Grizzlies’ small-ball lineup too much for the Thunder


(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

The Memphis Grizzlies let a golden opportunity slip away in Game 4 of their NBA first-round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday. With some bad free throw shooting by the Grizzlies and Reggie Jackson playing the game of his life for the Thunder, the Grizzlies lost a game they probably felt they had won at least twice, and now the series is tied at two games apiece heading into Tuesday night’s Game 5.

However, Memphis would not have even been in position to win had they not employed a wholesale deviation from their smash-mouth, double-post, “Grit and Grind” style featuring heavy doses of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.

In every game of the series, the Grizzlies have made furious second-half comebacks, most frequently spurred by the unusual, (especially for them) small-ball lineup featuring Marc Gasol and four guards – Tony Allen, Mike Miller and two of Beno Udrih, Mike Conley and Courtney Lee.

According to NBAWOWY (a Web site developed by Evan Zamir that allows examination of all sorts of lineup combinations over the course of the season), in 21 minutes over the three games that this “small-ball lineup” has been used, Memphis has outscored Okalhoma City by nine points, or roughly 25 points per 100 possessions, with all other lineups showing OKC with a 17-point edge. This improvement has been primarily on the offensive end, where the Grizzlies are putting up an insane 133.3 per/100 possessions with these lineups as compared with only 101 per/100 for the series. Oddly enough, Memphis played this style of lineup for a grand total of 35 minutes during the regular season and it performed extremely poorly, being outscored at a rate of 59 points per/100.

While it’s very difficult to draw firm conclusions from such a tiny sample, a few things do stand out.

First, this lineup has been effective in part because Memphis’s normal sets simply aren’t as effective against Oklahoma City. The much-maligned Kendrick Perkins is leading the way by holding Randolph to 36 percent shooting from the floor for the series, a main reason the Grizzlies are only scoring 97 points per/100 with Gasol and Randolph sharing the floor this postseason after the Grizzlies scored 109 per/100 with these two on the court during the season. Perkins is one of the few players in the league who can bang with Randolph and force him into a high volume of inefficent tippy-toe jumpers rather than bullish drives into the lane:


Second, it’s apparent that the four-around-one Princeton-style offense greatly benefits from Udrih’s shooting and savvy – he was on the floor for a grand total of two possessions in these lineups during the season, but has been a key part of them during this series, using Gasol as something of a pinball bumper to bounce the ball off of, seeking short jumpers and penetration:


Third, the spacing inherent in this small lineup has allowed Tony Allen to thrive in the space created along the baseline by removing the two post players from the low blocks. Allen is a famously poor jump shooter, but with space created around the basket he can use his athleticism to get buckets on so called “ghost cuts”:

Coach Dave Joerger has mainly broken these units out in the second half of games, and it will be interesting to see if he gets more aggressive deploying them earlier in games and, if so, how OKC will counter, perhaps with their own two-point-guard-lineups featuring Russell Westbrook and Jackson.

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Neil Greenberg · April 29, 2014