The Memphis Grizzlies have long been known as a team that got wins by playing tough defense and by playing “in the mud,” as Zach Randolph would say. However, the Grizzlies have had a hard time getting their defense in order this season, and a big reason why is the team having to miss reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol for 23 games.
Gasol came back on January 14 against the Oklahoma City Thunder, and the Grizzlies are 6-1 since his return. They are back to playing championship-level defense. Memphis is currently outside of the top-eight in the West, but no team wants to see them or their defense in the first round of the playoffs.
On Tuesday night, the Grizzlies got a big road win against the Portland Trail Blazers 98-81. The win wasn’t just big because the Blazers are the third-best team in the Western Conference, but because Portland was scoring the most points per game (109.0) and have the best offensive efficiency in the NBA.
The Grizzlies held Portland to a season-low 81 points, only the second time they scored less than 90. The Grizzlies slowed the pace, brought Portland into the mud and the Blazers were never allowed to get into a rhythm.
Memphis is currently holding teams to the third-fewest points per game, but that is because they play at such a slow pace. When you look at their defensive rating, the Grizzlies were 22nd in the league before Gasol’s return, allowing 105.2 points per 100 possessions.
Since the star has come back, however, Memphis is allowing a league-leading 91.9 points per 100 possessions. This is the type of defense Memphis is used to playing, but it is also the slow pace that got them bounced from the playoffs last season.
This team was built on grit and grind, but not having any shooters on offense is why they were swept out of the playoffs by the San Antonio Spurs last season. So naturally, the Grizzlies tried to add shooting this offseason and decided to play at a faster pace as to not allow teams to get into their defensive sets as quickly.
However, trying to push the pace and overplaying guys like Mike Miller has forced their defense to take a few steps back. With the acquisition of Courtney Lee and now with Gasol being back, the Grizzlies are back to being all about grit and grind. In Lee, they also have a player that can shoot from the outside and play great defense.
In the 10 games that Lee has been with Memphis, the Grizzlies are 8-2 and have an offensive rating of 103.4, which isn’t great. However, it is better than the 101.7 they posted last season. Granted, all these stats are based on a very small sample size. Gasol has only been back for seven games and Lee has only been with the team for 10 games — that isn’t enough time to determine any future outcomes.
The core of this team has been together for four seasons though, and everyone except Lee, Miller, Kosta Koufos and James Johnson have been together for the past two seasons. Also, Memphis is still going to get Tony Allen back soon, which will only make their improving defense better.
There is no denying that Memphis can play defense; I don’t care how small the sample size is this season. When you factor in how great Lee and Johnson fit this team’s makeup, and Miller as well once he can start playing fewer minutes and just be a spot-up shooter, you can see the possibility of a far better offensive team than last season.
Add this defense to what fans have seen recently on offense, and you get a team that no one wants to see when the playoffs roll around.