TrueHoop: Marc Gasol

Moving beyond the grind in Memphis

October, 14, 2013
10/14/13
10:30
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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Mike Conley and Marc Gasol
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images
The Grizzlies' defense is all-world, but can Mike Conley and Marc Gasol add some flow to the grit?

In a league where most teams are smaller and stretchier than they were 10 years ago, the Memphis Grizzlies remain delightfully Jurassic: a point guard, two prototypical wings, a power forward who lives on the low right block and a center who protects the rim and can work in the pivot. On the whole, they’re solid man-to-man defenders who can run a quality scheme that makes life difficult for the other guys.

These characteristics have been branded as "Grit 'n' Grind" basketball, produced by the Memphis Grizzlies. But Grit 'n' Grind is more a battle cry than a series of principles. As a team persona, it’s a gem, for both the guys inside the locker room and the fan base. Mood and spirit are important factors for a basketball team, and the Grizzlies rate well in those categories. Still, there’s a sense inside the team that even more can be sculpted from what’s a solid foundation.

The coaching staff and management group are populated by maniacal perfectionists. They understand that the roster composition is far from perfect, and that advancing to the conference finals, where the Griz bowed out in May, will be a tough bar to clear. But they also believe the offense still hasn’t cracked the code. Even if 2013-14 turns out to be a consolidation season in which the team jells around Mike Conley and Marc Gasol as the front office continues to fine-tune the spreadsheet, a bit less grind and a little more flow is necessary.

And around the NBA, there’s a sense that the Grizzlies aren’t a pleasant team to face, but still caught a break last spring when they drew the Oklahoma City Thunder sans Russell Westbrook in the conference semis and won the series handily. Nobody begrudges the achievement -- the Grizzlies are generally well-liked and respected around the league (except possibly by the Clippers) -- but they don’t exactly honor it, either. The Grizzlies will have to prove themselves in the long haul before they’re known as more than the mystery guest in the Western Conference.

The Grizzlies are confident they can develop this larger belief system that can elevate their offense from a series of ad hoc sets to one that’s guided by a system. We saw glimpses of it on crucial possessions during the postseason -- pick-and-post exhibitions by Gasol and Conley, Zach Randolph moving in the half court to create passing lanes for Conley and Gasol to find him, crisp reversals out of the post that ultimately find Quincy Pondexter in the corner. For a few glorious weeks last spring, the Grizzlies sensed they’d grown from offensively proficient to almost fluent.

Whether they can establish this kind of flow during an eight-month period likely will determine whether they’re playing for a trip to the NBA Finals again next spring. Gleaning meaningful information from preseason basketball is the equivalent of gauging the potential for a lifelong commitment from a 30-minute coffee date. But so far, the Grizzlies have pursued a few new objectives.

First, they are determined to get into their stuff more quickly this season, something the coaching staff is drilling into the team. Virtually the entire league pays lip service to this idea, but the Grizzlies need to execute this strategy as a means to improve. They still lack for outside shooting, which means they don’t force many defensive rotations, and finding opportunities in the half court is often a slog. The Grizzlies will never be a high-octane, top-10 pace squad, but they have enough skills guys -- particularly in Gasol -- to Spur-ify their offensive game plan even if they remain oriented toward the inside.

Get going. This means Conley shouldn’t be walking up while the rest of the unit stands stationary in a Horns formation, bigs at the elbows, wings in the corner while he pounds away. It means immediately getting the ball into Gasol at the elbow, where he can precipitate the action and force the defense to think. And executing handoffs to a teammate on the move or making quick passes to a cutter.

The patented Tony Allen baseline dive should be part of a much bigger collection of sets designed around cuts, with plays designed to create space for that motion. Meanwhile, Gasol is the best playmaking big man in the game (arguments for Joakim Noah are accepted); he can find a passing lane in the dark. Entry passes from the wing to the post need to happen sooner. Every possession should manufacture at least one look before the shot clock hits :12.

The Grizzlies might not have the shooters to fan out to the corners for quick-hitters, but Memphis does have big men who know how to capitalize on early touches down low. Post defenses are at their weakest in transition, and on the secondary break and with more teams looking to the arc on the break, the post is often open early. Gasol can zip up the floor and act decisively to maintain the quick tempo. Randolph isn’t good for more than a couple of rim runs a night, but he can work as an effective trailing big who rumbles his way down to the block in the open court -- not an easy thing for a defender to slow while pedaling back.

Shooters are the easiest way to create room in the half court, but playmakers can achieve the same ends if they’re working with capable finishers and a smart blueprint. Gasol’s skill set has been sufficiently documented, and Conley’s instincts have sharpened. The Grizzlies’ best raw playmaker could be rookie Nick Calathes, who has excelled in Greece and Russia the past four seasons. The big point guard has opened eyes with his court vision and passing skills at Grizzlies training camp. Back in 2009, Calathes clocked in at No. 6 overall in John Hollinger’s Draft Rater, whose predictive powers have been solid. Calathes is only 24, and he might be the guy to solve the Grizzlies’ longtime backup point guard issue.

The Grizzlies will double-down on Gasol and Conley this season, both as playmakers and scorers. The ball will reside in their hands, and the days of the pair combining for a usage rate of 40 percent (which would be league average for two players) are over. Gasol and Conley will have to manage their share of problem-solving tasks, but they’ll have a lot of help on the bench and, more important, have grown to trust each other like a true big-small tandem. The quiet acquisition of Kosta Koufos gives the Grizzlies the deepest frontcourt in the league, with a nice combination of high and low, experience and youth, traditional post grinders and face-up threats.

In a glitzier market, the swirling storylines and high expectations in Memphis would generate huge Internet traffic, but the Grizzlies barely nibble around the edges of our attention. In the past year, Memphis has seen a turnover in ownership and top management. The team’s highest-paid player was shipped out, and a coach who won 56 games was replaced. All of the upheaval has been in pursuit of a fresh approach to govern decision-making. Memphis may never attract LeBron James and big-name CAA clients in free agency, but for many players, factors such as market size and nightlife are less important than they used to be, measured against general quality of life (which in many cases includes average temperature) and workplace compatibility.

Like Oklahoma City, Memphis could become a place where an appealing team prospers under the guidance of new ideas -- and ultimately becomes a place where guys want to play.

3-pointers, pick-and-roll important in Finals

June, 5, 2013
6/05/13
12:20
PM ET
By ESPN Statistics & Information
ESPN.com
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Steve Mitchell/US Presswire
The Spurs and Heat both ranked in the top five in 3-point shooting and scoring off the pick-and-roll this season. Tony Parker has the most points on pick-and-roll plays this postseason.

The San Antonio Spurs will have their hands full with slowing down the Miami Heat and their quest for a second consecutive championship. Despite the challenge of limiting LeBron James and guarding a bunch of long-range shooters, San Antonio has a few matchup advantages to exploit.

The Heat and Spurs ranked among the top five teams in the NBA in 3-point shooting during the regular season, with Miami coming in second behind the Warriors.

The strong shooting from both teams has continued in the playoffs, with the Spurs and Heat ranking second and third, respectively, in 3-point shooting during the postseason.

The corner 3

The corner 3-point shot has become a staple of the Heat and Spurs. Miami made 309 corner 3-pointers this season, 35 more than the next closest team, while the Spurs ranked third with 261 during the regular season. The Spurs are shooting a slightly better percentage on corner 3-pointers in the playoffs, but Miami has made 13 more field goals from that spot on the floor.

Ray Allen (15), Shane Battier (11) and Norris Cole (7) have 33 of the Heat’s 48 corner 3-point field goals this postseason. Allen’s 15 corner 3-pointers are tied with Quincy Pondexter for the most of any player in the playoffs.

Pick-and-roll

Pick-and-roll plays will be important for both teams in this series as well. The Spurs and Heat are first and second in the postseason in points per game on pick-and-roll plays, averaging 38.4 and 36.6 points per game, respectively. However, the Heat are second in postseason defensive efficiency against the pick-and-roll, allowing 0.80 points per play. The Heat cause turnovers on 16.9 percent of their opponents’ pick-and-roll possessions in the playoffs, leading all teams.

The Heat haven’t faced a guard similar to Tony Parker in the postseason. Parker is responsible for nearly 62 percent of the Spurs’ pick-and-roll offense. This postseason, Parker has the most total points on pick-and-roll plays with 152 and the second most points per game off the pick-and-roll. During the regular season, Parker’s 562 pick-and-roll points were second to Damian Lillard’s 629.

Can the Spurs stop LeBron?

The Spurs have done a great job of taking away their opponents' best options in the playoffs.

