The Memphis Grizzlies will need a stellar playoff rotation in order to possibly advance, and we will give it to them.
As the seventh seed, Memphis will face the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round, and the Grizzlies will have to play to their identity for a chance to beat them. Memphis is a tough defensive team that prides itself on beating up opponents, which how they upset OKC last season without Russell Westbrook.
Indeed, the interior players do a terrific job of frustrating opposing big men by hitting them hard and snatching offensive rebounds for second-chance opportunities.
The wing players are all pesky for the most part and have a nose for the ball. They aren’t necessarily great defensive players, but the perimeter guys are great at swiping at the ball and getting into passing lanes. As a result, Memphis finished the season with a top-seven defense.
Spacing the floor to create high-percentage looks is certainly important, but that won’t be the main focus for Memphis. The Grizzlies are 23-4 when they score 100 points, but half of those defeats have come against OKC.
What’s more, in Memphis’ lone victory against the Thunder, they held Kevin Durant and Co. to a mere 87 points, while putting 90 points on the board.
Consequently, we will have to give head coach David Joerger a rotation with serious defensive mojo.
Memphis’ opening five-man lineup is easily one of the best in the league. However, it tends to go unnoticed because the Grizzlies are the second-lowest-seeded playoff team in the Western Conference.
Among five-man lineups to play at least 500 minutes, Memphis starters finished with the sixth-best net rating (difference between offensive and defensive rating), per NBA.com.
Part of the reason this lineup hasn’t garnered more attention is due to Marc Gasol’s health. The Spaniard suffered an MCL injury in November that sidelined him for roughly two months.
Since his return in mid-January, the Grizzlies are 33-13, which is tops in the league. Thus, Memphis will keep its starting lineup intact and increase the players' minutes. It should look something like this:
- Mike Conley: 41 minutes per game
- Marc Gasol: 40 minutes per game
- Zach Randolph: 38 minutes per game
- Courtney Lee: 34 minutes per game
- Tayshaun Prince 30 minutes per game
Lee, who joined the team via trade in January, could be seen as a wild card given the fact he’s averaged 23.6 career playoff minutes coming into this postseason, according to Basketball-Reference. Don’t be fooled, though.
Lee’s first playoff run came as a rookie with the Orlando Magic. He was a key contributor, but his lack of experience meant that he was destined to spend a large amount of time on the bench.
Lee only participated in the postseason again four years later as a member of the Boston Celtics. With players such as Paul Pierce, Jeff Green, Avery Bradley and Jason Terry occupying the bulk of the minutes for the 2012-13 Celtics, Lee barely saw the floor.
As a member of the Grizzlies, he is a relatively important piece. At 34.5 percent shooting from long range, he is just good enough that defenses cannot routinely abandon him to double-team the likes of Gasol and Randolph.
What’s more, he is terrific at attacking the basket and finishing. Per NBA.com, he converted 70.5 percent of his field goals directly at the rim as a member of the Grizzlies this season.
Hence, it’s fair to assume Memphis will rely on him throughout the postseason.
Memphis will have an intriguing dilemma with respect to its second unit.
The bench is composed of a bunch of one-dimensional players, which means they are often on the floor to accomplish one specific thing and nothing else. For instance, Tony Allen is an incredibly destructive defensive player, but he doesn’t give his teammates any other form of support.
Hence, when playing him, the coaching staff has to balance the court with shooters to make up for Allen’s deficiencies. This explains why a large share of his minutes has been played alongside Mike Miller, per NBA.com. Miller is one of the best shooters in the league and defenses fear leaving him.
Allen’s tenacity is certainly worth adjusting the rotation, even if it’s just a small tweak. Watch him defend Kevin Durant below:
Although Allen gave up the score with the harm, he made Durant work hard to get his shot. There’s tremendous value in that given that it can wear down scorers and result in late-game misses.
Since Tayshaun Prince is no longer the stopper he once was, Allen will get some burn during the playoffs. Here’s how the remainder of the rotation shakes out:
- Mike Miller: 20 minutes per game
- Kosta Koufos: 16 minutes per game
- Tony Allen: 12 minutes per game
- Beno Udrih: seven minutes per game
- James Johnson: two minutes per game
In the wake of Nick Calathes’ 20-game suspension for banned substance use, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports, Udrih will be tasked with ball-handling duties while Conley rests.
It’s worth noting that Udrih barely played this season, which might result in Memphis actually increasing Conley’s court time to something along the likes of 43 minutes per game.
On the wing, Miller and Allen will probably play together for the most part, but it’s entirely possible that Miller will see some minutes at small forward next to the starters.
It’s one way to give Conley wide driving lanes all the while giving Randolph room to operate in the low post.
Koufos is Memphis’ best interior reserve, which warrants feeding him minutes. According to Basketball-Reference, he averages 13.7 points and 11.2 rebounds per 36 minutes.
The coaching staff will likely stagger the frontcourt’s minutes and have Koufos play either with Gasol or Randolph. The Grizzlies have played some small ball this year, although it’s been in really small windows with Johnson.
Indeed, he has played with the foursome of Conley, Lee, Miller and Randolph for a mere 14 minutes, per NBA.com. Substitute Prince in for Lee, and we are looking at a lineup that’s shared the floor for 12 minutes.
The Grizzlies’ whole identity revolves around their size and toughness, which explains their unwillingness to downsize. Still, when they have, Johnson has been used as a stretch power forward.
It’s doubtful that Memphis will go that route in the playoffs, but if it does, it will be for limited periods. Even if Memphis avoids the small groups, it stands to reason that foul trouble will occasionally prompt Johnson into a few spot minutes.
The Grizzlies believe in ground-and-pound, which manifests itself late in games.
Memphis goes with what it believes is best, and it’s hard to disagree. The starters’ regular-season success was captured quite well in fourth quarters.
Since Gasol’s return from his MCL sprain, the Grizzlies own the third-best clutch net rating (defined as last five minutes of the game with scoring margin within five points) in basketball.
When teams bypass their offense in favor of heavy isolation sets late in contests, they play right into the hands of the Grizzlies. Memphis’ perimeter players are quite aggressive, and Gasol gives them the latitude to do as such.
He is quick to react to drives and positions his body in ways that take away the path to the hoop. What’s more, he’s quite good at playing the cat-and-mouse game of block or charge.
Players coming down the lane can never be too sure whether he will go for the rejection or simply take the hit right on the numbers and create a turnover. These intricate details are part of what made Gasol the Defensive Player of the Year last season.
Gasol’s stellar defense coupled with his teammates’ physical play has given Memphis the second-best clutch defense in the league since mid-January, per NBA.com.
In an interview with USA Today’s Sam Amick, Joerger outlined what makes Gasol such a great defender:
His IQ is so good that he helps everybody on the floor, not just the point guard in pick-and-rolls. He's early to help, early to talk through stuff. I don't know how you can (quantify) it, because people want to do that, right? They want to say, well they got X number of blocks and that makes him good, or he takes charges or whatever. But I think that just speaks for itself, the defensive efficiency when he's on the court.
In addition, the offense tends to open up late in games as Conley seemingly weaves through just about every defender for scores directly at the basket. Rob Mahoney of the Point Forward explains:
Gasol and Randolph push and strain opposing big men on both ends of the floor. Then, by game’s end, those worn-down bigs are forced to handle point guard Mike Conley streaking around a high screen — a tough task under any circumstance, and especially so following such physical and mental wear.
Therefore, Memphis might as well ride with a proven formula. The starters will ultimately play out the closing minutes of contests and give the team its best chance to win.