The Memphis Grizzlies have not run off a 19-game winning streak (that’s San Antonio). They didn’t hire a big-name coach in the offseason and they most certainly do not have an entertaining nicknames like “Lob City” (that’s the Los Angeles Clippers). They’re in a battle just to make the NBA playoffs in the loaded Western Conference. But what they are doing is playing good old-fashioned defense.
Since Jan. 14, when reigning defensive player of the year Marc Gasol returned from a 23-game absence after spraining his medial collateral ligament, the Grizzlies have 27 victories, third in the league over that time to the Spurs (29) and Clippers (28). Gasol has been the reason why.
The simple numbers: Memphis went 10-13 without its big man. Its defensive rating (the number of points allowed per 100 possessions) during that stretch was 106.4, according to NBA.com/stats. Its opponents scored 100 points or more 10 times (with Memphis posting a 1-9 record) and shot 46.5 percent, which ranked 27th in the league during that span.
Since Gasol’s return, the Grizzlies’ defensive rating is 98.8, second only to the Chicago Bulls. They allowed 98.3 points per game while he was injured, but his presence on the floor has helped Memphis hold opponents to an average of 91.2 points since his return, tops in the league over that stretch. Opponents have topped the century mark just eight times and are shooting just 43.7 percent (third-best among defenses) with Gasol back manning the middle, a 39-game stretch in which the team has a .692 winning percentage (27-12), a pace that would have it contending for the No. 3 seed in the West over an entire season.
Digging a little further into Gasol’s defensive presence, we find that opponents’ field goal percentage at the rim is 50 percent vs. the Grizzlies center. What stands out even more is opponents simply do not want to shoot anywhere near Gasol, attempting just 6.5 shots at the rim a game. His ability to read offensive sets and plays makes him one of the best help defenders, but also allows for him to make quick recoveries when necessary.
The Grizzlies have dropped three of four games on their recent road trip and are clinging to the final playoff spot in the West. They’re currently in line to face the top-seeded Spurs in the first round. A loss to the Warriors last week hurt the club’s chances of moving up to the No. 6 seed to avoid an opening round meeting with either San Antonio or Oklahoma City. The Spurs and Thunder, both of which have had seesaw playoff series vs. Memphis in years past, know to not take the Grizzlies lightly.
While the team’s offensive statistics don’t necessarily reflect much of a change, it would be wrong to underestimate Gasol’s contributions on that end. When Gasol is on the court, Memphis connects on 63.3 percent of its shots in the restricted area. That percentage drops to 59.2 when the center goes to the bench. Additionally, his presence in the paint provides better perimeter looks for the Grizzlies, who convert 42 percent of their midrange shots when Gasol is on the floor, but just 36.7 percent when he’s off the court. In the 39 games leading to the all-star break, of which Gasol was in the lineup for 16, Memphis averaged 94.9 points. As Gasol has returned to full strength, the team is averaging 97.3 points in the 23 games since the all-star break.
What truly separates Gasol from most other big men is his ability to pass. Next to point guard Mike Conley, the Grizzlies run their offense through their center. He’s second to Conley on the team in assists with 3.6 per game, and averages 7.3 assist opportunities (passes to a teammate in which the teammate attempts a shot, and if made, would be an assist), a rare number for big men.
Further illustrating just how much Memphis depends on Gasol on offense, consider he averages 7.8 close touches (touches that originate within 12 feet of the basket excluding drives), third-best among centers. The biggest piece of evidence that the Grizzlies rely on Gasol’s decision-making and playmaking on the offensive end: He’s averaging a league-best 14.4 elbow touches per game (touches that originate within the five-foot radius nearing the edge of the lane and the free throw line, inside the three-point line). By comparison, only two other players average double figures in elbow touches (Minnesota’s Kevin Love with 11.3 and Los Angeles’s Blake Griffin with 10.1). Not bad company given the years those other two players are having, but more importantly, it shows just how essential Gasol is to the team’s success.
Gasol may not win any hardware and his team might miss out on the postseason, but for all the negative chatter — including some from league MVP LeBron James — about Gasol winning last season’s defensive player of the year award, he has proven again his impact on that end of the floor. In the process, he’s also shown he’s much more than a defensive big man.
BY THE NUMBERS
The Spurs’ ranking in offensive efficiency, defensive efficiency, points, point differential, field goal percentage (tied with Miami), three-point percentage, true shooting percentage, effective field goal percentage, assist-to-turnover ratio and defensive rebounds during its 19-game winning streak, which came to a halt Thursday night vs. Oklahoma City. The Spurs also were second to New Orleans in blocked shots over that span.
All-stars this season (out of 25 players) that came directly into the NBA from high school, Europe or one year of college. Only six players were on campus for three years or more.
“I tell you I don’t think about it, in a sense that I guess it’s a work ethic that I got from my mom and dad, and it’s always been my way of thinking, that you get a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work.”
— Referee Dick Bavetta to the Associated Press before working his 2,633rd consecutive game Wednesday at Madison Square Garden (where he began his career in 1975), extending a streak during which he has never missed an assignment.