Tiago Splitter held Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph to 15-of-48 (31.3 percent) shooting in eight games.

Danny Green was asked to guard Stephen Curry and held him to 25 points in six games on 22.9 percent shooting, including 2-of-16 (12.5 percent) from the 3-point line.

But can the Spurs stop LeBron James? Kawhi Leonard has played against James just once in his career, as a rookie Jan. 17, 2012. James was 9-of-14 from the floor with 20 points with Leonard as the primary defender. This postseason, the Spurs have allowed 93.7 points per 100 possessions with Leonard on the court. That’s the second-lowest total, behind Tyson Chandler, for any player averaging at least 25 minutes a game this postseason.

Sunny Saini and Evan Kaplan contributed to this post

Young role players help Spurs reach Finals

June, 4, 2013
6/04/13
11:28
AM ET
By Ryan Grace, ESPN Stats & Info
ESPN.com

Harry How/Getty Images
As the Spurs' big three gets older, the development of San Antonio’s young role players has helped the team stay successful.

The San Antonio Spurs' big three has been consistent for the past decade. But as the Spurs’ core gets older, how does the team continue to be successful?

The development and improvement of Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter and Danny Green have provided a youthful punch to elevate the Spurs past their opponents.

In last season’s playoffs, Leonard, Splitter and Green combined to average 21.8 points, 11.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game. This season, those numbers have jumped to 29.4 points, 15.8 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game.

Leonard: Mr. Do-It-All

The Spurs average 0.93 points per play in the half court this postseason, second best in the NBA behind the Miami Heat. Leonard has been the team’s most efficient player in the half court, averaging 1.12 points per play (minimum 55 plays).



Leonard is scoring on 52.3 percent of his half-court plays this postseason, which ranks first among qualified players.

Leonard also has been the most efficient defender for the Spurs this postseason. When Leonard is off the court, Spurs’ opponents average 6.5 more points per 100 possessions than when he is on the court.

Splitter excels on both ends

Of the 87 players with at least 60 plays on defense this postseason, Splitter ranks fourth in the league, limiting opponents to 0.66 points per play.

This postseason, Splitter held Dwight Howard, Pau Gasol, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph to a combined 31.3 percent shooting in eight games. Prior to facing Splitter, Randolph averaged a playoff-high 9.9 post-up points per game. In four games against the Spurs, he averaged 4.2 points per game in the post.

Splitter was the fourth-most efficient scorer as a pick-and-roll screener during the regular season, averaging 1.23 points per play (minimum 100 plays). Splitter has elevated his game in the playoffs, averaging 1.50 points per play on 83.3 percent shooting when he rolls to the basket.

Green emerging as two-way player


Green has taken the third-most catch-and-shoot shots (64) this postseason. Of the 39 players with at least 30 such plays, Green ranks seventh in the league in points per play. Green has the second-most catch-and-shoot makes this postseason behind Chris Bosh, and he has been more efficient on catch-and-shoots than Ray Allen, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry.

Overall, Green has been especially effective shooting 3-point field goals from the corners, making a team-high 52.9 percent of such shots this postseason (10-of-19).

In the second round of the playoffs, Green was asked to guard Curry and held him to 25 points in six games on 22.9 percent shooting, including 2-of-16 (12.5 pct.) from the 3-point line. Curry entered the series shooting 44.2 percent in the playoffs.

Gasol, Splitter key to what teams do best

May, 18, 2013
5/18/13
11:43
PM ET
By Ernest Tolden
ESPN.com
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Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesMarc Gasol's post-up success could be vital to the Grizzlies' chances.

The San Antonio Spurs will host the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC.

When considering all the different matchups that this series has to offer, one of the interesting ones features a pair of Olympian centers in Marc Gasol and Tiago Splitter.

Let’s shine the statistical spotlight on them and how they impact that which their team does best.

Gasol in the post
The Grizzlies have dominated inside, where they’ve scored an NBA-high 221 points in post-up plays this postseason.

Gasol, who won the 2012-13 Kia NBA Defensive Player of the Year award, has also made his mark on the offensive end. The fifth-year center is averaging a career postseason-high 18.3 points, up from 14.1 points per game during the regular season.

Gasol’s emergence on offense has been primarily due to his success in the post. He’s recorded an NBA-high 1.16 points per play on post-ups and his 103 points total on post-ups trails only teammate Zach Randolph this postseason.

For the Spurs, one way to contain Gasol in the post is to force the ball out of his hands. Despite Gasol’s dominance in creating his own offense in that play, the Grizzlies have struggled on his passes out of the post.

The Grizzlies offense averages just 0.59 points per play off Gasol’s passes out of the post, the third-lowest scoring rate by a team off a single player’s passes from the post this postseason.

Splitter a hidden key in the pick-and-roll
The Spurs have run a pick-and-roll dominated offense this possteason. Between their ball handlers and finishers off the pass, the Spurs have scored an NBA-high 256 points in that offense this postseason.

Along with having one of the best scoring guards off the pick-and-roll in Tony Parker, the Spurs have a secret weapon -- a player who has been extremely effective and efficient in the pick-and-roll these playoffs.

It’s actually not Tim Duncan. It’s Tiago Splitter.

The Spurs’ third-year center has played a key role in giving the Spurs another threat in that offense between the ball-handler and the roll man.

Splitter has been the most efficient finisher in that offense this postseason, scoring at a rate at 1.56 points per play and making 10-of-11 shots from the field,

His points per play and field goal percentage are both NBA highs this postseason, albeit with that small sample.

Gregg Popovich has used Splitter in that play type. Splitter has been the pick-and-roll man a team-high 31 percent of his total plays this postseason, his highest rate of any play type. That total is up a little bit from 24 percent in the regular season.

The Grizzlies can make Splitter a non-factor in this series by forcing him in other areas on the court. Of Splitter’s 47 total points scored this postseason, 25 of them have come finishing the pick-and-roll.

In other play types, Splitter has averaged only 0.61 points per play on just 7-for-22 shooting.

The weapon the Thunder can't live without

May, 11, 2013
5/11/13
9:56
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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Kevin Durant, Serge Ibaka
Jamie Squire/NBAE/Getty Images
The Kevin Durant-Serge Ibaka two-man game must generate offense for the Thunder.
If the Oklahoma City Thunder drop this series to the Memphis Grizzlies, the loss will be remembered most in OKC as a resounding affirmation of Russell Westbrook. Each of the past three seasons, the Thunder have featured one of the five most efficient offenses in the NBA, but absent Westbrook, they can’t find anything reliable in the half court.

Examine the assets on the floor, and the pick-and-roll game with Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka seems like a natural choice. The Thunder are well aware of this and have looked diligently for it. Every once in a while, a Durant-Ibaka sequence plays out precisely how Oklahoma City wants it to proceed.

In the fourth quarter of the Grizzlies' 87-81 win Saturday that put them up 2-1 in the West semifinals, just before the nine-minute mark, Marc Gasol, along with Quincy Pondexter, corralled Durant off the screen. With both defenders attending to Durant, Ibaka slipped through the lane where Durant hit him on the move with an overhead pass. Darrell Arthur’s rotation from the right/weakside corner onto Ibaka was prompt, but Ibaka wisely looked immediately at Kevin Martin, whom Arthur left in the right corner. The easy pass from Ibaka to Martin was quickly converted into a Martin 3-pointer that trimmed the Grizzlies’ lead to four.

There’s nothing advanced here, but when Martin is parked on the weakside perimeter and either Durant or Ibaka can force help – something that should happen frequently – this two-man action should generate quality offense for Oklahoma City. When the Grizzlies throw multiple bodies at Durant -- and they did this selectively, but not always, on Saturday afternoon -- this is the single most effective way to counter the pressure and find good looks at the basket.

Unfortunately for the Thunder, that Martin 3-pointer is more outlying than representative. Ibaka’s midrange shooting slump has rendered the pick-and-pop game ineffective. Other variations of the Durant-Ibaka two-man game haven’t produced much, either. In the fourth quarter, we saw a wrinkle Oklahoma City likes to trigger in its pin-down for Durant -- a “pin-and-slip” for Ibaka. As Durant makes the catch coming off Ibaka’s down screen, he immediately shuttles the ball to Ibaka, who takes it to the rim. On this possession, only Tayshaun Prince stood between Ibaka and the rim, but Ibaka opted to pull up and shoot an off-rhythm baseline jumper that rattled out.

