Grizzlies Understand Importance of Chemistry
The Memphis Grizzlies organization understands the importance of continuity and chemistry. Take one look at their roster and this is evident, as much of their team has been together for years. The organization has kept the team’s core four intact in recent years, inking Mike Conley (eight seasons in Memphis), Marc Gasol (seven seasons), Zach Randolph (six seasons) and Tony Allen (five seasons) to multiple contract extensions.
This leads to excellent chemistry between the team’s top contributors, which is very important, yet often overlooked in the NBA. Each year, the Grizzlies make a few tweaks to their supporting cast (such as adding Vince Carter this offseason and Courtney Lee during last season), but the core remains the same. Gasol and Randolph form one of the best starting frontcourts in the league, Allen provides perimeter defense and toughness, and Conley runs the show as one of the game’s most underrated point guards.
In today’s NBA, with rampant player movement and teams making drastic changes frequently, it’s rare for a franchise to keep such a talented group together for so many years. However, the Grizzlies have managed to do so because their stars love playing together and are committed to the organization. The team has been to the playoffs in four consecutive years, including a trip to the Western Conference Finals two years ago.
Conley couldn’t be happier alongside his teammates, and he has gotten to know each of their games and preferences over the years. When asked about his relationship with Gasol, in particular, he admits that they often communicate on the court using only a series of looks that have hidden meanings.
“We’ve known each other for a long time and know how each other plays and he so unselfish, it’s fun to play with him,” Conley said. “I know where he wants the ball and he knows where I want the ball and we don’t even have to speak, we just look at each other a certain way and that means a back cut or a give and go or whatever it is. It’s a fun relationship.”
The San Antonio Spurs are the best example of how a team with terrific chemistry and the same core year after year can be extremely successful, but the Grizzlies are convincing evidence as well. It’s tough to be patient in the NBA (especially since executives face a ton of pressure and little job security), but making big changes isn’t always the answer. Many teams feel that they need to add new players or upgrade positions in order to improve, but sometimes additional time and experience together is all a group needs in order to elevate its play.
So far, that’s exactly what the Grizzlies have done. They are currently 15-2, which is the best record in the NBA. They have the fourth-best defense, allowing just 97.8 points per 100 possessions. They also have the eighth-best offense, scoring 106.3 points per 100 possessions. This is a well-rounded team that forces opposing squads to play their grind-it-out, slow-paced style of basketball.
“As long as I’ve been here, that has always been my favorite style of playing basketball,” said Allen, who coined the phrase “Grit and Grind” to describe how the Grizzlies play. “We just keep the game close, we grind it out down the stretch and execute offensively. We try and get the stops when we need them. As far as playing in the mud, I think it’s to our favor when we play like that.”
The Grizzlies have quality wins over teams like the Houston Rockets, Portland Trail Blazers, Los Angeles Clippers and Phoenix Suns among others. However, this upcoming stretch of games is very difficult and will be a great test for Memphis, as they face Houston, San Antonio, Miami and Dallas over their next four games. The Grizzlies are obviously thrilled that they’ve won 14 of 16 games, but are by no means satisfied.
“It says a lot about our focus early on this season,” Conley said. “That’s all we wanted to do, was to come out focused the first couple months of the season and set a good standard for ourselves. Now, we just have to hold ourselves accountable and try to get better.”
This feeling that they haven’t accomplished anything yet and that they still have room to get better comes from head coach Dave Joerger, who is in his second season with Memphis. His hiring was one of the biggest changes that Memphis has made to their on-court product in recent years, when they opted to let Lionel Hollins leave and tapped Joerger to replace him. The move has paid off for Memphis, as they have the best record of any team in the 2014 calendar year and Joerger has his squad playing excellent basketball on both ends of the floor.
Throughout this season, he has been hard on his team, expecting near perfection from the group. Even though they’re the best team in the league, it’s not uncommon to hear Joerger saying that the team could be playing much better and rattling off areas where they could stand to improve.
“We know it’s part of the process,” Joerger said. “It’s a long season and we are in the West. Every possession matters, every game matters and that is what they are coming to an understanding of.”
