On Monday, March 1st, the Grizzlies fell to the Miami Heat in an extremely tight game, where the lead changed hands multiple times, and either team could have emerged triumphant. It was their first loss in eight games, and their only loss in their last 13.
While the defeat may have been somewhat demoralizing, it came with one excellent silver lining: the Grizzlies held LeBron James to his worst performance of the year. James only had 13 points, his lowest total of the season. For the first three quarters of the game, James was essentially incapable of scoring, tallying just four points. In the 4th quarter, he finally woke up and went to work, putting in nine points, including a game-winning dagger from beyond the arc. But while the Grizz weren’t able to shut LeBron down for an entire game, they did force him into an uncharacteristically poor performance. He took bad shots, and until the 4th, he barely even took shots at all. The Grizzlies essentially prevented LeBron from being LeBron, something very few teams are capable of doing.
This might not be such a big deal if we were to view at a simple outlier; the product of one good game that didn’t say anything particularly important or relevant about the team as a whole, but that’s simply not the case. A key element of the Grizzlies defensive prowess is their ability to force opposing teams out of their comfort zones. They disrupt the flow of the game, and force talented offenses into slow, ugly, slugfests. A key element of this is forcing the best player – or one of the best players – on the other team into a weak offensive night.
This happened again this past Wednesday in the Grizzlies’ 91-85 win over the Blazers. LaMarcus Aldridge is either the best or second-best player on the Grizzlies, depending on how good you think Damian Lillard is at this particular moment, and in Wednesday’s game, Aldridge was largely useless on offense. He shot 2-13 from the field, and ended with a measly 10 points, less than half of his season average. In a recent game against the Dallas Mavericks, Dirk Nowitzki was similarly ineffective, only scoring 12 points. Shutting down the key player or players on the opposing side has become a regular occurrence for the Grizzlies, and it’s a huge part of their recent success.
Granted, they haven’t been able to do this in ever game. Kyrie Irving was effective in the Grizzlies win over the Cavs, as he put in 24 points, and shot 11-21 from the field. Still, you could poke holes in Irving’s performance. He only attempted two free throws, and he had four turnovers compared to three assists. So, Irving wasn’t awful against the Grizzlies, but a closer inspection reveals that he was far from ideal as well.
The Grizzlies ability to make superstars appear mortal is one of the big things that can help them this postseason. In the playoffs, the team with the best player tends to win because that player can simply take over games. The Grizzlies are the rare team with the ability to render that player ineffective for the vast majority of a game. If the Grizzlies can stifle Kevin Durant and Tony Parker the way they’ve stifled LeBron and Dirk in recent weeks, they could go farther than many of their doubters would suspect.