This is the kind of offense the Thunder desperately need. Granted, Memphis generally handles it well, but there’s a lot of acreage to defend on the floor when Durant gets a solid pick up top. Whether it’s Tony Allen, Prince or Pondexter, guarding Durant coming off that pick is hellacious. Almost any forward progress by Durant triggers a rotation. Meanwhile, Ibaka needs to be adequately shaded if he rolls, and contested if he pops.

There’s a lot to work with in these pick-and-roll sets, and Durant must be able to depend on his best big man to convert possessions into points. If he can’t, the Thunder don’t have much of a chance in this series because few NBA games can be won by teams that score 86.2 points per 100 possessions, which is what the Thunder tallied in Game 3.

 

The chess game at the power forward spot continues. During the fourth, the Grizzlies hid Zach Randolph on Derek Fisher both early in the quarter and inside of five minutes. In one instance, the Thunder responded by calling for a high pick-and-roll for Durant with Fisher as a screener, and attacking Randolph, who has to account for Fisher fading to a spot along the arc and still worry about pushing Durant baseline. That’s a tough assignment for anyone, but especially so for Randolph, whose route map is pretty limited. No matter, because Fisher was whistled for a moving screen, and the Thunder were never really able to leverage their stretch or speed against Memphis’ girth.

The big-small tug-of-war gives Darrell Arthur a chance to showcase his versatility. He got a shot as the big 4 against a Thunder small-ball lineup late in the third and early in the fourth and fared well hiding out on Fisher and DeAndre Liggins. Arthur was one of those guys who came into the league tarred as a ‘tweener, but in this context Arthur’s tweenerness is useful for Memphis. He’s mobile enough to tread water as a perimeter defender, can defend the pick-and-roll and can handle most of the elbow responsibilities in the Grizzlies' offense. He’s a terrible rebounder as a power forward, but when the Thunder go small, that shortcoming becomes less of a liability.

Encouraging Durant to guard big men in a situation like this hasn’t been any easier than the sales job Miami’s staff had to perform for LeBron James, though we’ve heard much less about the dynamics in Oklahoma City. But there Durant was in the closing minutes of the game matched up against Gasol on the defensive end.

Despite the mismatch, the Grizzlies went to Randolph one-on-one against Ibaka about as often as they looked for Gasol, which is curious. After Randolph drained a contested, off-balance shot in the lane, then missed another, the Griz rightly returned to Gasol. Durant didn’t play him poorly and forced the center into some difficult shots (e.g. a running hook while trotting away from the basket that kissed glass inside of three minutes), but Gasol was still able to get deep inside the paint. For a Grizzlies offense that saw the ball meander around the arc for much of the game, finding Gasol low was a nice salve.

Unless they make a concerted effort to move the ball against Memphis’ lumbering lineups, the Thunder are in serious danger of losing the small vs. big event.

 

Before Randolph arrived in Memphis, there were nights it seemed like he regarded team basketball as an inconvenience. It’s easy to forget when you watch Randolph do things like get a pass at the elbow then immediately move the ball into Gasol in the low post with a sharp entry pass. That’s not something Randolph would’ve ever been inclined to do, yet it’s a simple part of his nightly routine at this point of his career.

One of the bigger possessions of the first half came early in the second quarter. The ball worked its way over to Z-Bo just above the right elbow. The call was for a handoff to Jerryd Bayless, who swept along the perimeter from the right wing, but Liggins did a nice job denying Bayless on the initial route. Randolph patiently waited, then watched closely as Bayless stopped short, reversed course and wrong-footed Liggins. The instant Bayless got maximum separation from Liggins, Randolph floated a feathery pass, which Bayless snatched out of the air and launched in rhythm for a 20-foot jump shot.

Does Randolph execute the play five years ago with that kind of precision? Not a chance.

Gasol, Grizzlies 'D' come up big

May, 11, 2013
5/11/13
9:45
PM ET
By ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN.com
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The Thunder had one of their worst shooting days on Saturday.
Just as it was in 2011, the Memphis Grizzlies won Game 3 of their matchup with the Oklahoma City Thunder to take a 2-1 series lead.

That one ended with a Thunder triumph in seven games. We'll see the direction in which this one goes, but first, a look at some of the statistical highlights from this game.

Key to the game: Thunder get looks, but can’t score
As you can see in the shooting zone chart atop this story, the Thunder were cold from almost every spot on the court.

Oklahoma City scored 81 points, its fewest this postseason, and shot 36.4 percent from the field—it’s second-lowest field-goal percentage in a postseason game since moving to Oklahoma City.

The only game in which they shot worse was on April 23, 2011-- shot 36.3 percent in a 97-94 win over the Denver Nuggets in Game 3 of the Western Conference First Round

The Grizzlies defense thwarted Oklahoma City’s chances at the rim in the second half.

In the first half, the Thunder took 21 shot attempts from inside five feet. In the second half, they only took seven such attempts.

Difference-Maker: The value of Marc Gasol
Marc Gasol was the Defensive Player of the Year for a reason, and that came through with how the Grizzlies defense performed with him on and off the court.

In Gasol’s 36 minutes, 37 seconds, the Grizzlies held the Thunder to 31 percent shooting from the field and outscored them 66-52.

In Gasol’s 11 minutes on the bench, the Thunder outscored the Grizzlies, 29-21 and shot 48 percent.

Durant a non-factor in the fourth
After going 8-for-15 from the field and 5-for-7 from the free throw line in the first three quarters, Kevin Durant was 1-for-4 from the field and 0-for-2 from the free throw line in the final 12 minutes.

This marked only the second time in his career that Durant finished a fourth quarter with an 0-for-2 from the line.

The Grizzlies tried five defenders against Durant in the first half without success. In the fourth quarter, he dealt with two primary defenders- Tony Allen and Quincy Pondexter.

Durant finished 2-for-7 against Allen. He finished 3-for-5 against Pondexter, but missed the two shots he took when guarded by Pondexter in the fourth quarter.

Home sweeter Home
The Grizzlies are now 11-3 in home playoff games over the last three seasons (4-0 this season).

Memphis was winless in 6 home playoff games in franchise history previous to 2011.

A very even series
Game 3 of the series featured 13 more lead changes. The teams have now swapped leads 49 times in three games. Elias notes that is the most lead changes in the first three games of a series of any playoff series played since 2000.

Clippers at Memphis: Five things to watch

May, 3, 2013
5/03/13
10:32
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
Stephen Dunn/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Clippers will be pushed to the brink without a healthy and effective Blake Griffin.

The void
Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin didn’t practice Thursday and spent a good portion of the day receiving treatment on his right ankle, which he sprained severely Monday, one day before the Clippers’ Game 5 loss in Los Angeles. If Griffin can’t go in Game 6, or is largely ineffective as a post presence on the offensive end, the Clippers have big issues. They’re not a team -- like San Antonio, for instance -- that runs an airtight system fueled by interchangeable parts. Tim Duncan and Tony Parker are indispensable to their team’s success, but the Spurs can subsist for long stretches without them because the offensive objectives don’t change with their absences.

The Clippers need Griffin down low, where he draws defenders and forces rotations, and in the pick-and-roll with Chris Paul, which forces the Memphis Grizzlies’ big guys to account for him, Chris Paul and the space around them.

The contingency
How can the Clippers absorb Griffin’s absence? On Thursday, Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said that if Griffin isn’t available, veteran multitasker Lamar Odom would start at power forward for the Clippers. Odom’s presence on the floor with the starters would give the Clippers yet another versatile ball handler and a crafty -- if occasionally freelancing -- team defender. But a better bet might be to go small and hand the lion’s share of the minutes at power forward to Matt Barnes. That would enable them to replicate the successful formula of the bench and open up the game. The Grizzlies like chaos, but their very particular controlled brand of chaos, not the outright disorder a small-ball Clippers unit would bring.

This scheme wouldn’t be without serious challenges for the Clippers. They’d probably have to send quick double-teams from the top of the floor to help Barnes on Zach Randolph, something they did fairly effectively in spots during last season’s epic Game 7. And Paul has always preferred a more controlled approach to half-court offense. But the Clippers will need to move this game from paint to the perimeter, and Barnes at the 4 for significant periods certainly would do that.

The juggernaut
Not exactly a label we normally affix to the Grizzlies’ offense, but racking up 114.4 points per 100 possessions against the Clippers in Game 5 definitely clears the bar for locomotive status. The Grizzlies have done a masterful job of moving Marc Gasol and Randolph around the half court, and by doing so, they’ve been able to cross up Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and the bench bigs.

