Bernucca: Forget small ball; Grizzlies have big plans

Forget small ball. The NBA’s best team plays bully ball.

The Memphis Grizzlies don’t have a fleet of sharpshooters standing on the arc. They don’t have a stretch 4. They don’t have a dual point guard backcourt. Heck, their shooting guard can’t even shoot.
You know what the Grizzlies do have? The best record in the NBA.

And the Grizzlies haven’t gotten to the temporary top of the heap by picking on playground weaklings. This past week, they handled both defending conference champions (Miami and OKC), took out the league’s lone remaining unbeaten team (Knicks) and put an end to the premature party in Charlotte.

“We have been floating under the radar and just having a chip on our shoulders,” guard Mike Conley said. “We still have a chip. We still feel like we can play for something. We have a lot of goals to achieve.”

With the league-wide trend shifting toward score-first point guards, 6-7 power forwards and slim centers with sweet strokes, the Grizzlies are going against the grain. Their motto is “grit and grind” and they live up to it with a pit bull backcourt, an assembly line small forward and a pair of bigs who have figured out how to both play below the foul line without getting in each other’s way.

“The Grizzlies are a unique team,” Knicks center Tyson Chandler said. “They have two big bodies out there.”

In center Marc Gasol and power forward Zach Randolph, the Grizzlies certainly aren’t the only contender adhering to convention at the big spots. The Thunder, Lakers and Bulls all play that way for extended stretches.

The difference is that the Grizzlies don’t deviate. When opponents try to counter their size by going small at
either or both of the big spots, coach Lionel Hollins consistently doubles down and stays with his power tandem. He did it in last week’s convincing wins over Miami and New York, neutralizing the dilemma of LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony at power forward alongside streamlined, athletic centers.

“We were able to play our bigs through most of the game. That was huge,” Hollins said after his team dispatched the Knicks. “If you play small, you have to give up something and they gave up a lot. … It was our advantage.”

Unless the Lakers figure things out, Gasol and Randolph are the NBA’s best big tandem. Gasol has become a top-three center; in addition to his 15.0 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocks, his 4.6 assists lead all pivots by far. Meanwhile, Randolph is an MVP candidate; he has had a double-double in every game, averaging 17.2 points and a league-leading 13.9 rebounds.


  1. john steppling says

    I think , in fact, the Griz are perfect for a 7 game series. The small trend is a trend of ONE year. ONE. Maveriks didnt play it. Lakers didnt. Size can wear you down. Fast break points have about NOTHING to do with small ball or big ball. One thing i want to add about memphis……..mike Conley is the most underrated guard in the NBA. And Pondexter the most underrated pure on ball defender in the NBA. Both are crucial for the Griz. Yes, Zbo is unstoppalbe when healthy and gasol has dialed up his game several clicks…….but conley helps it all hold together. I think the west is spurs and OKC and Memphis….with an outside chance for denver to get it together. Clips wont…trust me…..and lakers clearly wont (IMHO). Its those three teams ….all small market , all tough, all aggressive and well coached. Poor david stern.

  2. Jim says

    I do love the style of ball that the Grizz play, and I have enjoyed watching Gay, Gasol, and Randolph the last few years. And I even predicted they would beat the Spurs in the playoffs two years ago I loved them so much.

    But when you look at how Miami beat the Thunder in the playoffs last year, going small and forcing Kendrik Perkins out of the game, which opened the lane up, will the Grizz stay true to their indentity in a playoff series that is all about match-ups. I know they just recently beat the Heat and Knicks, but can they win this way in the playoffs? With three-point shooting and fast break points becoming increasingly important I just don’t see enough easy buckets for the Grizz in a playoff series. And even with their high output of offensive rebounds most teams play better defense and rebound better in the playoffs, so even that advantage will probably shrink a little.

    And again, I still hate an article being broken up into multiple page views.

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