One thing that Joerger has done since taking over the team is try to improve the Grizzlies’ offense. In Hollins’ last two seasons, Memphis had the NBA’s 20th and 18th ranked offenses. Last year, Memphis climbed to 16th and now they find themselves in the top eight. The Grizzlies are still the slowest-paced team in the NBA, but Joerger has tried to use the team’s defense to start some fastbreaks and create more easy opportunities. He has also spent more time working on offense with his team during practices, although not too much time because he doesn’t want the team’s defense to suffer as a result. Joerger knows that Memphis needs to be elite on offense and defense in order to contend.
“We need to have a high-level offense,” Joerger said. “How you get to that is for behind closed doors. We’re pushing the basketball and getting more looks in transition. Guys are more focused on executing. If you go and spend an hour and a half out of your hour-and-45-minute practice every day on offense, then our defensive end isn’t as aggressive. We have to [keep] our offensive end in the top 10 efficiency wise, while maintaining our defense and our identity.”
That’s exactly what Memphis has done; now, they must continue it for the remainder of the season. Courtney Lee, who was added to the team in January of last season in exchange for Jerryd Bayless, has been a huge contributor on both ends, averaging a career-high 13.3 points while shooting 53.2 percent from the field and 53.2 percent from three-point range (which are also career-highs). He understands that in order for Memphis to reach their full potential, they need to be well-rounded.
“Once you add those two together, [the offense and defense], it’s a deadly combo,” Lee said.
Lee is the kind of role player that Memphis has added over the years to make life easier for their core. This is similar to what the Spurs have done, putting quality pieces like Boris Diaw and Danny Green around their stars Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and now Kawhi Leonard.
The Grizzlies check off all of the boxes for a legitimate NBA contender: dominating defense, elite offense, deep bench, balanced attack, several stars (albeit underrated ones), solid coaching, terrific home-court advantage and the ability to win games in a variety of ways (even if “playing in the mud” is their favorite). This team has been a juggernaut ever since Gasol came back from injury in the second half of last season, and they don’t show any signs of slowing down as long as they stay healthy and together.
Which brings us to Gasol’s upcoming unrestricted free agency. This is the final year of his current contract with the Grizzlies, and while both sides are saying all of the right things and seemingly want to continue their marriage, free agency can be unpredictable. Gasol is Memphis’ most important and irreplaceable player, as evidenced by the team’s struggles when he was sidelined last season, so losing Gasol would be the biggest blow to the Grizzlies’ core and it would set the team back significantly. There will be many executives circling Gasol like vultures this summer because he’s arguably the best center in the NBA these days.
However, Gasol has praised Memphis and it’s where he has lived since he was a teenager, so it seems unlikely he’ll leave, especially since the organization is in such a good place. The team can also offer him more money and a longer contract (five years) than any other suitor since they have his Bird rights. It’s hard to imagine Gasol taking less money and a shorter contract to walk away from the only NBA team and city he has ever known just when Memphis has finally emerged as the NBA’s best team.
All signs point to Gasol and the Grizzlies continuing their marriage, which means their core four could very well be intact once again for the 2015-16 season. And as long as Memphis’ core remains intact, they’ll be in the mix to hoist the Larry O’Brien trophy each June.
Davis Can’t Lead Pelicans to Playoffs Alone
After the Washington Wizards’ recent win over the New Orleans Pelicans, John Wall perfectly summed up the Pelicans’ biggest problem.
“I think their coach said when they lost their other game before Atlanta, they were talking about there is no way [Anthony Davis], a player that talented, can only get 12 shots,” Wall said. “They wanted to get him more touches. When you got a guy that is that talented and can get to the free throw line and shoot the ball as well as he does, if he gets 30, and no one else is going and into rhythm, we are pretty fine with that.”
Lately, having “no one else going or in a rhythm” has been a huge issue for New Orleans. Davis has been historically good, ranking near the top of the league in a number of statistical categories by averaging 24.9 points, 11.3 rebounds, three blocks and 2.1 steals while shooting 55.7 percent from the field. His 33.3 efficiency rating is by far the highest in the NBA and he’s dominating on both ends of the court.
However, he hasn’t gotten much help, which is why the Pelicans are currently 7-8 and in the midst of a three-game losing streak.
Eric Gordon is injured, Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans have been inconsistent, and the Pelicans have a huge drop off in talent after their top six players (Davis, Holiday, Evans, Gordon, Omer Asik and Ryan Anderson), as they’re forced to give players like Austin Rivers, Alexis Ajinca, Jimmer Fredette and Luke Babbitt significant minutes. This is not a joke about New Orleans rounding up as many draft busts as possible, this is actually their rotation.
