What a week it was in Memphis. In the span of eight days the Grizzlies won four in a row, including wins against the Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder and the New York Knicks. The Grizzlies have now won eight straight since their opening night loss to the Clippers and currently have the best record in the entire NBA. Over the past few seasons the Grizzlies have climbed back to relevance with stifling defense and an effective power offense built around Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph in the post. This season the Grizzlies have continued to swarm and disrupt on defense, but have also shown some new wrinkles on offense. The fingerprints of this fresh offensive complexity were all over their wins against the Heat, Thunder and Knicks. Here are a few of the weapons they rolled out last week:
Last Sunday the Grizzlies downed the Heat with a terrific outside shooting performance, making 14 of 24 three-pointers and averaging 1.05 points per possession on spot-up shots. Wayne Ellington, in particular, was scorching, making 7 of 12 three-pointers. Consistent outside shooting was a weapon the Grizzlies lacked last season. Adding Ellington and Jerryd Bayless, along with the development of Quincy Pondexter, gives the Grizzlies more range, but they’ve also become very adept at using their old-standby sets to create new outside opportunities. Here’s one they used against Miami:
The play begins with a high pick-and-roll between Gasol and Mike Conley. Ellington and Rudy Gay are stationed in the corners. As the play unfolds Randolph will dive down from the free throw line trying to seal off Udonis Haslem and make himself available at the rim.
Chris Bosh hedges hard, trying to contain Conley, leaving Gasol a clear lane to the elbow. Haslem is left to choose between sticking with Randolph or rotating to cut off Gasol. The Grizzlies run a variation of this set frequently with the intention of hanging up Randolph’s defender, allowing Gasol to catch and quickly drop the ball down to Randolph for a dunk.
In this case Haslem decides to stick with Randolph leaving Gasol alone to receive Conley’s pass at the elbow. At this point Gasol could force a pass to Randolph, take the ball to the basket himself, or kick it out to the wing. The responsibility for defensive decision-making now rests with Dwyane Wade. In years past the Grizzlies were so bereft of shooting that the decision to leave his man and cut off Gasol would have been an easy one.
Wade does in fact step in and Gasol makes the easy kick-out to Ellington for the wide open three-pointer. The video below shows this play in real time, and one other of Ellington’s three-pointers against the Heat, also created by Gasol’s passing.
On Wednesday the Grizzlies took down the Thunder. Excellent spot-up shooting was again a component of the win but Memphis also went out of their way to pound Oklahoma City in the pick-and-roll. For the game, 17.8% of the Grizzlies’s possessions were finished by either the screener or the ball handler in the pick-and-roll, scoring an average of 1.00 points per possession. Here’s one pick-and-roll set they ran against the Thunder:
We’re looking at another high pick-and-roll between Conley and Gasol. As they set up Gay is retreating to the corner and Randolph is again dropping into the paint trying to make himself available for the dump down.
If this looks familiar it’s because we’re looking at the exact same play the we broke down above. Like Bosh did before, Perkins has hedged hard to contain penetration. Gasol is rolling to the elbow and pressure is on Serge Ibaka to decide between staying with Randolph or cutting off Gasol.
Ibaka stays home on Randolph as does Thabo Sefolosha on Gay. The option we saw against the Heat to kick it out for a spot-up three-pointer is cut off, but Gasol is more than happy to take the short jumper in the paint. The video below shows the play in real time along with another example of the Grizzlies running this play against the Thunder. In the second example, Perkins stays glued to Gasol so Conley backs off and knocks down the open jumper.
On Friday the Grizzlies had their best offensive performance of the week, posting an Offensive Rating 119.3 against the Knicks, who have been one of the better defenses in the league to start this season. The Knicks have had great early season success with Carmelo Anthony at power forward, but it makes their defense extremely thin on the interior particularly against a team like the Grizzlies that has post-up threats like Randolph and Gasol. The Knicks’ defensive game plan was to use their length and quickness to front the post and deny entry passes. The Grizzlies were able to counter quite easily, and below are two of the strategies they used.
This play begins with a little misdirection. Carmelo Anthony is defending Gasol under the basket and will be doing everything in his power to keep him from catching the ball near the paint. As Conley dribbles up high, Dante Cunningham looks ready to set a downscreen so Gasol can pop out to the free throw line.
Cunningham’s screen doesn’t really serve a purpose other than to give Gasol space as he heads towards the top of the key. Gasol continues out towards the three-point line to set a screen for Conley, a look very similar to what we saw in the last two plays.
Raymond Felton does a good job getting over the screen, allowing Anthony to hang back with Gasol. Other than a half-step for Conley it looks like this pick-and-roll hasn’t amounted to anything. However, the true function of this play is not to create a shot out of the pick-and-roll action but to give Gasol an opportunity to put Anthony between himself and the basket. As Conley dribbles sideways, Gasol heads straight for the low block.
Cunningham clears out along the baseline, pulling Tyson Chandler with him. Gasol continues moving to the block, pinning Anthony behind him. Meanwhile Conley swings the ball out to Ellington.
From here it’s an easy entry pass for Ellington to make, and Gasol has the opportunity to catch the ball with Anthony behind him and two feet in the paint. A quick shoulder shake and a right hand hook shot later, it’s two points for the Grizzlies.
When this play begins Conley is dribbing up high and Tony Allen is curling around out behind the three-point line. Gasol is on the block, again being fronted by Anthony.
Conley swings the ball to Allen on the wing and Anthony comes around to keep himself between Gasol and the ball. With Randolph on the opposite block there is a huge open space at the free throw line, space which Randolph moves in to fill.
Randolph has stepped into the open space at the free throw line and takes the pass from Allen. Gasol hasn’t moved at all but keeps his body engaged with Anthony pushing him to the outside. This gives Randolph a clear passing lane down to Gasol.
Gasol completes the seal, pinning Anthony under the basket and giving Randolph an huge passing lane. In this particular instance Gasol makes the catch and draws a shooting foul on Anthony. The video below shows both plays.
The Grizzlies offense was limited the past few seasons by their inability to make outside shots. Having a stable of reliable shooters this season like Ellington, Pondexter and Bayless gives their offense another facet. The Grizzlies can now count on outside scoring, but it also improves the spacing of their entire offense and makes all the post up, pick-and-roll and high-low action they have been running with Gasol and Randolph that much more effective. Putting this new offensive diversity together with their usual disruptive defense makes the Grizzlies a real powerhouse.