For the Memphis Grizzlies, slow and steady really does win the race.
The Grizzlies head into Game 4 of their first-round playoff series with the Oklahoma City Thunder up 2-1, and they can credit plenty of that to their ability to control tempo. At least for the past two games, their personal metronome has been on point.
It makes sense. Memphis has never been a team that likes to run.
It finished second from the bottom of the league in pace last season and in the lower half two years ago. It doesn't matter if Lionel Hollins or Dave Joerger is heading up this squad; it's going to do its best work in half-court sets.
Look at what happened in the Grizzlies' Game 1 100-86 loss to the Thunder. They couldn't control the pace, and Oklahoma City dominated throughout.
What's the best way to keep a team in its half-court sets? Don't turn the ball over and limit long-rebound opportunities.
In Game 1, Memphis did the exact opposite of that.
The Thunder picked up 32 fast-break points on their way to that 14-point win. They blocked 10 shots, and got out running upon recovering most of them. Factor in Memphis' 25 missed attempts outside the paint (the tries most likely to produce long rebounds) on just 33 looks, and Russell Westbrook was able to lead OKC down the court all night.
That's another issue: Westbrook. For the first game of the series, the NBA's best rebounding point guard was all over the court, pulling down 10 boards. And when you don't need to make an outlet pass, Oklahoma City only gets out on the run quicker.
So a 92-possession game went in favor of the Thunder, and it looked like the rest of the series was about to go Oklahoma City's way. But that wasn't so. Memphis adjusted.
From the Grizzlies' perspective, you want to force offenses to work out of the half court. Memphis likes to play big with its burly frontcourt of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. Defensively, Ga-ZBo is as wonderful a complement as any other pair of bigs in the league, but in this series, Memphis has even more incentive to slow it down.
Let's face it, with each passing second, Scott Brooks is starting to look more and more like Vinny Del Negro—and that's not just because his hair is infallible.
The Thunder just aren't spreading the ball around on offense. It's been the definition of a your-turn, my-turn attack between Kevin Durant and Westbrook.
Over the past two games—both losses—KD and Russ have taken 61 percent of the Thunder's field-goal attempts. So much isolation. So much ugly.
There are plenty of reasons for all the shots. Clearly, Memphis wants Westbrook shooting threes, as defenders go under every ball-screener who comes over his way. That's how Russ ends up chucking 13 long balls, like he did in Game 3.
You want imagination? You're looking for creativity? Go search around Robin Lopez's art studio. Don't turn on a Thunder game.
Brooks has gotten discouraged relatively easily throughout this series, but we haven't seen adjustments. I know, we're getting oxymoronic.
This isn't new. Brooks has been slow to adjust in plenty of other postseason series, even ones he's won.
There may not be a better example of that than in the 2012 Western Conference Finals against the San Antonio Spurs, when OKC didn't consistently switch on ball-screens until Game 3. Until that point, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili did whatever they wanted out of the pick-and-roll.
There's a history, here. It's not some novelty.
In this series, Brooks has tried some pick-and-rolls with Serge Ibaka. He has called for some off-ball action, but when Gasol blows up the screen-and-roll or Tony Allen denies a passing lane, he reverts to his comfort food: isolation. And he keeps munching on it until he and his offense have gained the freshman 15.
Now, the Grizzlies are taking advantage of that. As long as they can keep the game slow, it turns into more and more of a chess match, and that's when the Thunder can go down.
This isn't just about Memphis lazily bringing the ball up the court and limiting turnovers, either. There's more to it than that. The Grizzlies have mastered how to slow down pace.
When you have guys like Allen and Mike Conley, it becomes so much easier to pick up primary ball-handlers bringing the rock up the floor. If a team can legitimately take away a first option, offenses turn the ball over more and start their offense later. As opposed to running plays with 19 seconds left in the shot clock, it's happening with 14.
That may be one more reason we're seeing loads of isolation. It's hard to run a detailed play with such little time on the shot clock.
One of the reasons that we hear the casual fan claim, "College hoops has more coaching" is that there are more actual plays run, but that doesn't have much to do with the men on the sideline. It's because of the 35-second clock, which allows teams to run something, wait for it to break down and still have 18 seconds left on the clock to go with another play.
You can't run two plays with a 24-second clock. So, calling for action that doesn't end up working initially can really hurt a team if it begins movement later in the possession than usual.
This is a strategy that can work against any team, so it's reasonable to say the Grizzlies could run through the Western Conference. One week into the playoffs, it seems like anyone could come out of the West, and considering how much the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors, Memphis' would-be second-round opponents, like to run, slowing the game down in round two could be just as effective.
There are still reasons to believe the Grizzlies can't get out of the West, or even the first round for that matter. The Thunder have dug themselves out of playoff holes before, including a 2-0 deficit in those 2012 Western Conference Finals against the Spurs. Still, grit 'n' grind has itself in a good spot.
It's not a coincidence the Grizzlies slowed the pace down in Games 2 and 3 against OKC and actually won. They averaged just 84.2 possessions per 48 minutes in the first overtime victory. In the next one, that number was only 87.8.
To put into perspective exactly how low those figures are, just how slow of a game Memphis is playing, the Grizzlies averaged 92.25 possessions per 48 in the regular season. And again, that was the slowest pace in the whole league.
Over these past two losses, the Durant-Westbrook duo is sinking just 39 percent of its shots as the Allens and Conleys of the world continue to pester them every play. It's so out of character for this offense, yet so in character for the Grizzlies defense. And if Memphis can control pace and keep the Thunder working out of the half court for the rest of this series, it should be able to pull off a first-round upset.
Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com or on ESPN’s TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.
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