MikeCheck: Conley, Grizzlies seek solutions for sluggish offense at midpoint of turbulent trip
SACRAMENTO – Mike Conley was soaking in his search for answers.
Sitting shirtless in his locker, with his knees wrapped and feet submerged in an ice-water bucket, the exhausted Grizzlies point guard sought the proverbial keys to free a Memphis offense that’s been recently locked in the doldrums.
The streaks are stacking in the wrong direction. The Grizzlies (16-15) arrived in Sacramento carrying a season-long, four-game losing streak into Friday’s game against the Kings (16-15) after dropping the first two on the trip to Golden State and Portland.
Wednesday’s 99-92 setback to the Blazers marked the seventh straight game Memphis has failed to reach 100 points. And after misfiring on 18 of 27 attempts from beyond the arc, the Grizzlies have made fewer than 10 threes in nine consecutive games. Both are the longest droughts by any NBA team this season, and it’s Memphis' least productive stretch beyond the arc since the 2015-16 season.
Although the Grizzlies remain a top-10 team defensively, there’s only so much of a burden it can carry from a sputtering offense that ranks deeply in the bottom third of the league.
“At some point, we’re going to have to be able to execute on the offensive end efficiently,” Conley said of the Grizzlies, who have lost 10 of their last 14 games. “Our defense can hold up for (only) so many possessions. There are so many good offensive players and offensive teams. We have to try to take advantage of the stops we get. Lately, we just haven’t been able to execute on that end.”
Individual slumps and a rash of nagging injuries have coincided with the toughest part of the schedule for the Grizzlies, who list seven players on the injury report for Friday's game. Memphis sat atop the West standings after a 12-5 start but are now in a three-way tie with Houston and Sacramento for the conference's eighth-best record. After facing the Kings, the Grizzlies wrap up the trip Sunday against the Lakers.
Our defense can hold up for (only) so many possessions. There are so many good offensive players and offensive teams. We have to try to take advantage of the stops we get. Lately, we just haven’t been able to execute on that end.-- Mike Conley
With the team having used Thursday for treatment and conditioning work, it doesn’t leave the Grizzlies much practice time to sort through recent kinks on offense. Over their last seven games, they rank 28th among the NBA’s 30 teams in scoring (94.0), 28th in offensive rating, 28th in effective field-goal shooting percentage and 30th in three-point accuracy (28.1 percent) while playing at the NBA's slowest pace.
“It’s tough to put your finger on it sometimes,” said Conley, who had a team-high 23 points in Portland and also made 5-for-10 threes while the rest of the team shot 4-for-17. “Teams just go through lulls like this, teams hit spells where we seem to rattle in and out on every open look we get. Then, we just start to try to force it. We have to stay confident and realize we’ve put a lot of work in.”
For some, it’s been a recent lack of rhythm.
Rookie forward Jaren Jackson Jr. and veteran combo guard Shelvin Mack have slumped recently after providing significant sparks in support of Conley and Marc Gasol for much of the season. Jackson seemed to emerge a bit on Wednesday, when he made two three-pointers and finished with 16 points, five rebounds and three blocks. He was a team-best, plus-13 in his 29 minutes against Portland. That came on the heels of an off night at Golden State, where Jackson shot 1-for-6 and had just 3 points.
Mack and forward JaMychal Green struggled through one of the worst efforts of the season from the Grizzlies’ second unit. Mack and Green shot a combined 2-for-11, with five fouls and four turnovers while registering a minus-23 and minus-25 impact, respectively, in their stints.
This team simply isn’t offensively gifted or proficient enough to survive a night like that, especially when Gasol isn’t attacking and aggressively looking to score. The Grizzlies have struggled to overcome stretches when Gasol mysteriously slips into passive modes on offense.
“We’ve got to get it done – it’s that simple,” coach J.B. Bickerstaff said of addressing the offense. “We can come up with schemes and tricks and all that, but on the offensive end of the floor, we’ve got to take the shots that are available to us. We’ve got to believe the shots are going in. Guys are working their tails off, taking their reps. We’ve got to get them those shots, and when they get them, they’ve got to take them and knock them down.”
Bickerstaff then addressed whether he felt Gasol has been too passive in some games.
“Marc is a facilitator first; that’s his natural instinct, that’s the way he plays the game,” Bickerstaff said after Gasol repeatedly bypassed open looks through much of Wednesday’s game before he got going in the fourth quarter to finish with 14 points and nine rebounds. “Do we want Marc to take open shots? Definitely. Our offense needs whoever’s open. Whatever open shot we create, we need him to take that shot. We know Marc’s intent. He’s a ball-mover, he’s a facilitator. But I don’t think he’s passive.”
Gasol believes the sputtering offense and the losses in general have forced the team to address some issues internally. He insists the communication lines are open and the confidence and belief in one another remain high as the Grizzlies try to pull through the malaise.
“Of course we have urgency,” said Gasol, whose production has dropped from 19.5 points on 50 percent shooting in November to 11.8 points on 36 percent shooting this month. “It’s not working the way we wish but everyone in this locker room and on the coaching staff is on the same page. We want to win. Just when the team goes through rough patches, that’s when you hold onto each other even more.”
All it takes sometimes, though, is one game to turn everything around offensively.
Do we want Marc to take open shots? Definitely. Whatever open shot we create, we need him to take that shot.-- J.B. Bickerstaff
Actually, Conley believes it doesn’t even require that much.
“It can just be one possession for some guys, one shot, one good look, one defensive stop,” Conley said. “Just one play at a time like this, and that will translate into winning eventually. We know we’re in a tough stretch of our season with the teams we’re playing, especially on the road. So we have to find ways to not look too far ahead and find small victories, find our way back.”
Conley then emerged from the ice bucket, soaking wet and confident.
Perhaps the end of his team’s offensive drought is in sight.
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