Marc more than Marc needs Zach at this point.
So, how do you negate some of the Oklahoma City post defense effectiveness? You create lack of positioning for them and space for Zach to work with. Marc runs the high-low often with Zach, but in order to get Adams, Collison and Ibaka to move off the back of Randolph he is going to have to set more low post off-ball screens for Zach. Marc can always roll and rise to the free throw line area after the screen, but making the OKC bigs switch and lose their footing can be a benefit for Zach. The more space to work with, the better options Randolph has, whether it be creating more space with his jab step, driving to his right off the jab fake or moves with his back to the basket.
While stationary, Z-Bo’s options are more limited. With bodies like Marc, and even a Tayshaun Prince, setting screens for Zach to go from side to side of the post it forces the Thunder front court to reposition and lose traction on the block. Space and a little extra time for Zach to decide on a move will make him more aggressive attacking the rim, and more effective.
The Grizzlies’ defense is, and always has been during the “Grit and Grind” era, their calling card. They will need defensive intensity and sound rotations to be sure. However, in order to beat this Thunder team, Memphis must utilize their versatility offensively and not waste opportunities to score if they hope to advance to the next round of the Western Conference Playoffs.