A famous saying in sports and life in general is “It is not how you start but how you finish.” This philosophy can be sensibly applied as good advice in many aspects of our existence. However, a bit more detailed version of this saying could be “Regardless of how you start or finish, the key is making effective adjustments along the way.” This seems to be a bit more of a specific description of how one can make the ending of their journey even better than what they expected when they started.
In basketball, this variation of the original timeless adage mentioned above especially rings true. Many across the basketball world describe the sport itself as a “game of runs”, with both coaches and players constantly adjusting to what the opposition is throwing at them. In this aspect of the game, experience and chemistry are essential to quickly and effectively amend strategies to achieve victory. For a young team like the Memphis Grizzlies, experience is simply a trait that develops over time. However, chemistry and communication are certainly clear strengths of this roster and coaching staff.
One area where the Grizzlies have shown a consistent and elite ability to implement effective adjustments is after halftime during games. This is especially true since December of 2019, an observation I talked about in January of last year. From December 1st of last year through the season being suspended on March 11th, 2020, the Grizzlies ranked sixth in NET rating in the NBA. The main reason for the Grizzlies success in the third quarter last year was their offensive production, as they ranked fourth in Offensive Rating over this same time frame.
In terms of Defensive Rating, the Grizzlies ranked ninth during the aforementioned span of time. However, the Grizzlies’ defensive effectiveness after halftime was a far more gradual improvement than their offense. In terms of OFF RTG per month last year, the Grizzlies were 4th, 11th, and 6th between December and February (excluding March due to the season being paused on 3/11/2020). Memphis’s DEF RTG ranks were 23rd, 6th, and 4th, respectively. Specifically, their team DEF RTG improved from 116.3 to 101.4 in a matter of three full months, and was a big reason as to why they were able to either extend leads or catch up in the second half of games last season.
Coach Jenkins and the Grizzlies have produced similar results and progression in terms of their defense after half time this year as well. As multiple outlets that cover the Grizzlies have mentioned this season, the Grizzlies have continued to produce outstanding results in the third quarter of games. They currently rank 3rd in Net Rating in the NBA in terms of third quarter production this season. However, this season, it is the defensive effectiveness that has remained near the top of the league for the majority of the season as the offense continued to progress.
For the four full months the Grizzlies have played this season, January-April 2021, the Grizzlies third quarter OFF RTG ranks are 23rd, 15th, 16th, and 1st in the NBA, respectively. Their third quarter DEF RTG ranks are 8th, 21st, 1st and 12th. As the Grizzlies have had to deal with injuries to many key rotation players throughout the season, they have either played above average to elite offense or defense for different stretches this season. However, they have rarely played highly effective basketball on both ends of the court at the same time.
Along with a roster that was getting close to full health, the other big reason as to why the Grizzlies have continued to succeed and emerge as one of the best teams in the league at making halftime defensive adjustments is due to Taylor Jenkins and his staff. Due to constant injury issues and a condensed schedule, the rotations that Jenkins has had at his disposal to deploy have been in a constant state of flux. This is similar to last year when the Grizzlies were figuring out the best rotations to play as the staff and roster were learning each other. As a result, though the Grizzlies have remained an above average to elite defense since the start of 2020, the main reason for their success at different points has varied.
For instance, last season, the key for the Grizzlies was their ability to make adjustments at halftime that vastly improved their effectiveness defending the paint in January and February of 2020. Memphis ranked in the top five of the NBA defending the restricted area, the paint in general, and the mid-range in terms of OPP. FG% during the third quarter. After a few months of figuring out which lineups and defensive schemes worked best, Coach Jenkins consistently found ways to make life a nightmare for his opponents as they they tried to find shots near the rim. It was a big reason that Memphis was able to be in a favorable position to win or come from behind in many games.
This season, with injuries to many of the Grizzlies better offensive players in January, Coach Jenkins placed a heavy emphasis on lineups that could create turnovers as that played to the strengths of many of the best talents he had available. Memphis led the league in steals and were second in the league in blocks during the third quarter, which allowed Memphis to lead the league in turnovers forced and rank fourth in points off turnovers. The Grizzlies success disrupting the rhythm of their opposition and turning defense into offense made a key difference in them winning many low scoring games.
In fairness, the Grizzlies missing six games in January likely helped their defensive numbers. However, overall, they forced more turnovers per game than any other team. In time, the ability to play with the effort and energy levels needed to consistently cause turnovers at high rates became harder to accomplish. As that ability began to become less effective, Jenkins and his staff had to adjust their approach. Fortunately, as February turned into March, Jenkins took advantage of a roster that was becoming healthier.
When Justise Winslow returned on February 20th, the Grizzlies were finally able to feature their full assortment of wing defenders that they could use in different combinations at multiple positions. This allowed both the Grizzlies half court and perimeter defense to improve, especially after halftime. Since March 1st, the Grizzlies have produced the lowest OPP. FG% and OPP. 3PFG% in the NBA. They also rank 8th in fewest third quarter assists allowed. Similar to their efforts in January, the Grizzlies consistently disrupted the flow of their opposition’s offense after halftime. However, this time it was as a result of effective one-on-one and traditional team defensive efforts, two areas of focus for Coach Jenkins and the team since the start of the season.
A specific example of the Grizzlies improvements in both one-on-one defense and collective defense is their recent ability to create long stretches of game time in which they allow few points to their opponents. For example, the Grizzlies limited the Orlando Magic to eight points over a stretch of 11 minutes of game time during the third and fourth quarter of their 92-75 victory last Friday night. The Grizzlies achieved similar success against the Heat, Rockets and several others in key victories since the second half of the NBA season began. While it cannot be expected for Memphis to do this every game, their ability to make life hard for their opponents to find good shots over long stretches should serve them well in the stretch run of the season.
When I asked Coach Jenkins about the specific process that supports the Grizzlies effectiveness in making productive halftime adjustments, he stated that “ongoing dialogue” and attention to detail are key from everyone on the roster and the coaching staff. When it comes to the Grizzlies, chemistry and communication have frequently been mentioned as positive aspects of this roster. It seems those characteristics are also quite strong between the coaching staff and the players. The end result is a team that knows no matter how bleak things may look in the first half of games, there is always a major level of confidence that the Grizzlies will create needed advantages to improve their chances to win after halftime.