This isn’t stuff we haven’t seen from the Grizzlies before: pin-downs by Gasol for Randolph, or vice versa. Pick-and-roll-and-replace with Mike Conley and both Gasol and Randolph. The Clippers aren’t a bad defensive team (ranked ninth this season in defensive efficiency), but Memphis’ execution on these sets has been crisp, timely and deceptive. As capable as the Clippers are at defending initial actions, if a defense throws multiple-choice questions at them, things have a way of breaking down. That’s what we’ve seen over the past 3½ games from Memphis, and the trend line keeps improving.

The Q
When the Clippers have grasped for answers after the first quarter, they’ve frequently tapped a three-guard lineup composed of Paul, Eric Bledsoe and Jamal Crawford. Not a terrible idea in theory, but Memphis coach Lionel Hollins has countered that combination with Conley, Tony Allen and reserve Quincy Pondexter.

Memphis has been winning this battle. Allen smothers Crawford, who has shot 43.8 percent during the Clippers’ three losses (only 3-for-11 beyond the arc), and many of those attempts have been with a Crawfordian degree of difficulty. Meanwhile, Pondexter’s size and brawn have bothered Paul. The Clippers point guard tallied 35 points in Game 5 but hasn’t distributed the ball (only 14 assists combined over the three losses). Offensively, Pondexter has given the Grizz some needed stretch, which has been just enough to complicate the Clippers’ rotations and give Gasol the room he needs to work. Bledsoe pesters Conley, but the Grizzlies have adjusted, running the offense through Gasol at the elbow or having Tayshaun Prince initiate possessions with Conley off the ball.

Playoff teams need X factors, players who outperform their baseline production. Pondexter has been that difference-maker in this series, and it’s helped Memphis inordinately.

The consequences
For Memphis, closing out the Clippers on Friday night by winning the series’ final four games would be a resounding success after a sometimes tumultuous season. Dealing Rudy Gay created a lightning rod in Memphis and a period of discontent between Hollins and management. Randolph voiced his objections to some of the new wrinkles in the offense introduced after Gay’s departure and struggled after injuring his ankle in March, which was a major cause for concern. More than all that, though, revenge is a dish that’s best served cold (and in Memphis, it’s also served deep-fried with a heavy sauce), and we’ll see a fully catered event in the Grizzlies’ locker room on Friday night if they can close out the series.

On the Clippers’ side, a loss would be devastating. A 56-win team that looked like a serious contender for much of the season and as recently as 10 days ago would return to Los Angeles with some fateful questions: Paul’s free agency, doubts about roster composition, questions about managerial structure, unhappy ownership and Del Negro’s future.

Summers in Los Angeles are generally temperate, but if the Clippers bow out in Round 1, there will be a high-pressure system hanging over the Clippers offices and training facility in Playa Vista, Calif.

The Clippers and Grizzlies open Act II

April, 30, 2013
4/30/13
1:42
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty ImagesMemphis center Marc Gasol: "We haven't done anything. We're 2-2."

Let’s not call what the Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies share a rivalry, because that’s a stamp reserved for rare use. But for the second consecutive season, the Clippers and Grizzlies are delivering us a serious piece of first-round entertainment that plays like something we usually see in late May. These games have been fueled by a familiar but unique grade of intensity, and with Game 5 set for Staples Center on Tuesday night, the heat in this series will be dialed up to maximum capacity.

Both last year and now, Clips-Griz has been the rare first-round series where an early bounce would be cataclysmic for both teams. Each team played championship-caliber basketball for sustained stretches during the regular season, and both have produced a single performance (Clippers Game 1, Grizzlies Game 4) as good as anything else on display in the first round.

The problem for both is that the furthest reaches of the playoff bracket generally have room for only one team of that breed. That means that in less than a week, one of these two 56-win teams will be in basketball purgatory after the most successful season in franchise history and showing glimpses of brilliance just days before elimination.

Beyond success or failure, there’s even more at stake. Chris Paul becomes a free agent on July 1. Although the probabilities of his remaining with the Clippers are very high, meeting last season’s benchmark leaves far less doubt than a playoff failure does.

On the Memphis side, it’s clear the Grizzlies’ new management is playing the long game. They’re an inquisitive group by their very nature, and it’s difficult to imagine the organization not fully exploring every opportunity this summer, even if that means losing guys who are major contributors to the team’s identity. The case for retaining the present core becomes an even tougher sell if the Grizzlies make a first-round exit for a second straight spring.

Neither coach is under contract for next season, which means the respective long-term prospects of Vinny Del Negro and Lionel Hollins are both in play, something we rarely see in a series. No matter how high the stated expectations or personal preferences, it’s hard to dismiss a coach who led a team that won a ton of basketball games and justified its playoff seeding. But it’s easy to argue for change if that team is either backsliding or stagnating.

A vulnerable Oklahoma City Thunder team -- the presumptive second-round matchup for whoever emerges from the wreckage -- compounds that intensity because both the Clippers and Grizzlies can see a navigable path to the NBA Finals.

The most competitive seven-game playoff series tend to be divided into two acts. The first four games comprise the first act. Although the Clippers and Grizzlies met 14 times in 15 months prior to this series, Act 1 served to re-establish the characters and larger themes of the series -- and the introduction of new ones.

The Grizzlies are the league’s most self-realized team. They’ve come to terms with their shortcomings, and when they’re at their best, the Grizzlies mitigate those flaws and focus on their undeniable strength. No other unit in the NBA features a frontcourt tandem that is so perfectly complementary as Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. For a team that ranked in the bottom half of the league in offensive efficiency during the regular season, man, Memphis runs some beautiful stuff when Gasol and Randolph are synchronized and using their big-man telepathy.

In Games 1 and 2 on their home court, the Clippers had relative success mucking this up. Much of that was Blake Griffin winning the battle of wits against Randolph down on the low block, but also the Clippers’ bigs applying pressure and making aggressive attempts to deny entry to Gasol and Randolph.

In Memphis, Gasol controlled the space on the floor, almost as the big man version of Chris Paul. Gasol obviously doesn’t have possession of the ball to the extent Paul does, but Gasol’s movement off the ball is just as vital to his team’s offense as Paul's movement of the ball is to the Clippers. Randolph’s work space is much smaller, but the baseline in Memphis belonged to him. Space dictates control underneath -- the angles available to Randolph when he’s fed the ball and looking to score (which he does at an efficient rate), and the room he’s afforded to gobble up misses. Armed with virtually no lethal perimeter shooting, the Grizzlies can’t succeed without executing the high-low game, Randolph isolated in the post and Gasol finding clean attempts by lifting to 20 feet against a scrambling Clippers’ defense.

The Clippers are almost mirror opposites of the Grizzlies and are a hard team to understand because they’re a study in contradiction. Critics -- and I’ve been one -- cite the team’s rudimentary offense which seems to stall at inopportune times against the league’s better defenses (Memphis is ranked No. 2 in the NBA). But as Del Negro rightly pointed out the other day, the Clippers ranked fourth in offensive efficiency this season. However much the Clippers’ half-court offense offends aesthetic sensibilities, the results bear out. Paul’s surgical work off the dribble and Griffin’s capacity to work at will on the block were the primary elements of control in Games 1 and 2.

So here we are at Act II, about 265 basketball possessions per team to culminate a season that’s seen almost 8,000. The Clippers and Grizzlies style different fashions on the court, but they both stake claim to possession control as the defining attribute to their master plans. For all the other factors that are ratcheting up the pressure in the series, that commonality -- the need to control not just tempo, but also physical and mental space -- boils the hottest.

Clippers at Memphis: Five things to watch

April, 25, 2013
4/25/13
10:47
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty ImagesChris Paul: The All-Star point guard that dare not speak its name.

The unspeakable
At Grizzlies practice on Wednesday, Tony Allen was asked very generally what adjustments his team needed to make in Game 3. Allen catalogued the greatest hits -- rebounding, “X factor” Eric Bledsoe, pick-and-roll coverage and “we need to try to make someone else beat us.”

Allen wasn’t referring to the aforementioned Bledsoe, rather Chris Paul.

Reporters are in the clarity business, so one asked Allen to confirm that Paul was, indeed, the person of interest. Allen conceded that he was. “I didn’t want to say his name,” Allen said. “I don’t mind talking about it. He is who he is. He’s an All-Star point guard. He’s been a pain in our behind these last two games, and we want to go out there and try to do our best to do a better job of containing him.”

Since Allen has been fixated on Paul since the Clippers point guard banked in the game winner in Game 2 on Monday night, it bears considering whether Allen will draw Him as his primary defensive assignment in Game 3. Cross-matching is fraught with risk because the rest of Memphis’ backcourt is on the small side, which means Chauncey Billups could post up and Jamal Crawford could rise and shoot. But the alternative -- having Paul probe the middle of the court unfettered -- could be fatal for Memphis.

