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Credit Where it is Due: The Grizzlies' Best are Rising to the Top

No Friday Three this week; call it a "Friday Feature!" Memphis has been giving Jeff Green a lot of love lately, and rightfully so, but it is the men who are supposed to lead the Grizzlies who are finally doing the job.

That's more like it, Conley and Gasol.
That's more like it, Conley and Gasol.
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

These Memphis Grizzlies are starting to look a little more familiar.

They are a team performing confidently, fitting in well together, executing in a variety of ways on their way to winning eight of their last ten and 11 of their last 15 games. This is a sight for sore eyes for a fan base that has suffered through some pretty rough games as of late. Make no mistake, the recent run of success for these Memphis Grizzlies has spoiled Memphis a bit; the history of the franchise certainly has had its share of much darker, sadder times. However, once success becomes an expectation and not a surprise, the disappointment that arrives when that level isn't obtained is palpable.

It is good to see the Grizzlies that we have come to know and love back, at least for now.

There are a lot of reasons for the recent resurgence. The Grizzlies' schedule has lightened considerably the past 15 games- only four of those contests came against teams currently in the playoffs. They also have seen a lightening of the load with regard to back-to-back games; this weekend's Friday/Saturday pairing is the first such two games in two nights run for Memphis since December 26th and 27th, and their game tonight against the Knicks comes after a nice three-day break from NBA competition. The team has had a chance at rest and reboot, and between that and the fact the quality of competition has gone down, it makes sense that the team is doing better.

Jeff Green has also been given a ton of credit for his current torrid scoring streak off of the bench. The past four games in particular he has been spectacular-

Points Per Game 26
Shooting Percentage 62.9
Three Point Shooting % 52.4
Usage % 27.8
True Shooting % 74.8
Offensive Rating 114.5
Defensive Rating 100.1
Net Rating 14.4

His shooting chart from this stretch has also been remarkable-

Jeff Green Last 4 Games

A historic run of success, both for Jeff and for the Grizzlies for a player off the bench. Green has been given a ton of grief this season; for good reason in some cases, in others in unwarranted ways. He has carried the weight of the underachieving team to some, and that has been unfair. Now that he is playing much better in a current streak of success, many are rushing to give him praise and say that he is a major spark of why the Grizzlies are surging.

Jeff has been a piece of the turnaround, but just as it wasn't his fault when the team was struggling, it isn't because of him that the team is turning things around.

Jeff's net rating over the last four games (small sample size, of course) is high, but believe it or not it is the sixth highest net rating on the team during that stretch.

Mike Conley 24.3
Marc Gasol 18.7
Zach Randolph 17.4
Courtney Lee 16.6
Tony Allen 16.0
Jeff Green 14.4

Jeff during this short stint, even with all his scoring and efficiency, is not the key. And in Memphis, he has never been the key. It has been about they guys who should have started from the start, and in particular the "Core Four" of Tony Allen, Zach Randolph, Mike Conley, and Marc Gasol. To be even more particular, it is about Conley and Gasol at this point for Memphis, who are supposed to be carrying this team as the cornerstones of the future.

How have they done it? Going back to the starting lineup that has shown the capacity over the long run to have success- Mike Conley/Courtney Lee/Tony Allen/Zach Randolph/Marc Gasol- has certainly helped, for all the reasons many felt it did in the past. That lineup has everything- Scoring, defense, post dominance, Conley and Gasol in the pick and roll. Over the last month, that lineup has the highest net rating on the team that has played at least 35 minutes together (16.3) and it isn't really close. What it doesn't have- traditional size on the wing- is a major part of why Dave Joerger wanted Jeff Green in the first place, but Jeff has not clicked in multiple attempts in that role.

When Memphis struggled, it wasn't on Jeff Green. Now that they are playing well? It isn't on him either.

Meanwhile, as a bench leader, Green has thrived. He has more room to work with and less pressure to start fast from the jump of the game coming off of the pine. He fits better off of Gasol and Randolph in this role as well it seems; Green has made an effort to play on different sides from Z-Bo, allowing for him to get his work without disrupting at or around the rim, where Jeff likes to drive. Once one of those two goes to the bench, and Jeff plays in that "small-ball" four roll, Jeff can dominate mismatches and be hidden a bit better defensively. It isn't perfect but it puts him in a position to have a better shot at success.

Again, though, while Green has been improved he is not why the Grizzlies are currently thriving. Those two names at the top of the chart are not by accident- when the team struggles, Conley and Gasol should take the brunt of the blame. They are the leaders of the team, as they are the two best basketball players on the roster. They can, and should, take it on themselves to be better (as I called for in last week's Friday Three.)

They have done that recently, and then some. Marc Gasol and Mike Conley have risen to the occasion well, putting the team on their backs in spots and showing some fancy moves in the process-

Their numbers these past four contests are more along the lines of what we would expect from these two as well-

Marc Gasol Mike Conley
Offensive Rating 116 116.5
Defensive Rating 97.3 92.2
True Shooting % 53.1 50.6
Assist/Turnover Ratio 3.0 7.0
Usage 24.1 17.8
Assists Per Game 3.9 8.8
Free Throw % 83.1 82.4

What jumps out in particular? two things that have been the backbone of what makes these two, and the Grizzlies, so good to begin with.

  • Defense. The calling card of the Memphis Grizzlies that seems to have gotten lost this season for long stretches. Conley and Gasol are key pieces of this process; the defensive success likely ties in to their offensive improvements. Rotations are cleaner, transition defense has been better, communication has been clearer, and this is all intertwined with the rest of the team, especially the starters. They feed off of each other, and the defensive prowess often leads to better offensive sets with this group of Grizzlies.
  • Passing. Mike Conley has been especially efficient creating for his teammates, but both he and Gasol are finding their fellow Grizzlies and getting them the rock in positions to convert. This is what the best in the NBA, and on this Memphis roster in particular, should be able to do- not only make themselves better, but bring their teammates up with them. When the offense is clicking it is because Mike and Marc are working both for themselves and for others.
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Dave Joerger made tough decisions. Jeff Green has responded to a tough situation. Tony Allen has done some good things, as have Courtney Lee, and Zach Randolph continues to defy logic and age while looking more spry on the defensive end, especially.

The bottom line for Memphis and their Grizzlies is this- Marc Gasol and Mike Conley must continue to perform at or near this pace to keep up their current level of success against lesser competition. Once the schedule toughens up again, they must rise to their opponent's levels if the Grizzlies hope to have any chance of getting out of the first round of the playoffs. When Memphis is down, the brunt of the pressure lies on these top two Grizzlies.

When the Grizzlies are up, however? Credit must be given as the cream finally starts to rise to the top in Memphis this season.