Memphis Grizzlies: Defense In Danger Of Becoming Ordinary

November 2, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) celebrates after making a three-point shot against Memphis Grizzlies guard Mike Conley (11) during the third quarter at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Grizzlies 119-69. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
November 2, 2015; Oakland, CA, USA; Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) celebrates after making a three-point shot against Memphis Grizzlies guard Mike Conley (11) during the third quarter at Oracle Arena. The Warriors defeated the Grizzlies 119-69. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports /

The Memphis Grizzlies‘ Grind Era could soon fade to the darkest shade of blue as their defense has been fleeting during the early part of the season. Elite players and teams are shockingly capable of slicing the once vaunted “grit ‘n’ grind” attack.

The Grizzlies stand 6-6 largely because their defense, which is 28th with 108.6 points allowed per 100 possessions, can hardly contain any threatening player of significant repute. In seven of 12 games, they’ve allowed 107 or more points per 100. They’ve only held opponents to less than 90 twice. Memphis had done it five times by this time last year.

Ironically, the Grizzlies can’t win without scoring 100, as the Memphis Flyer’s Kevin Lipe tweeted.

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In the previous five years, the tipping point for the Grizzlies hasn’t been how much they scored, but the diminutive figure allowed.

Eviscerated by stars

Almost every time the Grizzlies have faced a tough opponent, they have been latent on the defensive end. In the Oct. 28 season-opening 105-75 loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, they looked listless and flat-footed.

Twice, the Golden State Warriors have torn the Grizzlies apart. First, on Nov. 2, the Warriors handed the Grizzlies a 50-point body slam, the worst defeat in franchise history. When Stephen Curry leaves after 28 minutes because he dropped 30 points and his offensive rating was almost twice his defensive rating, it’s mind-blowing.

The 100-84 loss to the Warriors on Nov. 11 was better as they kept the pace manageable for most of the game and held both Curry and Klay Thompson to less than 43 percent shooting. Tony Allen‘s pressure was instrumental in keeping Thompson to eight points on 3-of-9 from the field.

But the Warriors still revved their engines in the second half as Curry scored 16 in the last 15:08 of play to help them close out Memphis 43-28.

Afterwards, Allen acknowledged the Grizzlies lacked defensive communication, and went on to say, “We got our notoriety on the defensive end, and we play hard for 48 minutes. Not three quarters. Not the first half of a game. For 48 minutes. And I can’t stand here in front of this camera and say, as a group, we did that from day one in the season.”

One item of Grizzlies lore is how Russell Westbrook had struggled against them during the Grind Era. Mike Conley and Allen had dogged him the past five seasons, forcing him to take tough shots.

During that time, Westbrook averaged 18.6 points per game on 39.1 percent shooting against Memphis. Amid a 122-114 loss to the Grizzlies on Monday, Westbrook dumped 40 points on 13-of-19 from the field. He nailed a three-pointer to bring the Thunder within three with 1:02 left before Jeff Green answered with one of his own on the Grizzlies’ next possession.

If the Grizzlies are to bounce back defensively, they must shut down the best like Westbrook and Curry.

Grieving veteran bones

The Grizzlies’ veterans have generally played slow, and it especially shows on defense.

Zach Randolph was never great defensively, and he now can neither react in time to help on the perimeter or counter athletic big men with his anticipation. The fact that NBA offenses become faster as what little quickness the 34-year-old has erodes doesn’t help.

Marc Gasol hasn’t shown much defensive energy, as he’s allowing 111 points per 100 possessions and blocking 0.8 shots per game. Gasol hasn’t focused as much on shot-blocking in recent years, with 1.6 per game the past three season, but he still made the effort.

The Commercial Appeal’s Chris Herrington mentioned the 2012-13 Defensive Player of the Year “looks like a shell of his past form” and asserted his conditioning wasn’t up to par.

High usage of Green, an eight-year pro who flails ineffectively at opposing ball-handlers, hurts the Grizzlies. His scoring is nice when he’s on fire, but when he’s off, it’s a two-way nightmare. His 98 points produced per 100 against 111 allowed show he’s still a drag overall.

Allen stands as a beacon of light amid the sea of sludge. The 33-year-old exhibits his typical energy on that end, locking down one-on-one and getting into passing lanes.

Allen, a four-time All-Defensive Team honoree, ranks second in steals rate at 3.9 percent and ninth in steals with 21 while grabbing 1.8 per game.

Even as Allen glimmers, he isn’t close to his top form as he can’t stop opposing gunners on his own. The Commercial Appeal’s Peter Edmiston tweeted a career comparison.

Basketball observers can rant all they want about how the Grizzlies should only play the 33-year-old a modest amount due to his lack of shooting, but the area in which Allen excels matters far more to the survival of a team that’s finally becoming competitive.

Eventually, Memphis will stop trying to play at the same pace as their opponents and grind them down. Rare is the game like Monday against the Thunder when they can beat a team while flying around outscoring them.

Signs of hope

While Allen is the only Grizzly who has shown a strong defensive effort for the whole season, they’ve brought Mario Chalmers from the Miami Heat to help shore it up. He replaces Beno Udrih, who allowed 106 per 100 in his Memphis tenure and 112 in eight games this year for Memphis.

Chalmers has helped thus far, grabbing five steals through three contests. He snatched four in his Memphis debut against the Portland Trail Blazers on Friday.

He can make up for the failure of other reserve perimeter players to stop opponents.

As for the rest of the team, the defensive communication will improve before long. Gasol, Randolph, Allen and Conley have played together for more than five years and understand each other well enough to that aspect, something that has made Gasol such a smooth defender the past few years.

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If the Grizzlies regroup and commit to better defensive energy and communication, particularly against the Western Conference elite, they’ll delay the end of the Grind Era at least a year.