They say that these are the dog days of the NBA season, the dark times before the All-Star Break where all players are plodding along, hoping to find a way to just get to the extended time away to relax. While some may fear (and others hope) that their situations will change with regard to team they play for, most will enjoy the pause of the grind. They will go on a vacation, or to the All-Star Game itself, and they will catch their breath. They deserve it, and probably need it.
Unless they are the Memphis Grizzlies.
They are probably dreading a pause in the action, because they are currently one of the hottest teams in the NBA. Since January 7th the Memphis Grizzlies are 8-2; there are only four teams who have better records- the Golden State Warriors (9-2), San Antonio Spurs (8-1), Toronto Raptors (9-0!!!), and the Oklahoma City Thunder (10-2). If going by winning percentage, the five-seeded out west Grizzlies would currently be the four-seed in the Eastern Conference. For all the hub-bub about Memphis fading and struggling out of the gate, they are not only right where some expected them to be, they are in a better place seeding wise than most projected them to be at.
A lot of that has to do with Memphis' past ten games. So what has changed?
Jeff Green Stopped Starting
Jeff Green is a popular scapegoat among Grizzlies' fans. This is clear and known. While he surely deserved his benching that came during the Houston Rockets game on January 12th, he was not the only reason that the Grizzlies had been 5-5 in those ten games leading to the return to the pine. He was a big piece of it, however; in the five games leading up to his benching, Jeff shot a miserable 31.3% from the field. He managed 29.4% shooting from three. He also only got to the free throw line more than twice just once; when Jeff Green does not attack the rim and get to the charity stripe, he is going to struggle, and struggle mightily.
Once he started coming off of the bench, though? A revelation, and this improvement in play is not surprising to many, although how hot Jeff has been overall has been somewhat shocking. Over the past seven games Green is shooting 50.5% from the field overall, 36% from three, and he has gotten to the free throw line more than twice in five of the last seven games. Jeff's shot chart during this recent stretch is quite the sight to see-
He is finishing extremely well at the rim, 11.6% better than the rest of the NBA, and more than 40% of his shots are coming at or around the basket. When Jeff Green is this efficient and aggressive getting in the lane, he is going to be a problem for many teams. He is also not being depended upon to play massive amounts of minutes. In the ten games before he was benched, Jeff played 35 or more minutes four times. Since the benching? He has yet to play more than 32. Less Jeff, a better rested Jeff, may well equal better overall Jeff.
Green gets a lot of blame when things are going poorly, and many times rightfully so. But he deserves credit for helping the Grizzlies turn things around. Memphis is 6-1 since Green returned to the bench to anchor the second unit. It isn't everything, but it is something.
They Are Making Threes!!!!
Check out Memphis' three point shooting since January 7th-
The Memphis Grizzlies are shooting 39.3% from the three-point line during this 8-2 run. This is a whopping six percentage points better than their season average. There are four Grizzlies in particular who are shooting the lights out over this stretch (i.e. shooting better than the team's season average)-
Another important part of those percentages? All four of those players have shot over three 3's a game. Tony Allen and JaMychal Green are shooting better percentage wise, but have attempted less than one three per game during the past ten.
This improvement isn't by accident. A lot of these looks are coming because the Grizzlies are actively searching for them. Check out this series of screen shots from a made three from the Milwaukee Bucks game Thursday night-
Old friend of the Grizzlies Jerryd Bayless tries to fight over the screen, while Johnny O'Bryant attempts to hedge, stopping Conley penetration.
It isn't too hard to understand Parker's positioning- Memphis is not known as a three-point power. He is choosing to help contest a Conley floater, or prevent a Marc Gasol touch, over getting back fully on Barnes. Considering how well Matt has been shooting lately, this is a mistake.
The fact that Memphis is seeking these looks off of key sets like the Mike Conley/Marc Gasol pick and roll, or off of screens on the baseline, is extremely encouraging. Barnes and company are not going to consistently hit shots at this pace, but even a moderate improvement will force defenses playing against the Grizzlies to actually move and adjust to what Memphis is trying to do, which has not been the case much this season. It can only create more opportunity and space for the Grizzlies to work with to score the ball in a variety of efficient ways.
Other reasons Memphis has gotten things going as of late? The Grizzlies are in the top-10 in offensive efficiency since January 7th. Players like Tony Allen (+7.9) and Courtney Lee (+7.4) are excelling in net rating, playing well on both ends of the floor. Allen (97.8 defensive rating, best on the team) and Lee (113.4 offensive rating, best on the team) are dominating on one end of the court in particular, conveniently the one that the Grizzlies need them to in order to have long runs of success.
The Grizzlies have also played an obscenely easy schedule. Of their past ten games, only two of their opponents are currently playoff teams (Boston and Houston). As difficult as Memphis' early schedule was, they are currently in a very favorable stretch of games and it will only get perhaps easier. Of their next fifteen opponents, only two of them are in the playoffs in either conference as of the end of games Thursday night (Toronto and Portland), and only one of those teams has a winning percentage better than Memphis (the Toronto Raptors, who Memphis plays in Toronto.)
Memphis doesn't need to apologize for this. The start to their season was hell, and the end of it, starting March 25th with two straight games against the San Antonio Spurs, will be just as tough. For now, the Grizzlies must continue to find what works in their lineups and schemes (and perhaps work the trade phones a time or two) so that when the schedule gets tough again, a tougher Memphis Grizzlies team than the version that started the season will be able to keep going.