Prior to the 2021 season, it was the widespread belief by the “experts” that the Memphis Grizzlies would find themselves on the outside looking in in this year’s playoff chase. Although they were participants in the first iteration of the NBA Playoff play-in just last season, there was an expectation that there would be a step back as Western Conference stars returned, and the Grizzlies started the season without one of their best players in Jaren Jackson Jr. This hasn’t been the case — as Memphis has played some pretty good basketball in a season that has yet to see Jackson’s return, seen Ja Morant sidelined for 2 weeks, and seen players placed in health and safety protocols. Why is that?
On the surface, it speaks to the Memphis Grizzlies’ depth and “next man up” mentality but it’s deeper than that. In his new crime thriller The Little Things, Denzel Washington states to his fellow detective Rami Malek, “It’s the little things that get you caught.” Sports are a game of inches and minor adjustments. These factors can decide whether a team win or lose a ball game. Luckily for the Memphis Grizzlies are one of those teams that are good - if not elite - at a number of these “little things” that push teams to victory. For the Memphis Grizzlies, it’s “the little things” that make them better than the opponent and leading to wins on a nightly basis.
Thus far, the Memphis Grizzlies have been an elite defensive team. The Grizzlies have become a pillar of modern basketball due to moves made over the last 2-3 offseasons. As fellow GBB writer Shawn Coleman established, the Memphis Grizzlies have a “type” that predicates on making plays on the defensive side of the floor. This has translated into the Grizzlies making a living this season by making opposing teams uncomfortable.
One way this has shown itself is in their habit of living in the opposing passing lanes. There are some nights that the Grizzlies pass defense could make NFL secondaries jealous. The Memphis Grizzlies currently lead the NBA in deflections averaging 18.8 per game. The best aspect of this is there’s not a Tony Allen situation where there’s a sole player that stands out that you have to avoid on the perimeter. Dillon Brooks leads the team with 3.0 deflections per game, placing him just outside of the top 10, and Gorgui Dieng is in the top 10 in deflections per 36 minutes. Then pure chaos ensues as Grizzlies - both starters and bench players - are sprinkled throughout the leaderboard.
In the NBA’s perimeter oriented game, it is hard to operate when every pass is at risk of being deflected. Deflections are also catalysts for steals - a stat that the Grizzlies lead the league in as they create turnovers and more possessions/fast break opportunities.
The Grizzlies perimeter defense works hand in hand with their interior defense. Their stingy perimeter defense makes it difficult for opposing teams to score in the paint. The Grizzlies are currently ranked 8th in the NBA in paint points allowed. This speaks to the work of not only the players on the perimeter but of the work done down low by Jonas Valanciunas, Gorgui Dieng, Brandon Clarke, and as of late Xavier Tillman Sr. Players that work in the paint are often described as players going through the trees, but when it comes to the Grizzlies, it’s best described as the trenches.
If teams are lucky enough to make it past the wave of perimeter defenders, their chances of scoring against the Grizzlies haven’t increased by much due to the athleticism and high IQs they have down low. While their impact isn’t necessarily showing up in blocks as the Grizzlies find themselves in the middle of the pack, they are doing the dirty work to give opposing offenses a hard time due to the defensive versatility players like Clarke and Tillman present down low.
Mundane possession in a game that's gonna end up a blowout, won't show up on the stat sheet, but Xavier Tillman showcasing some of his defensive value here.— Orange is the New Openly Black (@NekiasNBA) February 2, 2021
Reading that back-cut and rotating turns a layup into an isolation. pic.twitter.com/4hasfcs2VH
As Basketball News’ Nekias Duncan points out above, the simple rotation by Xavier Tillman completely alters this Spurs set. Plays like this are not isolated incidents, as they have become near commonplace for the Grizzlies, even literally sealing the game against the Philadelphia 76ers.
XAVIER TILLMAN STOCK ON THE RISE pic.twitter.com/r0wqSg223w— Orange is the New Openly Black (@NekiasNBA) January 17, 2021
They have done a great job of rotating down low, forcing ball handlers to pick up their dribbles and to work into double teams, taking away passing lanes, as well as contesting shots as they currently rank 8th in contested two point shot attempts at 35.2%. These are all small things that won’t show up in a traditional box score and often will be forgotten by the end of most games, but it’s these plays where the Memphis Grizzlies have excelled at that have culminated in the Grizzlies having the 2nd ranked defense in the league through the first two months.
Passing is a Passion
As much attention as the Grizzlies’ defense rightfully gets, their attention to detail also translates to their offense. The Grizzlies aren’t a team that relies heavily on isolation basketball. Contrary to common belief, it is Kyle Anderson, not Dillon Brooks, that leads the team in isolation sets, and he barely scratches the top 50 in the NBA.
Instead, their offense reflects upon the roots of their leader Taylor Jenkins and his time in the Gregg Popovich/Mike Budenholzer coaching tree, as it is more reliant on running actual sets. Within these sets, the Grizzlies have done a good job of taking advantage of what the defense presents them. Instead of forcing shots, they have been decisive in finding the open man.
In the 2nd year under this system, Jenkins has seen eight players that saw action last season in some capacity increase their assist numbers and assist/turnover ratios. While some was by necessity due to Ja Morant’s absence, the fact that this increase spreads across the roster is cause for celebration. This production increase has started to show on the NBA leaderboards — as Tyus Jones finds himself in the top 20 with 6.1 assists, and Ja Morant will find himself in the top 10 with 7.7 assists per game once he is eligible to return to the leaderboard.
The Grizzlies currently rank in the top 5 in the previously mentioned categories and find themselves ranked in the top 10 in any advanced stat pertaining to passing. The Grizzlies are passing at a historic rate over the course of their winning streak. and the wins will continue to stack up as they continue to find the open man. This combined with the fact that they don’t turn the ball over often with all of this passing makes for visually appealing, responsible basketball with plenty of open looks.
#BearNecessities: The @memgrizz have recorded 32+ assists in four consecutive road games, tied (with six others) for the second-longest such streak in @NBAHistory (@stathead). pic.twitter.com/3iy3KbxDaM— Grizzlies PR (@GrizzliesPR) February 1, 2021
The Memphis Grizzlies do not have a prolific offense by any means, as they currently rank 22nd in the NBA - two spots lower than their finish last season. That being said, what they do offensively they do it well, as they keep to Grizzlies’ tradition of playing their own unique brand of basketball zigging where everyone else zags. For example, they are currently in the bottom third of the league in 3 point percentage, yet currently the best three point shooters by percentage so far this season: Desmond Bane and Gorgui Dieng.
The Grizzlies brand of basketball is more reliant on Pick-and-rolls, driving to the basket, floaters and lobs than the perimeter oriented game the NBA is trending towards. The Grizzlies defense has helped ease the offensive burden on the nights where they can’t get it going offensively. The reason they can do that is because they do all the little things well to win basketball games. Denzel said “it’s the little things that get you caught.”
For the Grizzlies “it’s the little things that gets you W’s.”
As players leave the health and safety protocols, and players such as Justise Winslow and Jaren Jackson Jr. begin to return from injury. the key is keeping these performances consistent. I wouldn’t worry though as “the little things” are a part of the Memphis Grizzlies state of mind.
Stats found on NBA.com/stats and were before yesterday’s game.