The teams that boast supremely talented, cohesive rosters most often decide the outcome of Playoff Basketball in the National Basketball Association. In an ideal setting, injuries, health and luck wouldn’t have any bearing on which teams represent their respective conferences in the NBA Finals. Alas, with the injury and extended absence of an elite Point Guard, Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City fell apart in the face of tenacious defense and savvy offensive execution presented by the Memphis Grizzlies, and were eliminated prematurely.
Kevin Durant put forth an admirable, and quite frankly inspiring, performance; operating as a point forward, KD was able to effectively lead his team in scoring, assist percentage,(Ast%), rebounding percentage, (TReb%), as well as taking on the massive Memphis frontline in an effort to stem the bleeding, which gushed so heavily from the potent Memphis low post assault. Though impressive in his efforts and unwavering attitude, Durant and his undermanned Thunder just couldn’t put together the type of clean, two-way execution that is pivotal in defeating the Grizzlies’ second rated defense, (Memphis posted a 97.4 Defensive Rating for the 2012-13 Regular Season).
Make no mistake, though, when viewing this Memphis Grizzlies squad as just a fortunate team, who caught the right breaks against a beleaguered OKC team. This is an undeniably talented, stout defensive ball club, who boasts an elite frontcourt pairing of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, as well as a pair defensive stalwarts in the form of guards Tony Allen and Mike Conley Jr. This core, which was originally assembled by former President of Basketball Operations, Chris Wallace, was held together by incumbent General Managers, John Hollinger and Jason Levien, in an effort to contend one last time; before harsh salary cap restrictions of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement may force this team to be unceremoniously disbanded. Much to the delight of Memphians, as well as connoisseurs of physical, low-post Basketball, this Grizzlies team has made the most of its present, and find themselves in the Western Conference Finals; pitted against perennial contenders in the form of the San Antonio Spurs. This all comes after upsetting both the Los Angeles Clippers and the aforementioned Oklahoma City Thunder; both of whom were seeded higher and heavily favored opponents. This is a challenging situation that this particular Memphis team is more than happy to take head on.
The Grizzlies’ signature style is one that is reflective of its hometown of Memphis, Tennessee: gritty, resourceful and tough as nails. Lead by 2012-13 Defensive Player of the Year, Marc Gasol, the 2012-13 Grizzlies rated second in Defensive Rating, allowing only 97.4 point per 100 possessions, (via Stats.NBA.com). Further, Memphis allows only 43% Field Goal shooting, 33.7% three point field goals, forces 13.7% Turnover Rate, and is fifth in the league at defending isolation scorers; yielding a minimal 0.78 points per possession (PPP), per Synergy Sports LLC.
What makes this Defense so effective is the savvy, angular-oriented Pick and Roll coverage keyed by Marc Gasol, who is able to recognize opponent’s set plays with relative ease, call out his unit’s particular pick and roll coverage, and then position himself accordingly so that the lane and painted area is minimally inviting. Because of Gasol’s high acumen and the tremendous size of Marc and his counterpart, Zach Randolph, Memphis’ frontcourt effectively shrinks the court’s offensive spacing to an outstanding degree. This means that there is minimal room for ball handlers to work through and probe the paint, which is a traditional method of creating easy looks for yourself and teammates. Thus, the angles and passing lanes are tighter and more difficult to navigate than the norm, making for a sub-optimal condition in which an offense often struggles to function at peak efficiency.