Davis was recently asked about the Pelicans’ offensive issues, on a night when New Orleans’ four starters not named Davis combined to shoot 10-of-42 from the field (23.8 percent).
“I don’t even know,” Davis said. “Some guys are just not making shots. It happens. We cannot let that dictate our defense… The offense was not there. We just have to get back in the lab.”
“As a basketball player, you know that sometimes your shot is just not going to fall,” Holiday said. “Sometimes it carries throughout the whole team. You just have to find a way to fight through it. It’s the NBA. It’s happening to us right now, it’s going to happen to another team down the road. We’re just going to stay together and play defense the same way we have been playing.”
As Wall alluded to, Pelicans head coach Monty Williams has said several times that Davis should be getting 20 to 25 shots per game, but that’s not happening. For some reason, Davis continues to average 17.5 attempts and doesn’t see the ball nearly enough down the stretch. This has to change if the Pelicans want to improve.
They also need more consistent performances from Holiday, Evans and Rivers among others.
“Offensively we have so many guys struggling to hit shots and that kind of stuff happens,” Williams said. “They are frustrated… Anyone would be frustrated. That is part of the NBA and we are not the only team going through that.”
New Orleans will have the chance to end their three-game losing skid on Tuesday at home against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
“Most definitely, we gave away a couple games that we could have won,” Davis said. “We just have to find a way to get up out of it. We are playing our hearts out. We just have to find a way to figure out when we have the lead, we have to have solid possessions… We can’t worry about this game or the game yesterday. We have to come out and play and do what we do, defend and get some easy buckets.”
“We’ve been playing good defense, we just have to knock shots down, [score in] transition and make some good moves,” Holiday said. “If they fall then, great.”
“You can’t do anything about that,” Williams said of the losing streak. “The three games are over with. It happens during an NBA season. The biggest thing is that you have to keep your spirit high and understand that you can get out of it by playing hard and sticking together and that is what we do.”
It’s disappointing that the Pelicans haven’t been able to take advantage of Davis’ outstanding contributions and give him the necessary help to put the team in the Western Conference playoff picture. Davis is an extraordinary player, but even he can’t take New Orleans to the next level by himself.
Middleton, Bucks Aiming To ‘Lock In’ As Season Comes To Close
Spencer Davies catches up with Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton in a Basketball Insiders exclusive.
Basketball Insiders had the chance to chat with Khris Middleton about the direction of the Milwaukee Bucks as the season comes to a close.
You guys won three out of four before you came into Cleveland. What was working during that stretch?
Just being us. Doing it with our defense, playing fast-paced offense. Just trying to keep teams off the three-point line. We haven’t done that. We didn’t do that [Monday] or two games ago, but it’s something we’ve just gotta get back to.
With the offense—it seems like it’s inconsistent. What do you think that’s got to do with mostly?
Just trying to do it by ourselves sometimes. Standing, keeping the ball on one side of the floor. We’re a better team when we play in a fast pace. And then also in the half court, when we move the ball from side-to-side it just opens the paint for everybody and there’s a lot more space.
For you, on both ends you’ve been ultra-aggressive here in the last couple weeks or so, does that have to do with you feeling better or is it just a mindset?
I’ve been healthy all year. Right now, it’s the end of the season. Gotta make a push. Everybody’s gotta lock in. Have to be confident, have to be aggressive. Have to do my job and that’s to shoot the ball well and to defend.
Have you changed anything with your jumper? Looking at the past couple months back-to-back, your perimeter shooting was below 32 percent. In March it’s above 45 percent.
I feel like I got a lot of great looks earlier this year. They just weren’t falling. Right now, they’re falling for me, so I have the same mindset that I had when I was missing and that’s to keep on shooting. At some point, they’re gonna go down for me.
Is knowing that every game at this point means more an extra motivator for you guys?
Definitely. We’re basically in the playoffs right now. We’re in a playoff series right now where we have to win games, we have to close out games, in order to get the seeding and to stay in the playoffs. Each game and each possession means something to us right now.
Is it disappointing to be in the position the team is in right now, or are you looking at it as, ‘If we get there, we’re going to be alright’?
I mean, we wish we were in a better position. But where we’re at right now, we’re fine with it. We want to make that last push to get higher in the seeding.
