What's the Grizzlies' Winning Formula?

So far, the Spurs have looked like the better team in the Western Conference Finals.  They’re not, necessarily, and Memphis has figured out how to really bludgeon San Antonio for short stretches, but I don’t think that anyone would argue that the Grizz have just been generally outperformed so far.

For the most part, this is because San Antonio has figured out how to completely shut down the Grizzlies offense.  The Thunder and Clippers’ game plan was to win by finding ways to beat Memphis’ stifling defense, and then let Memphis’ lackluster offense take care of itself. The Spurs have a slightly different plan: they are trying to stretch Memphis’ defense out to the three point line where it’s less comfortable (see: Bonner’s minutes have increased from 13.2 a game to 22.1 a game), but they’re also trying to shut Memphis down offensively.  The Spurs are less interested in scoring against the Grit and Grind defense because they know that their scoring will come, even if it comes in a slow, brutal trickle.  They are more interested in ensuring that the Grizzlies don’t score, ever.  And they’re doing a surprisingly good job.

The Spurs have decided to completely ignore Tayshaun Prince and Tony Allen, defensively. San Antonio has consistently run from across the court to double on either Z-Bo or Marc in order to leave Prince and Allen open, and Prince and Allen have not made the Spurs pay — They shot 3-16 from the field collectively in Game 2.  The Spurs aren’t acting on any new info, every team that Memphis has played so far has known that the only Grizzlies who can score well, reliably, and consistently are Randolph, Gasol, and Conley. However, the Spurs (and Gregg Popovich) are the only ones with the subtle genius to realize that if you can shut off the well of reliable scoring from the three main guys, then the Grizzlies are left with very little. Not just very little offensively, but they’re left with little to work with, period. Other teams have lived or died on the hope that the Grizzlies only having three scorers means that the Grizz won’t score enough to win.  The Spurs aren’t taking that risk, and they’re shutting down the Grizzlies.

Hollins, in response, has tried to play lineup chess to figure out who he can put in to punish the Spurs for brazenly abandoning a perimeter defensive assignment to double in the post, but Hollins has to walk a fine line.  For how long can you keep scorers like Bayless and Pondexter in without having a defensive collapse? Is going small really tenable for a team whose identity is derived from their ability to “ground and pound?”

There’s both good and bad news with the results.

The good news: Memphis does have players who can punish the Spurs for leaving them open, forcing the kind of defense we’ve seen from the Clippers or Thunder out of San Antonio, and limiting their ability to double and trap.

The bad news: Hollins hasn’t used the right combinations of these players often enough.

Looking at the list of 5-man lineups that have played in this Spurs series makes it frighteningly clear how hard Hollins is trying to find the right mix of guys.  Other than the starting lineup, no lineup has played more than 10 minutes in the whole series.  In two games, and not counting garbage time lineups, 9 5-man lineups have played for 5 minutes or more.  The starting lineup has played 23 minutes.

But how good have some of these lineups been?  Part of the problem is that only the starting lineup has logged enough minutes to be confident about the validity of the stats.  But on that note, the starting lineup has been really bad against San Antonio. Really, really bad.

In the 23 minutes that the lineup of Conley-Allen-Prince-ZBo-Gasol has played, they have scored 87.5 points per 100 possessions; a pitiful number that would be easily league last in the regular season.  When Z-Bo and Gasol get doubled, and Allen and Prince can’t hit, the Grizzlies don’t score.

By contrast, that lineup has (shockingly, I think) allowed a just-as-horrendously-bad 121.8 points per 100 possessions from San Antonio.  I think that number is probably inflated a little bit: Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green have been crazy hot/efficient this series in a way that suggests that their performance is great independent of Memphis’ defense, and those two have been together most often against Memphis’ starting lineup.  Nonetheless, that defensive number is so poor that the starting five have to be having some fundamental problem guarding San Antonio.

I think that part of the problem involves the Grizzlies’ lineup build with regards to the midrange.  San Antonio was the second best mid-range shooting team in the regular season this year behind the Heat, so they were good enough at it that a long midrange jumper from Tony Parker or Duncan or Green is not necessarily a bad shot.

