Offense wins games, but defense wins championships.
If you are a fan of sports, especially football, you have likely heard this phrase before. While it has not yet resulted in a championship for the Memphis Grizzlies, it has most certainly been this team's calling card. Led by the intense Tony Allen, timely Mike Conley and Defensive Player of the Year for 2012-2013 Marc Gasol, the Grizzlies defense has been stout for years now. 2nd in defensive efficiency last season at 97.4 points allowed per 100 possessions, 98.9 in 2011-2012 and 102.5 per game in 2010-2011. 3 playoff seasons, 3 top 10 defenses. This is not a coincidence; this is a result of excellent players running excellent scheme at a high level.
Even with the injury bug biting the hell out of Memphis this year, the defense has still be a steady presence, especially once Marc Gasol returned from injury. For the season, Memphis' defensive efficiency is at 102.1, good for the top 10 in the Association and is also a big reason why the Grizzlies are in the playoff picture after falling as far as 10-15 earlier in the year.
The last several games, however, have not been the finest defensive performances. The Grizzlies' defensive efficiency for the past 6 contests is 108.9, 6.8 points worse than the season average. Their opponents also shot better from several areas during this stretch than they had on average throughout the season, as these shot charts will show. The chart on the left is of opponent's shooting % the past 6 games, during which Memphis went 2-4. On the right is the chart for their opponents' shooting overall.
Opposing teams are 7% better in the lane, about 11% better from 3 on the right side of the court. They are also shooting over 25% better from the left elbow area during this stretch. Granted, Kawhi Leonard and the Spurs shot out of this world against the Grizzlies (12/13, 92%!!) The issues go deeper though; this Memphis defense has lost sight of their defensive basics.
The defense was the major reason for the recent 2-4 stretch for the Grizzlies at the worst imaginable time. How to get back on track for the final, and most important, 5 games of the year?
Protect the Ball and Play Better in Transition
One major area where the Grizzlies have been exposed recently is in transition defense. It is a big reason why Memphis' opponents are scoring the ball in the lane at a higher rate the 5 games before the Spurs; there is either 1 or no defenders back to stop easy lay-in opportunities, or teams getting into their offensive sets before the defense is ready.
When it comes to the Grizzlies' bigs, the issues lie in not getting back fast enough to set the defense. With the Memphis back court, the issues come from struggles preventing leak-out opportunities. One major way for teams to get these easy buckets is off of turnovers. Take this set of screen shots against the Timberwolves.
Ricky Rubio tips a Courtney Lee pass intended for Zach Randolph, and Kevin Love is about to picks it up.
Love secures the ball, and Corey Brewer breaks out for the transition opportunity. Tayshaun Prince realizes this about 2 steps too late, and as Prince starts to tray and get back Brewer already is out in front.
Kevin Love throws a beauty of an outlet pass a la Wes Unseld and Brewer has a clear lane to the rim. Tayshaun is trying to play catch up and take a good angle to the rim, like a defensive back in football does to a tackle in the open field.
Of course, Tayshaun is not as fleet of foot as he used to be and is not able to send Brewer packing with a chase-down block as he did in the past. Notice how he is the only Grizzly in a position to come close to defending the break away; Courtney Lee, the player responsible for the turnover that led to the run-out, is about 20 feet away.
The T'Wolves game was a rough night for Courtney Lee at times in general. Offensive rebounding is better left to the front court most often, especially when Minnesota has been killing the Grizzlies all night in transition. It is up to the guards to get back and stop the Timberwolves back court from leaking out so freely. This does not happen in this series of shots from that game.
Off of a Kevin 'Wes Unseld" Love outlet pass post-rebound, Kevin Martin is out on the break. Lee does not get back to keep himself between Martin and the basket.
Martin has too many steps on Lee, and it results in a lay-up that should never have been that easy. Guards have to prevent that from happening on a consistent basis; Memphis's defense is only its dominant self when it has a chance to get set. In order to get set, the ball has to be stopped by a wing defender so that more time is made for the defense to get back. This is basic fundamental team basketball that the Grizzlies have to get better at, and quick.
Recognition and Rotation
As professional basketball players, scheme and film are key going in to every game. What teams like to run and seeing these sets as they happen help defenses better prepare themselves to react quickly to developing offensive opportunities. There appears to be miscommunication and misreads at times for Memphis in recent games, and this affects rotations, which hurts defensive efficiency. Here is an example from the recent Nuggets game in Denver.
A guard pick and roll to start the set. Nick Calathes is already in a tough spot, being a step behind Aaron Brooks. Randy Foye sets the pick, and Tony Allen prepares to hedge over and assist Nick by preventing penetration.