Lots of changes have gone on here. Eric Bledsoe came in two weeks into the season. You had the coaching change and lineup changes. Jabari Parker’s been getting situated before the postseason. How difficult does that make it for you guys to build consistency?
Yeah, it was tough at first. But I think early on we had to adjust on the fly. We didn’t have too many practices. There was a stretch where we were able to get in the film room, get on the court, and practice with each other more.
Now it’s just at a point where we’re adding a lot of new guys off the bench where we have to do the same things—learn on the fly, watch film. We’re not on the court as much now, but we just have to do a great job of buying in to our system, try to get to know each other.
Does this team feel like it has unfinished business based on what happened last year?
Definitely. Last year, we felt like we let one go. Toronto’s a great team. They’re having a hell of a season this year, but I feel like we let one go. This year’s a new year—a little add of extra motivation. We’ve been in the playoff position before, so hopefully, we learn from it when we go into it this year.
Would you welcome that rematch?
I mean, we welcome anybody man. We showed that we compete with any team out here. We can’t worry about other teams as much. We just have to be focused on us.
What has to happen for you guys to achieve your full potential?
Lock in. Just play as hard as we can, play unselfish, and do our job out there night-in, night-out.
NBA Daily: Raptors Look To Fine-Tune The Defense
The Toronto Raptors’ defense had a letdown against the Cavaliers, but has been outstanding overall.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors engaged in an offensive shootout on Wednesday that could be a playoff preview. The Cavs protected home court with a single-possession, 132-129 victory. Afterward, the Raptors spoke about the types of defensive adjustments the team needs to make as the postseason rapidly approaches.
“That’s how a playoff game would be,” said DeMar DeRozan, who missed a three at the buzzer that could have forced overtime. “This is a team we’ve been playing against the last two years in the postseason. Understanding how we can tighten up things defensively, how to make things tougher for them [is key].
“[It’s] little small things that go a long way, and not just with them … with every team.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey concurred with DeRozan that fine-tuning of the defense is needed. He also pointed out that, with young contributors such as center Jakob Poeltl and power forward Pascal Siakam on the roster, defensive experience against the league’s best player, LeBron James, is something they will have to gain on the fly.
“I don’t think Jakob Poeltl played against him that much, and Siakam,” said Casey. “This is their first time seeing it. I thought Jak and Pascal did an excellent job, but there are certain situations where they’ve got to read and understand what the other team is trying to do to them.”
Poeltl was outstanding, leading the bench with 17 points and tying for the team lead in rebounds with eight. Casey praised the diversity of his contributions.
“I thought he did an excellent job of rolling, finishing, finding people,” said Casey. “I thought defensively, he did a good job of protecting the paint, going vertical. So I liked what he was giving us, especially his defense against Kevin Love.”
Basketball Insiders previously noted how the Raptors have performed vastly better as a team this season when starting point guard Kyle Lowry is out of the game. Much of that is due to Fred VanVleet’s emergence as one of the NBA’s best reserve point guards. VanVleet scored 16 points with five assists and no turnovers against Cleveland. It’s also a reflection of how good Toronto’s perimeter defense has been up and down the roster.
According to ESPN’s defensive Real Plus-Minus statistic, three of the NBA’s top 15 defensive point guards play for the Raptors. VanVleet ranks seventh while Lowry is 12th and Delon Wright is 14th. Starting small forward OG Anunoby ranks 16th at his position.
The Raptors also rank in the top five in offensive efficiency (third) and defensive efficiency (fifth). Having established an identity as a defensive team, especially on the perimeter, it’s perhaps understandable that Lowry was the one player in the visiting locker room who took the sub-standard defensive showing personally.
“It was a disgraceful display of defense by us and we’ve got to be better than that,” said Lowry. “We’ve got to be more physical. They picked us apart and made a lot of threes. We’ve got to find a way to be a better defensive team.”
Lowry continued the theme of fine-tuning as the regular season winds down.
“I think we’ve just got to make adjustments on the fly as a team,” said Lowry. “We can score with the best of them, but they outscored us tonight. We got what we wanted offensively. We’re one of the top teams in scoring in the league, but we’re also a good defensive team.”
Lowry was clearly bothered by Toronto’s defensive showing, but Casey downplayed the importance of a single regular-season game.
