On paper, the last four games of the Grizzlies end of their seeding games in Orlando is tougher than the first four. However, there are factors off the court that could help Memphis. Right now, the closest distance between Raptors, Celtics, and Bucks is three games (Bucks are 6.5 games ahead of the Raptors, who are three games ahead of the Celtics.) With less incentive this season than others to push for a better playoff spot, it is likely each of these three teams will value health for the playoffs over a regular season game with little meaning. Obviously, this would be a very positive development for Memphis.
This is simply a logical theory; it is not a guaranteed reality. As a result, Memphis must prepare to face each of these teams at their full strength. With that in mind, here is how Memphis can succeed over the last half of its schedule:
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER
Despite trading Paul George and Russell Westbrook before the season, the Thunder have been one of the NBA’s best surprises. Along with Dennis Schroder and Danilo Gallinari, Chris Paul and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander lead a very efficient and consistent offensive attack. Much like Utah, the Thunder are a slow placed team that find success through chemistry and patience. However, the Thunder do it more through self creativity than passing.
Oklahoma City ranks in top five in the NBA on points created off drives and pull-up shot scenarios, and also rank in the top five in FG% in these specific scoring opportunities. They are among the league leaders in free throws per game, yet are near the bottom of the league in threes made per game. These numbers suggest that the Thunder take advantage of their impressive depth of effective ball-handlers. If Memphis can switch effectively on the pick and roll, challenge shots, and avoid foul trouble, they can limit the Thunder’s attack.
On offense, the Grizzlies will have to be efficient in half-court scenarios. Oklahoma City allows the fewest fast break points per game in the league. However, they are below average in scoring in the paint and allowing points to be scored in the paint. While the Thunder’s offensive strength may be scoring from mid-range, that is also their biggest area of weakness on defense. The Grizzlies need to use good movement off the ball and crisp passing to find open looks in the lane and near the rim. Memphis will have the size advantage, so if they can get good looks for their bigs, they could have a decent chance at winning.
The big key for Memphis is to create an advantage through their front court on both offense and defense, as they will be facing a deeper and more talented back court. If the Grizzlies can rebound, challenge shots, and stay disciplined, they can earn a much needed victory to start the home stretch.
The match-up against Toronto will be quite interesting for two reasons. For one, it will begin a series of three straight games in which the Grizzlies face three of the top four defensive teams in the league. Secondly, it will be the first official game that Jonas Valanciunas has played against his former team, and the first time the Grizzlies have played Marc Gasol since they were traded for each other nearly 18 months ago.
Defensively, the Grizzlies philosophy should be quite simple in theory; force the Raptors to shoot two-pointers, especially from mid-range. The Raptors average 88 shots per game; 70 of those are within five feet of the basket or from three, averaging 34 and 36 shots per game from each distance, respectively. While it is of a bit of a pick your poison situation for Memphis, the Grizzlies could find success making life tough on the perimeter and thus forcing Toronto to find looks at the rim. The Grizzlies can match Toronto in terms of size, and compared to the rest of the NBA Toronto is below average near the rim and far above average beyond the arc in terms of accuracy.
Offensively, the Grizzlies must play one of their most efficient and complete offensive games in Orlando. They must take care of the basketball; while Toronto is 13th in turnovers forced per game, they are second in points off turnovers and fast-break points in the league. They arguably are the best team in the league at capitalizing off mistakes. Furthermore, they allow the second fewest points in the paint to opponents’ per game, where the Grizzlies produce more points than any other team in the NBA. If life were not tough enough, they also are first in the NBA in defending the three. Memphis may find its best chances around the rim, as Toronto is in the bottom third of the league in offensive rebounds allowed, blocks, and fouls committed.
Overall, the Raptors are simply a very tough opponent for anyone. Even if their best players sit or play limited minutes, their depth, size, and well-coached schemes will be a tough match-up for Memphis. Though the Grizzlies certainly could pull off an upset, it will take them playing close to or at their ceiling to get the job done.