The block
After battling foul trouble in Game 1, when he finished with only 10 points in 25 minutes, Blake Griffin quickly established himself as the focal point of the Clippers’ offense early in Game 2. Possession after possession in the first quarter, the Clippers fed Griffin down on the block, at one point on four consecutive possessions -- left, then right, then left, then right.

There’s still a vocal contingent that believes Griffin’s post game is nothing more than a jack-in-the-box -- a long windup followed by a random burst -- but Griffin beat Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and Darrell Arthur with jump steps, spins to get baseline when the defender crowded him, spins to get middle when the defense was stretched. All the while, Griffin did his John Wooden Best, acting quickly but never hurrying.

The Grizzlies looked for Gasol down low, as well. Gasol drew mismatches, then dragged the likes of Caron Butler to the post. Arthur pinned DeAndre Jordan at the elbow to allow Gasol to move low a step ahead of his defender. And they had Gasol roll deeper with the intention of getting him the ball closer to the basket.

All of this highlights one truism -- the Clippers need Griffin and the Grizzlies really need Gasol to score down low.

The whistle
Last season’s seven-game tilt between the Clippers and Grizzlies was an absolute slugfest. Perhaps in response, this season’s series has been officiated far more tightly, at least through the first two games. There’s some debate as to whom that favors, but the Grizzlies seem far more frustrated by the bevy of foul calls than the Clippers.

Asked on Wednesday how to avoid the kind of ticky-tack fouls that are hampering his team, a salty Lionel Hollins responded, “Stop committing ticky-tack fouls.”

Hollins has seen his team give up several points in the series by fouling 30 feet from the basket while the Clippers are in the bonus. The Grizzlies know better. They also know they’re the superior defensive team, albeit the one with less foot speed. As they come home for Game 3, the Grizzlies need to focus less on gladiating and more on what they do best as a defense -- sending opponents to destinations on the floor they have no desire to visit. Do that, and the rest will take care of itself.

The freak
The word is out on Bledsoe who, in 32 total minutes, has outrebounded the 7-foot Gasol, wreaked havoc on the Grizzlies’ backcourt and injected into the series an element of chaos. That's a quality that normally favors Memphis, but has worked to the Clippers’ benefit over the first two games.

Allen is right -- Bledsoe is the series’ X factor, the player whose speed exposes the Grizzlies’ lack thereof, and whose pressure upsets an opponent that needs a modicum of space to get what it wants offensively.

No instructions exist to contain Bledsoe, apart from waiting for him to self-combust, which will happen from time to time. Bledsoe averaged 16 minutes over the first two games, but Vinny Del Negro kept him on the floor during the Clippers’ fourth-quarter surge in Game 1. The Clippers’ coach has gradually invested a level of trust in Bledsoe, one that will continue to pay dividends when the game calls for some guerrilla warfare.

The coach
Speaking of Del Negro, a number of NBA insiders and observers have come to a similar conclusion: He’s coached his tail off over the first two games of the series.

Rather than shorten the Clippers’ rotation, the much-maligned Del Negro returned to what worked in November and December, when the Clippers played championship-level basketball for nearly eight weeks -- two well-defined units, with extended minutes for Paul and Griffin and slightly abbreviated stints for the starting wings.

So far as play calling, Del Negro still defers much of it to Paul, but has also installed a number of nifty sets that use Paul off the ball in order to get him some live catches and destabilize the Grizzlies’ sturdy defense. And watch for another pretty scheme where Paul dishes the ball off to the wing, makes a UCLA cut before reversing course to set a back screen for Griffin.

These are just a couple of examples. Each game, the Clippers show off a few new wrinkles in what’s been an otherwise rudimentary offense during Del Negro’s tenure as coach. The stuff is working -- and Del Negro and staff deserve praise.

Memphis at Clippers: Five things to watch

April, 22, 2013
4/22/13
2:02
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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Harry How/NBAE/Getty ImagesThe Grizzlies can't -- and probably won't -- get pummeled on the glass as they did in Game 1.

The Glass
Finding signs of encouragement after a 21-point loss can be like leading a search party in the dark, but if the Grizzlies are looking for some reassurance, it should come in the near certainty that they won’t be outrebounded again by a 2-to-1 margin. If that seemed unprecedented, that's because it was. Memphis didn't come anywhere close to a margin like that in any game during the regular season.

There’s a general belief that rebounding doesn’t slump in the NBA. A team like the Grizzlies, which dominated the boards in the regular season (second in overall rebounding rate), doesn’t forget how to ply its trade. Short of injury or a deliberate strategy like a zone defense or fronting the post -- tactics that can make it harder to crash the glass -- a debacle such as Saturday night's is an outlier.

The Grizzlies better hope so. They’re not a team endowed with much perimeter firepower or natural athleticism. They win basketball games by controlling possessions, something they simply can’t accomplish if the Clippers are collecting 42 percent of their misses.

The Point God
Chris Paul exerts an element of control over a basketball game that’s uncanny, and this hasn't been news in ages. What’s more interesting to observe is how he manages his role within the emotional and strategic contours of that game, not unlike LeBron James, in a sense. Is Paul creating for others, or hunting shots for himself? Is he conserving energy off the ball, or is he in Probe Mode?

On Saturday night, the answer was all of the above, and that’s really where Paul needs to be for the Clippers to achieve their full potential as an offensive club. We saw some new wrinkles to the Clippers’ half-court game, with Paul not exclusively an initiator but also a scorer. He came off screens for live-ball catches in a couple of inventive sets, the kind of stuff we haven’t always seen from the Clippers. But Paul also claimed several possessions for himself to test the mobility of the Memphis big men.

For Memphis, the pick-and-roll coverage has to improve, and the Grizzlies know that. They’re an exceptionally well-prepared group that’s completely devoted to the execution of a very intelligent defensive system. Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins and several players laid it out Sunday at practice.

“The guards have to do a better job of pushing up on the ball handlers,” Mike Conley said. “They were flipping the screens, so our big would show one way, but then their big would flip the screen and Chris would see it. I’d run into the screen pretty good and he’d get a full head of steam on our big man, and you can’t guard him when he’s got a full head of steam with the confidence he has in the paint.”

A defense might not be able to take away Paul’s confidence, but it can take away some real estate.

The Gamble
OK, so who’s going to defend Paul? A tough question because there’s no entirely satisfying answer. In Game 1, Hollins opted for Conley. This wasn’t an unreasonable conclusion.

Conley did an acceptable job of checking Paul during last year’s playoff series. Paul certainly created some quality shots, but he worked for just about everything and spent a fair amount of time in spots on the floor where he had no interest being.

But on Saturday, it wasn’t just that Paul got where he wanted to go, but that he got there in such little traffic. As Blake Griffin said, there was something extremely un-Grizzly about the Clippers' "getting what they wanted," and it can largely be attributed to the little resistance encountered by Paul.

The obvious alternative would be to stick Tony Allen on Paul, but that presents other risks, such as Chauncey Billups dragging Conley into the post. We saw Billups draw Conley on a switch in Game 1 and then promptly back Conley down before draining an easy midrange shot over him.

There are no good choices for guarding Paul, but that might be a risk the Grizzlies have to take. If nothing else, it’s putting your best defender where he’s most useful.

The Center
The league has only a handful of players through whom you can run your offense at the high post. Marc Gasol is one of them. On the possessions when Memphis’ offense is at its most fluid and attractive, chances are Gasol is stationed at the elbow.

The Grizzlies need Gasol to spend time at that spot and feed his teammates, but they also need him to generate some offense for himself, which is why Gasol’s ratio of low-post to high-post touches has been increasing recently. When Gasol is aggressive down on the block, he’s effective, and it’s not as if working down low strips him of his ability to be a playmaker. Instead of playing high-low with Zach Randolph, the Grizzlies can play block to block -- horizontal passes rather than vertical ones.

Having Gasol set up in the low post has its drawbacks. For one, it cramps Randolph a bit. The right block is where Randolph makes his living and serves his team best, and he needs a ribbon of empty space around him. But the Grizzlies do a nice job of staggering the minutes of their big men, which should provide Gasol with plenty of feeds closer to the basket.

The Spark
When the Clippers were ripping off 17 straight wins in December, the margins of victory could be credited to the performance of the second unit, which was decimating the league. Between Eric Bledsoe’s bedlam, Jamal Crawford’s marksmanship, Matt Barnes’ wiliness, Lamar Odom’s versatility and Ronny Turiaf’s … turiafity, the Clippers featured the most exciting and most productive bench in basketball. When excitement and productivity meet, you’re generally in a good place.

