Why the NBA Must Fear the Surging Memphis Grizzlies

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Why the NBA Must Fear the Surging Memphis Grizzlies
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Fear the Memphis Grizzlies. Like you're incurring the wrath of Kobe Bryant's infamous death stare, fear them.

Also know that you weren't supposed to fear them. After trading Rudy Gay, their superstar, the Grizzlies had essentially closed the door on contending this season.

Or, you know, so some thought.

Memphis is 15-4 since dealing Gay, has won 14 of its last 15 and now has the third-best record in the Western Conference.

Color us surprised. Even the optimists, the ones who remained steadfast in their belief that the Grizzlies would be fine after shipping Gay out, are surprised. Perhaps slightly perplexed as well.

Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports
Memphis has taken the league by surprise once again.

The Grizzlies don't seem to emulate the NBA's usual contenders. Post-Gay, they still rank 23rd in three-point percentage (34.7) and 26th in points scored per game (93.8).

At a time when stretch forwards reign supreme and potent offensive attacks are the standard, the Grizzlies continue to exemplify the peculiar.

They don't rely on shooting or their 18th-ranked transition offense to deliver them wins. Instead, they place stock in controlling the pace—which is both uncommon and, in more ways than one, intimidating.

Memphis ranks first in points allowed (89.4) and sixth in opponent field-goal percentage (43.9), and despite ranking so low in the offensive department, the Grizzlies have the seventh-highest point differential in the league.

Is that what makes them so dangerous?

To an extent, yes. But the real accomplishment here is sustaining this performance after the Gay blockbuster.

USA TODAY Sports
The Grizzlies still set the tone with their defense.

Over the last 15 games, the Grizzlies have still relinquished an average of just 89.4 points. They've allowed opponents to drop 100 or more on them just once during this stretch, and they've held teams to fewer than 90 nine times.

On the season, the Grizzlies have held opponents under 90 points 34 times, putting them in a three-way tie for most in the league. That they continue to stifle offensive attacks on a regular basis is terrifying, especially come playoff time when the pace of play slows down considerably.

You might be wondering what separates them from a team like the Indiana Pacers or Chicago Bulls, the other two squads that have allowed fewer than 90 points 34 times. And the answer is simple: The Grizzlies are making more out of those outings than any other team, including the Bulls and Pacers.

Lionel Hollins' crew is 30-4 when holding opponents under 90 points. By comparison, the Bulls and Pacers come in at 26-8 and 28-6, respectively. Impressive? Yes, but not quite up to par with Memphis.

Scared yet?

The Grizzlies have been rolling.

In the Grizzlies, we have a scrappy group that embraces physical play. They fight for rebounds, chase down lose balls, defend like there's only one side of the ball and revel in ugly, often stagnant, conditions.

We also have a team who is starting to figure out its offense (via Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN.com):

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. 

For a team who ranks 18th in points per 100 possession (105.1), that 115.7 is monstrous.

It's not that the Grizzlies have overwhelmed us with their scoring, because they haven't. But their chemistry and their efficiency continue to improve.

Though they rank 17th in field-goal percentage (44.5), they've bumped it up to 46.4 over the last 15 games. Their three-point clip has gone from 34.7 to 35.4, and their 93.8 points per game have increased to 94.8.

These subtle offensive improvements, coupled with the continuously domineering nature of their rotation-heavy defense, have left them nearly infallible since going 1-3 in their first four games without Gay.

Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports
Memphis has put the rest of the league on notice.

In a span of just 15 games, the Grizzlies have reestablished themselves as a championship threat. They've emphasized defense while improving their decision making and spacing on offense, and they're thriving at a time when many predicted they'd be reeling.

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Savvy such as this duplicates what Memphis did in the 2011 playoffs, when the San Antonio Spurs were sent home early and the Oklahoma City Thunder were pushed to the brink at the hands of the eighth-seeded, Gay-less Grizzlies.

But this time, the Grizzlies have already established their place in the food chain. This year, they're no longer a well-kept secret.

They're a full-fledged force whose defensive war cry has reverberated and can be heard throughout the Association; the footprints of their recent success put the rest of the NBA on notice.

The Grizzlies are coming. Consider yourselves warned.

 

*All stats used in this article were compiled from Basketball-Reference, Synergy Sports and 82games.com unless otherwise noted.

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