Unfortunately, Tony Allen's feet stop and Nick Calathes winds up getting picked by his own man. No one is guarding Foye, and Brooks has an open lane to the rim.
Brooks opts for the tough floater over Kosta Koufos, but the mistake between two players affects all five. Open shooters, plus a possible dish to Timofey Mozgov. Lack of communication and execution of scheme leads to a defensive breakdown.
This next set is from the Grizzlies' most recent and embarrassing loss to the Spurs. San Antonio is a machine, sure, but their sets just cause all sorts of self-inflicted havoc for Memphis.
A basic pick and roll set with Patty Mills and Boris Diaw. Kosta Koufos and Nick Calathes must play well together defensively, with Koufos hedging up to cut off Mills' lane to the basket.
Kosta does not hedge up and instead sags off, allowing for Calathes to lose a step and a free lane for Mills. Diaw also has the range to shoot that jumper, yet Koufos sags back at an angle that still enables Mills too much space to work with.
Koufos commits a cardinal sin of offensive penetration, he does not help! Mills has a clear land thanks to the Diaw screen and Kosta is not in position to make the Mills' shot any more difficult. The lay-up is an easier shot than the jumper, and it's an easy 2 for the Spurs at a point where Memphis was attempting a last ditch effort at a run.
Another good example of a lack of awareness from earlier in the Spurs game:
4 Spurs back on offense, 3 Grizzlies back on defense. Poor movement in transition rearing it's ugly head. The Spurs, to their credit, are smart enough to see this, and while Manu has an open look, he sees 2 passes ahead to an even better opportunity.
Marco Belinelli, with another wide open look for 3. Mike Miller is clearly confused as to what the issue is with positioning and getting back. Yet again, a pump fake and the Spurs look for an even better shot.
Belinelli drives to the basket and freezes the defense. Look at James Johnson's position on his man Patty Mills; he is a good 20 feet away from a 42% three point shooter. This is either laziness or a complete lack of awareness.
Dr. JJ is an athlete, and replaces a bit. By the release of the ball, however, he was simply too far away and Mills gets a wide open look at a 3.A complete lack of recognition and proper rotation creates easy opportunities that professional basketball players, especially elite ones like the Spurs, are going to take advantage of.
Footwork, Footwork, Footwork
A key fundamental of good defense, whether it is in the post or on the perimeter, is footwork. Blocks and steals get the glory, but 9 times out of 10 well played defense has to do with moving your feet, keeping yourself between your opponent and the basket while making his shot as difficult as possible.
Somewhere along the way, the Grizzlies have lost their ability to move their feet? Is it fatigue? A lack of attention to detail? Whatever it is, it is an issue. Here is an example from the Spurs game of when gambling goes wrong.
Mike Conley's feet die as he attempts to reach out and steal the ball from Tim Duncan. Conley is likely just doing his best to try to give the Grizzlies a spark, but when your feet die as a defensive player, you are dead in the water.
Here is the end result of the gamble; Danny Green's feet are on the move, whereas Conley has to redirect his weight to get back toward his man.
All Green needs is one step, and despite the fact there is some decent help from Tony Allen from the drive Danny Green hits the floater to the delight of Spurs fans and the flash bulbs of cameras.
It isn't just on the perimeter that dead feet means dead meat. Aside from the occasional Ed Davis sighting, foot work in the post defensively is just as bad. Here is an example from a happier time, the win against the Nuggets.
Zach Randolph has decent position against Timofey Mozgof, aside from the fact that he is a bit too deep in the lane. Watch Zach's feet during this set of screen shots.
Mozgov takes the first step of his post move progression, Nick Calathes collapses hard to help on Timofey but Brooks is wide open in the corner, so not the best idea. Z-Bo's feet are still stationary.
2nd step of the post move, and Zach's feet are still yet to move. Calathes is in a better position to defend Mozgov than Zach is. Brooks is still wide open, but Timofey is committed at this point. it results in an easy made basket at the rim. Randolph was stationary the entire time.
All of the X's and O's in the world cannot save this Grizzlies team if they refuse to get back to playing sound, fundamental basketball. Getting back in transition, protecting the ball, recognizing where you are on the court and what sets are being run, moving your feet. There are all basic defensive skills that have gone missing during this 6 game stretch. If Memphis hopes to get in to the playoffs for a
small shot at a title run, they will have to find a way to fix these issues.
How do you fix it? You communicate on the court. You put forth the extra effort to help the helper, to know where players are at all times on the court and put yourself in a position to not gamble on creating a turnover but to force a poor shot and gather a rebound. All basic, sound defensive basketball philosophies, whether it be high school, college or the pros. Memphis has lost sight of that.
Scoring more points is not the answer. The Grit and Grind defense has to return. It starts with the fundamentals.