Marc, via great footwork, recovery and use of wingspan, is putting his guards and wing teammates in great positions to strip pick and roll ball handlers, as well as jump passing lanes in such a way that creates an organized brand of chaos. Per Synergy Sports, Memphis yields only 0.81 Points Per Possession for pick and roll ball handlers, which accounts for 13.6% of all defensive possessions. Although this 0.81 PPP mark only ranks 18th in the league, there are other positives that come about from how Marc shadows and angles the opponent’s guards and ball handlers to the worst parts of the floor. Because the floor has been effectively shrunk by the large forwards’ shadowing and quick set recognition, it is far harder to move the ball to find a spot up shooter for the best shots in the game: Corner Three Pointers. Again, per Synergy Sports, Memphis ranks fourth in spot-up shot defense, as they only yield 0.93 PPP, which equates to a 41.5 % bit of shooting, and only a 30.9% percent mark from three, which is abysmal efficiency for an NBA offense. Beyond causing this poor shooting, Tony Allen and Mike Conley, both of whom were named as 2012-13 All-NBA Defensive Teamers, are able to cause a 17.1% turnover rate in this facet of the team defense, (Per 82games.com). When you combine all of these staggeringly efficient defensive numbers, along with a decent transition defense, your best hope as an offensive playmaker is to drive headlong at a seven-foot behemoth in Gasol, who more often than not utilizes principles of verticality so as to avoid a cheap foul. Not an ideal circumstance, and it makes sense now why elite players are scoring at inefficient clips against this Grizzlies team.
The Grizzlies’ next opponent, the San Antonio Spurs, will provide Memphis with its greatest challenge yet on its path to prove their championship-worth. This is a familiar opponent for Memphis, as the Grizzlies defeated a different, injury-riddled version of the Spurs in 2011. This is a vastly improved, more efficient Spurs team, helmed by legendary Head Coach, Gregg Popovich, and three Hall of Fame mainstays: Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker.
Parker, who boasts a Playoff Player Efficiency Rating (PER) of 23.2, True Shooting Percentages (TS%) of 52.3, 10.9 win shares, and a staggering Assist Percentage of 31.1%, is now the team’s leader, whereas Duncan was once the offensive focal point. Parker is utilized in multiple, fluid series of angled pick and roll sets, in which Tim Duncan poses multiple threats as a screen setter, decoy, and quick hitting passer; who can choose to post his man on a forced switch, shoot from the elbow or pass to a corner shooter, (often Kawhi Leonard or Danny Green). This elite, efficient offensive system will pose many problems for Memphis, who at times struggles to score. There are, however, ways to counter this in Memphis’ own peculiar way that may result in victory.
Duncan, the seemingly ageless wonder is at it again this postseason, posting a 20.5 PER, 14.8 TRB%, OffReb of 10%, 23.1 DReb%. These are great numbers for a 37 year old in scaled down minutes, and absolutely nothing to scoff at. However, his TS% of .513, which is less than Duncan’s prime efficiency by a sizeable gap, is a bit worrisome. At 37, Duncan plays 34 minutes a night at the very most, which is worrisome against such a massive front line. There were times during the Golden State series where Andrew Bogut’s physicality and large frame hindered Duncan’s effectiveness in later game situations. Marc Gasol is like Bogut 2.0, with more strength, IQ and length. Zach Randolph, the league’s resident bully on the low block, is back to pounding the glass on both ends, rebounds 15% of all available boards on the court. With a team who relies on wings such as Kawhi Leonard, (TRB% of 12.4), one must wonder if the Spurs can hang with the physicality of the high-low Post-Tandem of Randolph/Gasol, who clowned Serge Ibaka, Ken Perkins, Nick Collison and Blake Griffin before them.
One last note, as it pertains to Memphis’ defense, relates to them grinding their opponent down, and not metaphorically. Per 82games.com, Memphis’ defense becomes infinitely harder to score on, in terms of percentages, as the clock wears on.
0-10 seconds: 37% attempts/ .513 eFG
10-15 seconds: 25% attempts/ .482 eFG
15-20 seconds: 23% attempts/ .463 eFG
21+ seconds: 16% attempts/ .392 eFG
(Info courtesy lineup data from 82games.com)
So it could be said that, the more disciplined Conley, Allen and Gasol are in their ability to deter the angled pick and rolls from reaching the rim, or soft spots of the defense, the better chance Memphis has to stunt San Antonio’s efficiency. This could swing the series in the favor of Memphis, who are the younger, healthier, and larger team, with a far more tenacious brand of defense. My prohibitive pick is Memphis in six games, but because I respect Gregg Popovich as an all-time great, I expect this series to go seven games. And Memphis will be the victor.