That’s the world the Clippers returned to in Game 1. “It felt like December” was something we heard a lot Saturday night and into Sunday, and nothing triggered that sense of deja vu more than the play of the bench.

The Grizzlies do chaos very well themselves, even if their complementary players aren't as talented. They also encountered this last April, so there’s no element of surprise. What they have to do now is neutralize to some degree the energy generated by the Clippers’ reinforcements.

Killer Lineup: Memphis' new crew

April, 17, 2013
4/17/13
10:03
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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Memphis Grizzlies
Mike Conley | Tony Allen | Tayshaun Prince | Zach Randolph | Marc Gasol
Minutes Played: 540
Offensive Rating: 102.2 points per 100 possessions
Defensive Rating: 88.8 points per 100 possessions

How it works defensively
We traditionally begin Killer Lineup with the offensive analysis, but when the Memphis Grizzlies are the subject, that’s burying the lead. Memphis’ defense ranks second in the league behind Indiana (and plays in the Western Conference, home to 11 of the 15 most efficient offenses) and has set the standard of consistency in the West over the past few seasons.

That’s impressive when you consider the slow-footed Randolph is the primary big defender in the pick-and-roll, Mike Conley is a Lilliputian and Tayshaun Prince is slight of frame and relatively new to the Grizzlies' system. But the system in Memphis is now so refined, so precise in its mission, that the personnel is almost secondary to its overarching principles.

Over the course of a few seasons, the Grizzlies’ pick-and-roll coverage has evolved from damage control to steady, and from steady to stranglehold. The Grizzlies down every screen with the intention of pushing the ball handler to the baseline. That’s every high screen-and-roll, every angle screen-and-roll and every side screen-and-roll.

Even if the Grizzlies wanted to toy with the idea of using the hard show as their primary defensive pick-and-roll tactic, that’s asking Randolph to jump out high, then dash back to find his man down low. The jumping out isn’t the problem. It’s the dashing back -- a brutal commute for a guy who moves the way he does. Randolph will occasionally stab or “short show,” but only when Conley is running under the pick.

The coverage schemes have worked, and we can attribute that to a common understanding of what each of the other four guys is going to do. The core of this unit has logged a lot of court time together, and it’s evident in their movements.

The big men intuitively can tell when Conley is going to get over a pick and when he won’t. That buys them a step or two, which is the difference between being in position for the ball handler’s attack, or being off-balanced while backpedaling against an oncoming driver.

Randolph’s teammates know he prefers not to leave the body of the guys he’s defending -- a job he’s confident he can do -- rather than be responsible for guarding open space or helping, a task he’s just not as naturally equipped for. This being the case, Conley, Tony Allen, Prince and Marc Gasol are a little more attuned to the possibility that they might need to rotate or, for the perimeter guys, at least stunt very hard.

On pick-and-rolls, Gasol is an avid reader. He drops carefully, gauging angles and sizing up the ball handler while shading the roll man, if necessary. Allen and Conley know Gasol’s tendencies, and on the rare occasions he gets beat in isolation, Allen almost always funnels the penetrator to a crowded spot, while Conley usually gets it done.

Conley used to struggle defending the pick-and-roll. Early in his career, he got hit a ton trying to fight around screens. Today he ranks as one of the more punctual point guards in the league at getting over or under a high pick. That’s essential for these big men, especially Randolph. The Grizzlies help Conley out in this capacity by having him to pressure the ball handler way out to 25 feet or so. This gives Conley the option to scamper under the pick without great risk that the ball handler will launch a shot from that distance.

It’s rare to see Allen get hung up on a screen, and on the ball he’s arguably the best defender in basketball. Culturally and strategically, he and Gasol act as the bookends of the Grizzlies’ defense. It’s hard to succeed against this unit with the pick-and-roll, but Allen is a deterrent to isolate, because even a potent one-on-one player rarely produces efficiently against Allen. An opposing scorer will often look to draw a foul early on Allen in hopes of loosening the vise.

The Grizzlies view another one of Allen’s specialities, the deflection, as essential to their defensive strategy. The Grizzlies aren’t as fixed to playing a gap defense on every possession, where defending space is the primary goal. They're more of a defense that applies constant pressure on the ball and will gamble ranks possession of the ball as its primary goal. Allen, Conley and Prince are constantly aggressive, but they opt for big plays on the ball selectively. Before they commit to risk, they run a cost-benefit analysis, and calculate while simultaneously reading the offense and hounding the ball. Meanwhile, Gasol and Randolph employ a constant awareness that teammates on the perimeter might strike for the ball, an instinct that’s learned over time.

The arrival of Prince has improved the starting unit’s defensive performance by 4.5 points per 100 possessions. Prince doesn’t have Rudy Gay’s closing speed, nor can he shoot the gap for a steal as quickly, but he compensates in savvy. Prince saves himself several steps a game merely by being in the right place and can navigate screens and with his sheer intuition can beat a guy to his spot, something that makes life easier for everyone else.

All of these attributes in sum lure Grizz opponents into iffy decisions, because poor choices are all that remain for an offense once the Grizzlies have taken away the best stuff.
 

How it works offensively
How do you design a functional offense with no real lethal perimeter threat, very little foot speed or elite athleticism up front, an offensive cipher at shooting guard, a point guard who isn’t inclined to light up the scoreboard and a veteran wing who’s more intuitive than dangerous?

Not an easy question for Memphis, because an offense that doesn’t force rotations and can’t get much separation from defenders has a tough time finding clean looks at the basket. Many believed the task would grow even more difficult with the departure of Gay, the one player on the floor who could create his own shot out of nothing. But Prince has stepped into Gay’s place in the starting lineup, and the Grizzlies’ offense hasn’t suffered -- 0.6 points per 100 possessions more efficient to be exact.

The ball isn’t nearly as sticky in Memphis as it was four months ago. Randolph still gets his share of post-ups down on the right block, but Prince isn’t hunting for many 1-on-1 opportunities. As a result, the Grizzlies have taken most of those isolation calls for Gay and converted them into more fluid offense, much of it centered around Gasol at the elbow.

Gasol has emerged as one of the NBA’s most interesting two-way players. He’s simultaneously cerebral and emotive, deferential and assertive. He’s happiest when playmaking, but still gets the urge to work over a smaller defender down on the box. That instinct is a good one, because the Grizzlies need Gasol’s scoring to be successful.

As it turns out, finding opportunities for Gasol isn’t all that difficult. The Grizzlies are increasingly looking for him in the low post, and if he draws a mismatch against the opposing power forward (or, better yet, a perimeter player), that practically initiates an auto-feed. The Grizzlies also run a sequence of high picks for Conley -- first Randolph, who often draws Gasol’s man on the dive, then Gasol, who then moves into open space against a rotating defense. Gasol will face-up or, increasingly, put the ball on the floor and take two big strides before unleashing a running hook or that big whooping crane dunk. A pick-and-pop from the free throw line, a fake handoff before a turnaround jumper or a flash to the high post to release pressure against a double-team of Randolph all work, too.

Strange as it sounds, Gasol is still figuring stuff out. Should he roll deeper to the hoop to draw the defense low, or does that infringe on Randolph’s space? Should he shuttle the ball to the weak side out of principle, or launch his shot without hesitation? Wait for a baseline cut or initiate movement himself? There’s a lot on Marc Gasol’s mind, but the contents make Memphis smarter.

Risk can intimidate a conservative young point guard, but Conley has gradually gained the confidence to play in deeper water. He’s a more willing prober and will turn the corner off a pick regardless of the big defender’s position. Conley is no longer worried about Randolph’s man cutting him off at the rim or whether Gay gets the big drumstick. He’s learned that the offense works best when he initiates. Sometimes nothing will develop and the Grizzlies will get into a play late, but that’s OK, so long as you know where the best alternatives are.

He’s been helped by the collective awareness of the Memphis staff, Gasol and, to a lesser extent, Randolph. They’re aware that Conley is a point guard who needs an alley going to the basket, especially when he goes right. When Gasol and Randolph offer picks, they’re mindful of not only where their opportunities await, but how their movement will impact the Conley Empowerment Plan.

Early and direct post-ups to Randolph used to be the mainstay diet of the Grizzlies’ offense, but defenses now scheme for these calls. To compound matters, Randolph has absorbed plenty of wear and tear, and the Grizzlies don’t feature any long-range shooters whom Randolph can find out of a double-team. These inconveniences of life in the Grizzlies' offense necessitate that he work more often in the pick-and-roll.

