Defense wins championships.
It's a cliche statement told time and time again, enough to where it becomes annoying. If defense wins championships, why haven't the Memphis Grizzlies won multiple championships? They defend. Grit-and-grind right? What they leave out is that, with that defense, your offense needs to act as an effective compliment.
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Against the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Grizzlies will need a healthy dosage of the two, but how can a team pile on points when they struggle so much on that end of the floor?
By attacking one of the few chinks in the armor of the Oklahoma City Thunder: lackadaisical defense.
Only two teams allowed more three-point attempts per game (23.8) than the Thunder (CLE, PHI) Considering opponents shot 35.8% from three against the Thunder, ranked the 14th worst percentage in the league, that's not a bad trade-off. But lately that three-point percentage has taken a jump in the wrong direction.
Since the All-Star break, teams are shooting 39.2% from three against the opponent. Here is a list of players that have gone ballistic against the Thunder from behind the arch in that time span:
- Matt Barnes (LAC): 6-of-10
- James Anderson (PHI): 6-of-12
- Gerald Green (PHX): 8-of-13
- Jodie Meeks (LAL): 6-of-11
- Jose Calderon (DAL): 6-of-9
- Patrick Mills (SAS): 5-of-7
- Gerald Green (PHX): 5-of-7
- C.J. Watson (IND): 4-of-7
- Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (DET): 5-of-7
Each of these players hit some tough shots, but the overall defense was shotty.
The Memphis Grizzlies aren't loaded with three-point shooters. Mike Miller is the only true knock-down shooter on the roster. Jon Leuer, Jamal Franklin, and Beno Udrih, a player who'll be thrown into the rotation with Nick Calathes presumably suspended for the entire postseason, both shoot over 45%, but the sample-size is small, especially for Udrih who is shooting 100% from three with Memphis on 2-for-2 shooting. That leaves Courtney Lee (37%) and Mike Conley (36%) as the only capable shooters on the roster.
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A noticeable trend by the Thunder defenders, mainly the wings, was going under screens of capable shooters and guys who enjoy the pull-up jump shot. Look at Patty Mills and Jose Calderon getting wide open, clean looks due to the wing not wanting to fight over the screen.
According to SportsVU, each of the Grizzlies most capable shooters, Conley, Lee and Miller, shoot well on pull-up shots, ranging from 35.6% (Conley) to 54.5% (Miller). Granted the sample size is small as only Conley averages at least one pull-up three per game, but it shows they are capable if the defense chooses to sag back and make life tougher for Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.
Another area where the Thunder's lackadaisical efforts are shown is in the rotations once a ball-handler penetrates the defense. Kevin Durant overcompensating on Paul George's drive (especially when the two rim defenders are in position) leaves the help defense out of whack as C.J. Watson is left wide open on the wing.
Here is another example of Kevin Durant getting lost once the ball reaches the middle of the floor. It creates a trickle-down effect that ends in a wide-open Jodie Meeks three-pointer.
Another area is the dreaded "helping one pass away". Most notably, Kevin Durant has been seen as a chronic violator of this lately, even when guarding players known for knocking down spot-up threes.
When looking at how the Thunder defended the three, I chose the most recent games for a reason. It's not likely that Scott Brooks changes up the way his team defends the three-point line right before the playoffs.
It's imperative that Memphis' shooters knock-down shots. Not only to free up the inside and create extra lanes for Mike Conley to penetrate, but because the Thunder give up shots there. They've given up shots there for the entire season and as the year wore on, that number increased and the percentage with it.
Hopefully Mike Miller and co. don't go all Shane Battier circa 2011 and miss everything he throws at the rim. Like it cost the team against the Oklahoma City Thunder three years ago, it could well mean an early playoff exit in 2014.
One More Thing:
Here's a nugget that'll be an interesting sub-plot to keep an eye on throughout this series (and playoffs): Going through the tape, one wonders if Kevin Durant is fatigued. With Russell Westbrook out early and often, Durant was forced to increase his output on both sides of the ball to keep the Oklahoma City Thunder afloat in the hectic Western Conference. No Russ meant Durant played every position possible: point-forward, go-to scorer, small-ball power forward, lockdown defender, etc. and over the course of an 82-game season, that load will eventually wear into a player.
The Thunder may not have any championships over the last few seasons, but Durant has played a lot of games and consumed a lot of minutes. Since 2009-10, only Lebron James has played more minutes than Durant, but only by a small margin, besting him 17459 to 17339. We see the lingering affect this has had on the reigning two-time champs in Miami. The same could be happening here.
Looking back into NBA records, the team with the player leading in minutes has never won a championship in the same season.
In the month of April, Durant's shooting splits dropped to 44/25/88 while playing nearly 40 minutes per games. For the average NBA player, that's solid, but for Kevin Durant it's a glaring sign that something is up.
Guarding Tayshaun Prince for the bulk of the series will give him a chance to rest on defense, but the Grizzlies need to use this as an opportunity to keep Durant working. Keep Prince on the move. Force him to guard Mike Miller. Heck, even letting James Johnson get some playing time at the three just so Durant is forced to match his energy could work. Odds are, it'd play in Memphis' favor as they attempt to defeat Oklahoma City.