Memphis Grizzlies Enter Elite Club of Ugly NBA Powerhouses

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Memphis Grizzlies Enter Elite Club of Ugly NBA Powerhouses
Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The Memphis Grizzlies defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder by a final score of 88-84 in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals. And in typical "grit 'n grind" fashion, the Grizz notched their win with a style that was far from aesthetically appealing, but still damned effective.

Memphis made only 37 percent of its shots and knocked down a grand total of three triples, but thanks to its defense, those numbers were enough.

The results are in: Ugly wins.

By adopting and embracing a brutally physical, defense-first style, Memphis has turned itself into one of those rare title contenders that gets the job done without a whole lot of flair. Thinking back on champions past, the vast majority had some kind of conventional superstar whose dazzling offensive skills pushed his team over the top.

Guys like Michael Jordan, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kobe Bryant and LeBron James are supposed to lead their teams to titles. Since when does someone like Marc Gasol belong in that group?

Well, he doesn't. Not really, anyway.

It's important to note here that Gasol might very well be a superstar—just not in the conventional sense. He was rightfully acknowledged this year as the league's best defensive player, and his skills as a facilitator make him one of the 10 most impactful two-way threats in the league.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

But he's not a highlight generator, and very little of what he does well is readily apparent to casual viewers. He's great, but not in a way that syncs up with what we've grown used to seeing from the best players on championship-caliber teams.

And in a broader sense, the Grizzlies don't really measure up to other championship clubs we've seen recently, either.

There are some elements of the 1999 San Antonio Spurs, in that Gasol and Zach Randolph give them a hulking tandem up front that compares reasonably well to Tim Duncan and David Robinson.

At the same time, they've got elements of the 2004 Detroit Pistons, who got by with defense and a total team approach that eschewed the notion that superstars were necessary to get rings.

Tom Pidgeon/Getty Images

What's interesting is that the Grizzlies do share something with both of those past champions: They've found a way to generate offense to complement what they do on the defensive end of the floor. Appropriately, though, Memphis has been using its bulk and physicality to get the job done.

Of the teams that advanced to the conference semifinals, the Grizzlies rank first in points in the paint (41.7 per game), second in second-chance points (14.7 per game) and fourth in points off turnovers (16.2 per game). When you don't have a stable of reliable outside shooters or a dominant wing scorer, these are the ways you have to generate points.

Coupled with the Grizzlies' incredibly low turnover rate (only 11 percent of their possessions have ended in giveaways, which is the best figure of any postseason team), the subtle ways they use their size and strength to maximize scoring opportunities has actually resulted in an offense (104.4 points per 100 possession in 11 playoff games) that would have ranked among the league's top 10 in the regular season.

But I think we're all in agreement that Memphis' excellent play has had little to do with its offense.

The Grizzlies defend at a level that was exceeded (by the slimmest of margins) during the regular season by only the Indiana Pacers. To a man, the Grizzlies take pride in dominating individual matchups by being more physical than their opponents.

Gasol and Randolph beat up Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan in the first round, and they followed it up by wearing out Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins (a physical player in his own right) in the second.

In addition, Tony Allen, Quincy Pondexter and Tayshaun Prince conspired to make Kevin Durant's semifinal series a black-and-blue nightmare. Mission accomplished.

There might be a couple of caveats to lumping the Grizzlies in with the league's best "ugly" teams in recent years. After all, they've feasted on the two worst-coached clubs of the 2013 postseason crop. Vinny Del Negro trotted out a lineup in the fourth quarter of an elimination game that had played only a handful of minutes together during the year.

And we all know how poorly Scott Brooks' offense adjusted to the loss of Russell Westbrook.

Let's not take anything away from the Grizzlies, though. They beat teams into submission during the regular season, and they're doing the same thing now.

We don't yet know whether the Grizzlies will face the Golden State Warriors or the Spurs in the Western Conference finals. But one thing's for sure: Memphis' ugly effectiveness makes it a threat to beat absolutely anyone.

 

*All stats via NBA.com and ESPN.com unless otherwise indicated.

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