The Grizzlies schedule only gets tougher once they get past the Raptors. The Celtics are just as good as the Raptors defensively, and may be the most talented opponent the Grizzlies face in these eight games in terms of perimeter skill. Memphis again will need to make as few mistakes as possible.
On defense, the Grizzlies will have their hands full with Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Kemba Walker. It is not just the immense talent of each player in this trio, but the fact that each of them can create their own shot. The Celtics are second in points, sixth in FG%, and first in eFG% on pull-up jumpers in the NBA. While they are not particularly elite at shooting from any level, the fact that they have plenty of above average to elite scoring options makes them a nightmare for opponents. Similar to their strategy against the Raptors, the Grizzlies could force looks inside while guarding the perimeter tightly. While Boston is above average in attempts at the rim, they are among the worst teams in the league at converting shots close to the basket.
Offensively, the Grizzlies again will have their work cut out for them. The Celtics rank in the top ten of the league in both opponent’s 2PFG% and 3PFG%. They also allow the third fewest points in the paint per game in the NBA. However, the paint may still be advantageous for Memphis. The worst area of the Celtics defense is within 5-14 ft. of the basket, the exact area where Memphis can unleash their assortment of short pull-ups and floaters. If Memphis can find success in that area early, it could open up better looks from three as the game progresses.
Overall, this is simply another unfavorable match-up for Memphis. They are going to have to feature their front court, as Jaren Jackson Jr., Brandon Clarke, Gorgui Dieng, and Valanciunas will need to counteract the Celtics’ perimeter talent by dominating the post and the paint. If Memphis can have any success limiting the Celtics looks and take care of the basketball, they can earn the win.
For their final game during the eight-game end to the regular season, the Grizzlies reward is arguably the best team in the NBA, the Milwaukee Bucks. While the Grizzlies will obviously have their work cut out for them, a bit of a fun add-on to this game will be Taylor Jenkins facing off against his former boss and mentor, Mike Budenholzer.
Defensively, the Grizzlies will facing the highest scoring team in the NBA, a byproduct of being the top team in pace in the league. The idea of how to make Milwaukee’s offense less effective is quite simple; keep them away from the rim and make them shoot jumpers. However, even at that point, they are tough to beat as they still have Giannis Antetokounmpo who basically can get to the rim at will. Despite not showing elite accuracy beyond the arc, they still are among the best in the league in threes per game because they shoot so many. Obviously, there is plenty of quality with Milwaukee; however, its the amount of opportunities that they create per game that makes them so deadly. If Memphis has any chance to get the upset, they must crowd the paint and rim and force Milwaukee to take jumpers.
While the Grizzles best chance for success on defense is making Milwaukee shoot jump shots, success from distance will also be Memphis’ best offensive strategy. The Bucks’ length, discipline, and athleticism makes life miserable for teams inside the arc, especially as you get closer to the rim. However, they also allow the most threes of any team in the NBA, and are 18th in opponent three point percentage. Given their record their struggles defending the three are not too worrisome. However, if Memphis can find success from three, their passing ability could find some looks in the paint if they extend the Bucks’ defense out. The Grizzlies can then perhaps establish a balanced attack to find success.
There is a very good chance that, by this time, the Bucks will be sitting their best players. Whether they play or not, this will definitely be a true test for the Grizzlies. If they can make the game a literal shoot-out, the Grizzlies can use their passing ability to make it a good game. They will need to be at the top of their game through out to have a chance at earning a victory.
As can be seen, the second half of the Grizzlies schedule is much tougher on paper than the first. Even if the best talents are limited or sit out, Memphis will still likely be the lesser talented team in each game. There could be plenty of benefit in that scenario. Facing three of the top four defensive teams in the NBA to close out their schedule, Memphis will be tried and tested by the time the play-in game or playoffs come around. The last stretch of their schedule could be a blessing in disguise that could help Memphis find some surprising success once the post season begins.
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