In Game 3 of the Western Conference Semifinals series, the Memphis Grizzlies defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder by a score of 87-81. As a result of their victory, the Grizzlies have taken a 2-1 series lead with Game 4 set to transpire in Memphis.
In the process, the Grizzlies have brought back old-school defense to the 2013 NBA playoffs.
Memphis made waves during the 2012-13 regular season, trading franchise player Rudy Gay, sharpshooter Wayne Ellington and future big man Marreese Speights. With those moves, it was widely speculated that the Grizzlies had quit on their 2013 title hopes.
Oh, how wrong we've been.
The Grizzlies finished the regular season at fifth in the Western Conference with a record of 56-26. For perspective, that would have led the Grizzlies to a seeding of second in the Eastern Conference.
They did it all with defense.
Upon trading Gay, the Grizzlies proceeded to lose three of their next four games, and thus, temporarily confirmed the notion that they were weaker without their star. From that point onward, Memphis went 26-8.
They did so by leading the NBA in scoring defense at 89.3 points allowed per game—the only team to allow less than 90.0.
During Game 3, it was more of the same, as the Grizzlies held the Thunder to 36.4 percent shooting from the field. Not only were the Thunder unable to shoot consistently but there wasn't an angle on the floor that they were able to get off a clean look.
Just check the shot chart.
The question is simple, at this point—how is Memphis this good?
Elite Perimeter Defense
The word elite is often utilized without care, labeling any player with a sign of quality play as one of the best in the world. The truth of the matter is, the Memphis Grizzlies' perimeter defense is beyond worthy of the label.
They're one of the best we've seen in recent memory.
Tony Allen is a proven commodity, pairing smashmouth, in-your-face defense with patience as a ball hawk. That led to Allen earning the most votes in a poll of the NBA's general managers that named him the top perimeter defender in the NBA.
Alongside Allen is another powerful defensive force in point guard Mike Conley. Conley's placed in the top three in steals per game in each of the past two seasons and ranked sixth in 2010-11.
Anyone who'd like to debate Conley's star defensive status, just check the numbers.
Per Synergy Sports, the former Ohio State Buckeye allowed 0.67 points per isolation play. By comparison perennial All-Defensive Team selection Chris Paul allowed 0.88 per ISO situation and LeBron James let up 0.81.
Conley is elite defensively.
To round it all off, the Grizzlies added four-time All-Defensive Team selection and former NBA champion Tayshaun Prince. In turn, the Grizzlies have effectively constructed one of, if not, the best defensive trios in the league.
And we haven't even touched on the 2013 Defensive Player of the Year.
The Memphis Grizzlies may not be the "Bad Boy" Detroit Pistons, but they're eerily similar to the 2004 championship version. They boast an elite defensive perimeter, are led by the Defensive Player of the Year at center and boast an offensive power at power forward.
They also have Prince, but who's nitpicking?
The key to Memphis' defense is center and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol. Not only was Gasol responsible for 1.7 blocks and 1.0 steal per game, but he anchored the league's top-ranked scoring defense.
With his presence established, the Grizzlies have effectively cut off the paint for an Oklahoma City Thunder team that thrives on jump shooting and slashing to the basket.
Russell Westbrook may be gone, but OKC's formula for offense is to run through Kevin Durant and Kevin Martin. When their jump shooting isn't the target, Reggie Jackson has been effectively attacking the basket.
With that being said, Game 3 was a statement game—the Thunder posted a team slash line of .364/.278/.632.
How It Works
Regardless of whom they draw, the Memphis Grizzlies have the defensive answer for the opposition. They have elite isolation defenders on the perimeter, length at the forward spots and a center that earned the Defensive Player of the Year award.
So how does it all work?
What the Grizzlies do best is press their men along the perimeter. Mike Conley and Tony Allen are masters of doing this, as they can swipe the ball free or simply force the ball-handler to give up their dribble.
A major reason for their confidence in playing such aggressive perimeter defense is the caliber of defenders behind them.
If an opponent is to beat Conley or Allen off the bounce, they'll likely look to attack the lane or drive-and-dish. In the case of the latter strategy, Prince's length is a weapon that not only disrupts passing lanes, but closes them off.
This leaves the unfavorable alternative of finishing in the lane.
Zach Randolph may not be the most decorated defender, but he's 6'9" and 260 pounds of power and rebounding prowess. Not only does he know how to use his physicality down low, but he forces opponents to alter the trajectory of their drive.
Now you meet Gasol.
Gasol finished the season with average of 1.7 blocks per game, but it's not just about swatting shots. Gasol has superb recovery ability when stepping off of his man, which enables him to contest a slasher's shot or react to his diving assignment.
To put it simply, Memphis covers all bases defensively—something we haven't seen in a long, long time.