Spurs shot chart

Notice: Midrange shots are “above league average” at Parker, Duncan, and Green’s favorite spots on the court.

Unfortunately, the Grizzlies starting lineup is taught to try and force that particular midrange shot, and the Spurs will take it gladly.

So, in summary, the Grizzlies starting lineup has posted a truly scary net efficiency of -34.3 points per 100 possessions against the Spurs.  Meaning, if that lineup played the whole game, on average, the end result would be 100-66, Spurs win.

The key, as it turns out, is Quincy Pondexter.  Just inserting Pondexter into the starting lineup at the 3 spot, replacing Prince, has dramatic results.  The net efficiency jumps dramatically up to +15.1 points per 100 possessions.  My inclination would be to think that Pondexter improves Memphis’ offense, but that’s not really the case.  The Grizzlies actually improve defensively with him on the floor.

This makes some sense, though.  Pondexter’s main offensive shtick is the corner three, which Prince is also really comfortable with, despite his reputation as a weak 3 point shooter. Instead, I think Q-Pon’s extra speed and lateral quickness on the perimeter allows the Grizzlies to defend or switch the mid-range elbow pick and roll or pick and pop with Parker and Duncan, or Neal and Splitter, or whatever.  With Prince, as soon as the pick happens everyone would pack the paint with Conley trailing on Parker.  With Q-Pon on the court, as long as Gasol moves up to stop a roll, Conley or Allen can switch with Q-Pon and maintain rotations to force, at best, a contested shot.

Another (qualified) shocker: putting in Bayless has an even more positive effect.  With Bayless and Q-Pon on the court together with Conley, Z-Bo, and Gasol, the net efficiency is 16 points per 100 possessions, and the offense is much better than the offense with just Q-Pon and the rest of the starting lineup.  That said, the offense is still not really good by any means. But it’s better.

Another important note: he’s only gotten 10 minutes in the entire series, some of it garbage time so the data is certainly skewed, but Ed Davis has been very effective against San Antonio in his time on the court.  He’s one of the only players who registers a positive net efficiency by himself (since the team is losing, having a positive efficiency is very difficult), and it also happens to be +16 points per 100 possessions.  After Davis replaced Z-Bo in the starting lineup for 5 minutes, the Grizzlies registered a positive net efficiency in the forties.  So it might be worth giving him some real minutes.

On the flip side, Kenyon Dooling, despite seeing real backup minutes, has not been effective. The main lineup he saw time with, the ultra-small, bizarre lineup of Arthur-Bayless-QPon-Dooling-ZBo, was -6.5, though his personal efficiency was -0.5, which is not horrible, but probably skewed by garbage time lineups.  Unless Hollins finds a better place for him in the rotation, it’s probably for the best if he sits out, or is at least replaced by Arthur, who was also surprisingly effective.

The upshot here is that Hollins is going to have to wildly adjust his game plan, because giving the extreme majority of minutes to the starting squad has just not worked.  In Game 2, everyone tried pretty hard to get Allen or Prince to hurt SA, but they just couldn’t do it. Instead, Hollins has to make a major lineup adjustment: he really needs to start Pondexter over Tayshaun.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like this will happen:

The thing is, with a proven and effective Conley-Allen-QPon-ZBo-Gasol lineup starting, the Grizzlies have a chance to get going early — the part of the game where, so far, they’ve gotten beat.  Indeed, this would also allow for Bayless to sub in for Allen for an injection of offense quickly, then for a later lineup with Prince-Davis-Gasol, or even with Prince at the 4, both of which have totally dominated the Spurs in limited time.

I said after Game 1 that for the Grizzlies to win, they’d need to make a lot of major adjustments.  They made a lot of them, but it wasn’t quite enough.  So now they need more. They need to change it up fundamentally and exploit the flaws in San Antonio’s strategy as it’s played out so far.

Here’s hoping something changes.

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