It’s no fun to talk about the struggled of the hurting, reeling, futile Chicago Bulls. They shot roughly 25 percent and scored 65 points without three leading players (if you include Derrick Rose). It almost seems like the Heat feel bad for the Bulls. A more interesting story is of a long-overlooked franchise seizing its window of opportunity to advance further than it ever has before: the hard-nosed Memphis Grizzlies.
With Russell Westbrook out for Oklahoma City, Memphis knows it can move on to the conference finals for the first time if it defends Kevin Durant decently and plays solid all-around defense. And that’s what they’re doing. Memphis is also the only team to not lose on its home floor this postseason, a streak now up to seven after its 103-97 overtime win over OKC in Monday night’s Game 4. The Grizzlies now lead the series 3-1 and are in great shape to make the NBA’s semifinal round.
Memphis allowed just three points in OT on Monday, and came back from a 17-point deficit early to force the extra session. One huge reason why the Grizzlies are in this advantageous position is its defense of Durant. ESPN Stats & Info pointed out that Durant was 2-for-13 shooting in the fourth quarter and OT and 0-for 7 when Tayshaun Prince guarded him. Prince’s acquisition is one of the several reasons why the Rudy Gay trade was such a success, as outlined in a previous StatBox column.
I wrote before the series that Durant would have to have an other-worldly performance for Oklahoma City to defeat Memphis, and he delivered that over the first two games of the series. But Lionel Hollins and Memphis set its sights on curtailing Durant, and that effort has been undeniably successful. Look at these averages:
Despite playing for virtually the same amount of time and putting up basically the same amount of field goals, there’s no doubt that Durant has been less affective these past few games as opposed to the pair of games in Oklahoma City. His field goal percentage is a full 10 points lower, and his scoring average has dipped nearly 10 points as well. The rebounds, assists and trips to the free throw line have gone down as well, which can only be attributed to strong defense.
Memphis was able to come back to force overtime in Game 4 by allowing just 38 points in the second half, and a lot of that had to do with Marc Gasol’s exceptional defensive play. The Defensive Player of the Year probably didn’t care about only being named to the All-NBA Defensive Second Team, but he played like one pretty angry grizzly bear on Monday night, pulling down 11 rebounds, blocking six shots and altering several others (not to mention deterring OKC from driving to the hoop, which shows in Durant’s decrease in free throw attempts per game as shown above).
With Durant, Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins in the frontcourt, Oklahoma City isn’t used to being at a disadvantage inside. But not only did Memphis outscore OKC 44-30 in the paint in Game 4, the Grizzlies were plus-seven in the turnover battle (15 to just eight for Memphis) and plus-eight (18-10) in points off those turnovers.
Mike Conley (this week’s regional Sports Illustrated cover boy) only shot 7-for-21 from the field, but was 4-for-10 from three and only committed one turnovers to four by his OKC counterpart Reggie Jackson.
“We are a team that just plays hard and doesn’t quit,” Memphis Coach Lionel Hollins said after the game. “We scratch. We claw. They said grit and grind. I don’t know what the heck that means, but we go out and we just battle. We compete. We’re not the most talented team that’s in the playoffs when we started out. We’re not the most talented team that’s left in the playoffs. But we go and compete.”
Prince and Tony Allen have played standout defense and Zach Randolph has been his usual force inside. Memphis may not have the most talent in the Western Conference, but they’re playing the best defense and aren’t really turning the ball over. Those are two traits that winners possess. so it should come as no surprise that the “Grit & Grind” Grizzlies are currently winning more than ever before.
Shlomo Sprung loves advanced statistics and the way they explain what happens on the court. He is also the web editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. A 2011 graduate of Columbia University’s Journalism School, he has previously worked for the New York Knicks, The Sporting News, Business Insider and other publications. His website is SprungOnSports.com. You can follow him on Twitter.