Getting an old baller like Randolph to buy in requires some salesmanship. Randolph understands that pick-and-rolls mean he’s more likely to be facing single coverages, often against rotational defenders and/or guards. Those rotations create additional opportunities for the patented high-low game between Gasol and him. Yet pick-and-roll sequences still demand a whole lot more exertion than just establishing a beachhead on the edge of the paint and waiting for the ball. A rolling Randolph also puts the defense in motion, which allows supporting players like Prince and Allen to sneak behind the defense.

Prince has helped matters because he can pass and handle the ball, and these skills have precipitated new wrinkles in the offense. Now the Grizzlies can have Prince bring up the ball and screen down for Conley in the corner, or run 3-man, cornerish stuff with Prince, Conley and Gasol at the elbow.

Not that it’s easy for Memphis. For example, that 3-man action with the starting unit still means Allen and Randolph are manning the weak side, an invitation for defenses to tilt toward the ball. Allen can occasionally punish that negligence by cutting back door, but for every feed he gets underneath, there are still plenty of possessions where the Grizzlies’ lack of stretch can bottle things up, especially when the ball stops.

All this means that the Grizzlies have to work harder than most teams, as has been the case for a couple of seasons. It’s getting a little bit easier. Moving the ball to the second side of the floor in Memphis used to be like sledding uphill, but over the past couple of months, the terrain has leveled out a bit.

The NBA's hurt locker

March, 26, 2013
3/26/13
5:31
PM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
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NBAE/Getty ImagesJust as their teams were hitting their strides, Marc Gasol and Ty Lawson went down.
For a while, the Memphis Grizzlies were the Western Conference’s most intriguing story. During the height of the season, they dealt their most prolific scorer (Rudy Gay) for a less selfish one (Tayshaun Prince). Following the trade, the Grizzlies cratered for a period, as a malaise infected a somber locker room. But once they incorporated Prince into their defensive schemes and worked out their rotations, the Grizzlies rallied with a fury to win 14 of 15 games.

While Memphis was experiencing its Glasnost, the Denver Nuggets cruised through their schedule like a snowmobile through powder. They ran up 15 straight wins with the NBA’s most improvisational and electric offense, paying tribute to Doug Moe’s “organized chaos” of the early-model Nuggets.

For weeks it appeared the Los Angeles Clippers were a lock to finish in the No. 3 slot, but with Memphis and Denver ripping off wins in bunches, the West’s third seed was put back into play -- and the best race for playoff positioning was under way.

Then, just as the drive for the postseason was becoming scenic, the Grizzlies lost Marc Gasol to an abdominal tear and Denver's Ty Lawson was sidelined with a heel injury. As Gasol watched in street clothes, the Grizzlies fell back to earth. The Grizzlies barely held off at home a Celtics team that hadn’t won a road game since March 6 and dropped a game in ugly fashion at Washington. With Lawson out, Denver stole a game at home against a decimated Sixers squad, squeaked by Sacramento (also in Denver) and was blown out in New Orleans.

In an instant, the screen went dark in the Western Conference just as things were getting good. The Grizzlies and Nuggets are still playing games, but at the moment when each team was hitting its stride and making a compelling case that it could play with anyone, the best talent left the scene.

Injuries are an inconvenient reality in pro basketball, and every night coaches and players stand before the media and insist that a depleted roster is no excuse for a drop-off in performance. “Nobody is 100 percent this time of year” is practically a spring sonnet in the NBA.

Consider the implications of this: At the most dramatic juncture of the season when elite players should be putting their imprints on the playoff race, they’re competing at less than full strength -- if they’re competing at all. In addition to Gasol and Lawson, Dwyane Wade and David West are missing games; Carmelo Anthony and Tony Parker have missed significant time as well.

It’s tough to draw a direct correlation between the length and workload of an NBA season and player health. Abdominal tears can occur during Game 10, and a player can suffer a heel injury during a summer workout. But when you talk to NBA players and coaches about player health, when you see more and more guys shuffling in and out of the treatment room after practices and games as the season grinds on, it’s clear that an 82-game season isn’t helping. Humans are far more likely to suffer injuries when they’re exhausted, and there’s legitimate evidence that excessive minutes hurt performance while rest improves the well-being of an athlete.

The result is that fans are also deprived of barn-burner basketball. Did you see the Memphis’ new killer lineup and its plus-13.4 point differential per 100 possessions? Or the skid marks left by the Nuggets on a nightly basis at Pepsi Center? There was hardly a trace of all that Monday night in Washington and New Orleans, respectively.

“Nobody is 100 percent this time of year” is a silly way to run a business that’s driven by star power during the latter stages of the season. In what other sector are the highest performing employees absent during the busy time of year when the success and failure of the enterprise is on the line?

The Memphis Grizzlies' inside job

March, 14, 2013
3/14/13
2:36
AM ET
Arnovitz By Kevin Arnovitz
ESPN.com
Archive
Marc Gasol
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty ImagesThis is the way the Memphis Grizzlies will win basketball games -- at close range.

LOS ANGELES -- On Feb. 6 in Atlanta, the Memphis Grizzlies hit rock bottom. The team was still smarting from the Rudy Gay trade and head coach Lionel Hollins was downright surly. The Grizzlies were not a basketball team in good spirits, as they sleepwalked through an ugly loss to the Atlanta Hawks.

Five weeks later, the Grizzlies have dropped exactly one game since -- a competitive road loss to the Miami Heat. The locker room at Staples Center before and after their 96-85 win over the Los Angeles Clippers was a perceptibly happier place. The Grizzlies had moved two games ahead of the Clippers in the loss column for the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference, and as guys hurried to dress for the 10:30 p.m. bus back to the hotel, the buzzword was chemistry -- uttered by no fewer than three players or coaches.

“I think what’s happening now is that our chemistry has gotten to a level that everybody is just doing the extra thing for one another,” Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley said. “We’re not worried about ourselves as individuals.”

From the top to the bottom of the organization, the Grizzlies are a team well aware of its limitations. The Griz recognize that they’re a scrappy group -- Conley preferred “crafty” on Wednesday night -- that can defend the half court and pick up a few easy buckets by disrupting passing lanes. But they also know their lack of outside shooting makes it difficult to force opposing defenses into rotations and close-outs, which, in turn, makes scoring a chore for the Grizzlies.

As a result, the Grizzlies are in a perpetual state of problem-solving. In a league in which spread offenses dominate whiteboards and 3-point shooting has been almost universally recognized as the most efficient way to rack up points, Memphis has to find a different way. The Grizzlies have to use their size, make their imprint on the game with their defense, and then hope the offense can tread water with a peculiar assortment of putbacks, midrange jumpers and transition layups.

On Wednesday night at Staples Center, the Grizzlies’ offense did more than tread water. It zipped across the court in a jet ski. In a game that featured only 83 possessions, unofficially, the Grizzlies ran up 96 points, good for a whopping 115.7 points per 100 possessions.

It started, as it often does, with Marc Gasol (21 points on 10-for-14 shooting from the field). With the help of Conley (17 points and 11 assists), Gasol found clean looks in the half court all night. Many of those were the result of simple, instinctive plays. In the third quarter, Gasol held the ball on the perimeter, handed it off to Conley as his point guard swept behind him. Gasol then dove toward the hole where Conley delivered a bounce pass en route. The result? A wide open 12-footer for Gasol on the left side.

When a team has skilled players like Gasol, it doesn’t need much ingenuity -- just execution and smart plays that yield high-percentage stuff inside. Gasol’s interplay with fellow big man Zach Randolph is nothing new, but as defenses sag against Memphis, finding space for Gasol can be problematic, but not on Wednesday. The Clippers had no answer for the Grizzlies’ big men, as Gasol and Randolph ran a clinic on interior offense. Randolph finished with 13 points and eight rebounds, but commanded plenty of attention down low.

After the game, Gasol explained how much of Memphis’ high-low game is the result of simple reads -- Randolph recognizing that Gasol drew the smaller “4” man as a defender and getting him the ball close to the basket, or possibly Gasol seeing Randolph duck in along the baseline behind the defense if Z-Bo’s man steps out to cut off a drive. And both guys have to allow Conley to initiate.

“You just have to read space,” Gasol said. “I give Mike an alley. If the big man stays on the ball, then I’m going to have the open shot. If Zach’s man steps up to challenge, then that creates space for him to duck in.”

It sounds elementary, but space on the offensive end comes at a premium for Memphis. It’s not impossible to find, but the Grizzlies have to look harder than most teams. Relative newcomer Tayshaun Prince is helping matters, though most of his 18 points on Wednesday night came around the basket. He exploited mismatches, worked his favorite spot on the right block and converted a couple of misses with tip-ins.

