A large part of the regular-season success of the Memphis Grizzlies was due to the play of their reserves. Coach Taylor Jenkins trusted the bench to play 98.9 minutes per game in the regular season, the most of any team in the NBA. The reserve unit ranked first in rebounds and assists per game, and sixth in points per game. But the bench squad has not been able to maintain this level of production in the playoffs, and has looked particularly outmatched in the Grizzlies second-round series against the Golden State Warriors. The Grizz have been outscored in bench points in each of the series’ three games. The Warriors do have a volume scorer in Jordan Poole on their bench, but even disregarding his contribution, the Grizzlies bench unit is performing under its regular-season average.
The reserve unit has scored fewer points than its regular-season average of 38.9 points per game – per Statmuse – in all three outings against Golden State. The bench posted 30, 35 and 35 in games one, two and three respectively. Part of this drop in production could be attributed to the Warriors adept defense, but that’s unsupported by the regular season numbers, as in the four meetings between the teams in the regular season the bench posted an average of 37.3 points per game. Slightly under average, but not as drastic as posting 30. There’s also no reason to blame the tightening of the rotation for the playoffs as the reason for the drop off in production, as throughout the playoffs, the bench is averaging just three total minutes per game fewer than it did in the regular season.
And the bench’s struggles aren’t just supported by the eye test. Of the five lineups that have seen more than five minutes together in the series and have a negative net rating, all of them contain at least two members of the bench.
So what’s the reason for the struggles of the bench? It may lie in the fact that the bench is turning the ball over almost twice as frequently as it did in the regular season. In the series against the Warriors, the bench is averaging 6.66 turnovers per game, while in the regular season the bench turned the ball over on average 3.95 times per game. That difference of under two turnovers seems minimal, but becomes a bigger issue when you consider that the bench unit is turning the ball over more frequently in fewer minutes played.
It also must be pointed out that the bench is simply just not making shots. The Grizzlies bench is shooting almost 7% worse against the Warriors than it did in the regular season. Take Tyus Jones for example. Jones was a reliable shotmaker during the regular season, shooting 45% from the field and 39% from three. However, during the playoffs, Jones’ shot-making has dropped off to 37% and 36% respectively. I think a lot of the woes of the bench can be chalked up to playoff inexperience. Of the regular names to come off the bench for the Grizz, only Kyle Anderson has any real level of playoff experience.
We’ll get to see if Jones and the rest of the reserves can shake off the poor performances for game 4 – especially Jones as he’ll get the start in place of the injured Ja Morant. This will be a real test to see if the moment is simply too big for the Grizzlies reserves, or if they can lift their performance to the level that we saw during the regular season. Ja Morant may look immune to the necessity of playoff experience, but the rest of the Grizzlies, especially the bench unit, do not.