“We’ve got to take these games and learn from them, and again learn from the situations where we have to be disciplined,” said Casey. “It’s not a huge thing. It’s situations where we are that we’ve got to learn from and be disciplined and not maybe take this step and over-help here. Because a team like that and a passer like James will make you pay.”
While the Raptors continue to gain experience and dial in the fine defensive details, Casey was insistent that his players should not hang their heads over falling short against Cleveland.
“Hopefully our guys understand that we’re right there,” said Casey.
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets tonight to open a three-game home stand that includes visits from the Clippers Sunday and the Nuggets Tuesday. After that, Toronto visits the Celtics March 31 followed by a return to Cleveland April 3 and a home game against Boston the next night. With three games in a row against the other two top-three teams in the East, the schedule presents plenty of opportunities for the Raptors to add defensive polish before the playoffs begin.
NBA Daily: Jaylen Brown Set To Return For Celtics
The Celtics finally got some good news on Thursday. Jaylen Brown’s return is imminent.
Finally, some good news for the Boston Celtics.
Jaylen Brown is set to return to action.
Brown has been M.I.A. since sustaining a concussion during the team’s 117-109 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves back on March 8, but has traveled with the team to Portland and is expecting to return to the lineup on Sunday when the Celtics do battle with the Sacramento Kings.
As the Celts gear up for a playoff run, which they hope will result in them ending LeBron James’ reign atop the Eastern Conference, they’ve picked the wrong time to run into injury issues. Along with Brown, both Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart have each been conspicuous by their absences, and the team could certainly use all of their pieces as they attempt to enter the postseason on a high note.
Fortunately for Boston, with the Toronto Raptors leading them by 4.5 games in the standings and the Celts ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers by a comfortable six games, Brad Stevens’ team is enjoying the rare situation of having a playoff seed that appears to be somewhat locked in.
Still, with the team only able to go as far as its young rotation will carry it, Brown addressed the media on Thursday.
“I’m feeling a lot better. I’m just trying to hurry up and get back,” Brown said, as quoted by Celtics.com.
“I’m tired of not playing.”
Stevens is probably tired of him not playing, too.
As we head into the month of April, playoff-bound teams and conference contenders begin to think about playing into June, while the cellar-dwellers and pretenders begin to look toward the draft lottery and free agency.
What’s funny is that in the midst of the Raptors and their rise out East, the Celtics and their dominance has become a bit of a forgotten storyline. When Gordon Hayward went down on opening night, the neophytes from the Northeast were thought to be a decent team in the making whose ceiling probably wasn’t anywhere near that of the Cavs, the Raptors and perhaps even the Washington Wizards.
Yet through it all, with the impressive growth of Jaylen Brown, impressive rookie Jayson Tatum and the rise of Irving as a franchise’s lynchpin, the Celtics stormed out the games to the tune of a a 17-3 record. What made the strong start even more impressive was the fact that the team won 16 straight games after beginning the season 0-2.
Although they weren’t able to keep up that pace, they began the month of February having gone 37-15 and turned a great many into believers. With their spry legs, team-first playing style and capable leader in Irving, the Celtics, it was thought, were a true contender in the Eastern Conference — if not the favorite.
Since then, and after experiencing injuries to some of its key cogs, the team has gone just 11-8.
In the interim, it seems that many have forgotten about the team that tantalized the Eastern Conference in the early goings of the season.
Brown’s return, in one important respect, will signify a return to Boston’s prior self.
With Marcus Smart having recently undergone surgery to repair a torn tendon in his right thumb, he is expected to be out another five weeks or so, meaning that he’ll likely miss the beginning of the postseason.
As for Irving, although reports say that his ailing knee has no structural damage, everything the Celtics hope to accomplish begins and ends with him. FOX Sports 1’s Chris Broussard believes that it’s no slam dunk that Irving returns to action this season, but he’s in the minority. This team has simply come too far to not give themselves every opportunity to compete at the highest level, so long as doing so doesn’t jeopardize the long term health of any of the franchise’s cornerstones.
Make no mistake about it, the Celtics are far from a finished product. With their nucleus intact and flexibility preserved, they will have another offseason with which to tinker with their rotation pieces and plug away at building a champion.
But here and now, with what they’ve got, the Celtics are much closer than any of us thought they would be at this point.
And on Sunday, when Jaylen Brown rejoins his team in the lineup, to the delight of the Boston faithful, the Celtics will be that much closer.