“[Prince] got game,” Randolph said. “See how he was stretching out tonight? That was Young Tay. Like he was 21.”

Prince immediately deflected all praise to Gasol and Randolph.

“I have to give credits to my bigs,” Prince said. “It’s hard for [defenders] to come off those two big guys. So if a guy on a team has it rolling, we can keep going to that because we have two bigs that can create double-teams and [defenders] don’t really want to come off them.”

The Grizzlies aren’t going to win a lot of games from long range, but if they can adopt Prince’s fundamental understanding of the team’s strength and exploit the interior space Gasol referred to, there’s real possibility -- especially for a team whose second-ranked defense is ready for spring.

Memphis Grizzlies need space

February, 7, 2013
2/07/13
1:59
PM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
ESPN.com
Archive
The Memphis Grizzlies have lost three of their four games since trading Rudy Gay, and in that time the offense has struggled. Because Gay led Memphis in scoring and shots per game, it's easy to connect their issues with Gay's absence. But the truth is that the Grizzlies' offensive woes are more systemic than they are rooted in personnel. For example: In January, when Gay was still on the roster, they went through a seven-game stretch in which they failed to score more than 85 points.

When you watch Memphis, you might notice a relative lack of movement on the offensive end. But a lack of spacing is a big problem too, and one that stems from problems besides a lack of 3-point shooting.
  • With Memphis trailing Phoenix 88-86 and 2:30 left Tuesday night, Mike Conley drove the lane and was apparently fouled by a Phoenix big man coming over to help. Except the foul was on Marc Gasol, who backed his way into the defender and caused the contact with Conley. This is something Memphis' two starting bigs, Gasol and Zach Randolph, do regularly, presumably to establish good position for an offensive rebound. Though both Gasol and Randolph can shoot, they spend most of their time on the low block, jockeying for position. As a result, there's very little space to drive in the first place, and when a player does drive, both Memphis bigs have a habit of crowding toward the paint rather than floating to the short corner. This allows the help defender to bother the driving player without leaving his man. The problem facing Memphis is that offensive rebounds constitute a vital part of their offense. The Grizzlies must find a way to open space without completely abandoning their effective rebounding.
  • When Gasol or Randolph isolates in the post -- something Memphis really likes to do -- keep an eye on how many Grizzlies are beyond the 3-point line. On many occasions, that number is one. Memphis doesn't have many shooters, but just because a player doesn't intend to shoot a 3 doesn't mean he can't stand out there. It's a much better place from which to start a cut to the basket and opens up passing angles out of the post.
  • Generally, the Grizzlies seem unsure of the plan when they get into those post isolations. This could be a result of Tayshaun Prince's unfamiliarity with the offense, but the timing and routing of their cuts often seem improvised. That can work, but often two Grizzlies will cut at the same time or, in anticipation of a teammate's cut, no one at all will cut. In addition to complicating the post-up player's job as a passer, it also prevents Memphis from quickly moving into secondary actions on the weakside when the post player passes out.
  • Prince has played two full games (66 minutes) without shooting a 3-pointer. You can't be the small forward alongside Tony Allen and not shoot 3s. This is related to the previous bullets: Prince doesn't hunt 3-point shots by waiting a stride behind the line so that he can step into a 3. He either waits with his toes on the line or creeps toward the paint, where a long 2-pointer is his only option. This should be an easy fix for Memphis.
  • The second unit runs a lot of double pick-and-roll action early in the shot clock in which the point guard, either Tony Wroten or Jerryd Bayless, comes off two screens in the middle of the court. One of the screeners will pop for a 18-footer, the other will dive to the rim. This movement takes advantage of one of the fundamental principles of basketball movement: You have to go away from the space you want to use. For most teams, and certainly in Memphis' case, that space is the paint. Sets that begin with both bigs away from the paint might sacrifice some offensive rebounding opportunities, but they also create space to post up for the big who rolls to the rim. This is a dynamic the San Antonio Spurs take full advantage of, even when they play Tiago Splitter and Tim Duncan at the same time. Neither can shoot 3s, but they are so disciplined in their spacing that they keep out of each other's way.

Time to get the Grizzlies' offense moving

January, 31, 2013
1/31/13
9:35
AM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
ESPN.com
Archive
Marc Gasol
AP Photo/Danny Johnston
More movement could free up the Grizzlies' offense.

Trading Rudy Gay freed Memphis from one of the NBA’s largest contracts. It could also free them from an underperforming offensive style that includes way too much standing around.

The Grizzlies do a lot of things right. Lionel Hollins has a reputation for being a players’ coach, and the tenacity of his team’s defense and rebounding speaks to his ability to keep players hungry and motivated. But the X’s and O’s of his offense, which is overseen by Henry Bibby, seems stuck in an NBA past that is not coming back. Walking the ball up and banging it into the post is just not a viable way to consistently generate great offense.

The Grizzlies generate a ton of turnovers, which for most teams would lead to a ton of easy buckets and offensive efficiency. But not on this team, which struggles to score both on the break and from the 3-point line.

The problem is stagnation.

The Grizzlies attempt fewer 3s than every team but one -- and also make them at the seventh-worst percentage in the league. Some of that has been about personnel -- there's a reason the newcomers are shooters like Tayshaun Prince (43 percent), Austin Daye (53 percent) and Jon Leuer (47 percent in the D-League). More quality long-range shooting helps. But good offense doesn't require it. Just ask the Utah Jazz, who have long achieved good offensive efficiency through player movement.

Utah’s flex-driven motion offense generates spacing and opportunities through a system of movement and screening. That’s how the Jazz far outpace the Grizzlies in free throw rate and transition scoring -- two areas where Memphis lags badly.

Memphis shows all kind of grit on defense, but the offense is all grind -- to a halt.

The problems start at the beginning of most possessions, when the Grizzlies choose to walk the ball up court. Very few of the NBA's best offenses regularly do this, and it's not just about shooting early in the clock. Here's Kevin Arnovitz describing the Spurs:
The Spurs force their opponents to defend for a good 18 seconds. They’re all discipline and patience and slow-playing their hand in a half-court possession. They know that, more times than not, even a capable NBA defense will make a bad decision at some point, especially if the Spurs keep moving, picking and cutting.

Many Memphis possessions don’t really start until the shot clock is close to single digits. The defense has less work to do and less time to make mistakes before a shot goes up.

And even when Memphis does get into a set, the team struggles to generate snappy ball movement. The departed Gay and the remaining Zach Randolph, in particular, both have sticky hands and tendencies to seek one-on-one scoring opportunities.

This was particularly ineffective for Gay, a slasher who'd like to find his way to the rim. He was fed the ball often enough to lead the team in shot attempts, but so often his drives ended in a less efficient midrange jumper because Marc Gasol, Randolph and their defenders were hogging the paint. Like all slashers, Gay would come off a screen looking for daylight, and instead he'd see a clogged lane with muddled driving angles.

Randolph is fairly productive as a post-up or isolation threat, as are the Grizzlies as a team. They rank above average in both categories according to Synergy. But here’s the thing: Those two ways of scoring make up the least efficient ways to get buckets in the NBA. Having a great isolation player is most useful when he can distract multiple defenders and create open looks for teammates. In Memphis, that just has not been the case.

The lack of movement also contributes to a lack of free throws because while the Grizzlies have a number of players who can get decent shots, they don’t really have a lights-out go-to scorer who can consistently create from nothing. Conversely, a motion-heavy offense like the modified flex sets that Utah runs rely on off-ball movement to generate advantages for players before they even catch the ball.

Most people consider Gay to be a superior player and athlete to Gordon Hayward, but I’ll take Hayward catching the ball with a step on a recovering defender over Gay or Prince on the wing in isolation against a set defense. And indeed, Hayward draws 5.7 fouls per 36 minutes to Gay’s 3.6.

There are moments of genuine fluidity and grace in Memphis’ offense, particularly when Mike Conley and Gasol work together on pick-and-rolls or Gasol, a genius passer, operates from the high post as his teammates cut around him. But too often, the offense seems dedicated to seeking advantages in one-on-one matchups, rather than a group effort to find one-on-none.

The Grizzlies start four good offensive players and Tony Allen, which ought to be enough to carve up most NBA defenses. An offense like the flex, in particular, with all its screening and cutting and passing from the high post would also perfectly suit Gasol’s gift for finding the open man, while keeping guys like Randolph in position to attack the offensive glass.

With Gay gone, Memphis has a chance to infuse more motion, ball movement and life into its offense. If the Grizzlies can, this deal might pay off on the court as much as on their cap sheet.

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