Memphis Grizzlies slowly getting defense back in gear

Memphis trying to return to its roots, reverse its place as second-worst defensive team since All-Star break

Steve Aschburner

Steve Aschburner

CHICAGO – Grit ‘n’ grind had git ‘n’ gone, and the Memphis Grizzlies were actually getting a little depressed about it.

In their first five games to start this month, they got shredded for 570 points in losing at Dallas (104) and at Houston (123), followed by three consecutive home games against Brooklyn (122), the LA Clippers (114) and Atlanta (107). Communication breakdowns begat selfish tendencies begat a losing streak that had some of them — and more than a few of their fans — questioning both their play and their ambitions.

“It was a lot of things,” said veteran guard Tony Allen, the Grizzlies’ defensive sergeant-at-arms. “I’m gonna harp on the defensive end as much as I can, and you could see it. A guy gets back-doored or a guy gets blown by and no one steps up. We go over something in the shootaround, we don’t do it in the game. It took a toll on us.”

The funk seemed to start with the All-Star break. Before the break, Memphis was humming along at 34-24, two games back of the Clippers in their quest for a top-four seed in the Western Conference. Defensively, they were giving up 102.8 points per 100 possessions, fourth-best in the NBA and reminiscent of their top-eight finishes in four of the previous five seasons.

Out of the break? The Grizzlies’ gave up 100 points or more in seven of their first nine games. They ranked last in the league in defensive rating and even now, after beating Chicago 98-91 at United Center Wednesday, they rank 29th since the break at 112.9. http://on.nba.com/2nejQLy That’s not a slump, that’s a defensive bender that threatened Memphis’ season.

“Speed has been kicking our butt,” coach David Fizdale said before tipoff Wednesday. “If you’re not early with your brain, the body will never get there. Especially if you’re already at a disadvantage. We’re not a very fast team — I think we can all own that part of it — so to give ourselves the best chance to guard in today’s NBA, we have to be early ‘in the mind.’ We have to be there ahead of time. And be smart. And play with extreme effort. We weren’t getting that for 48 minutes.

“We ended up shuffling some things and looking at some different lineups. But I kept getting the same things back. Even though we were having some great practices and drilling our defense to death, it wasn’t showing up, until finally [against Milwaukee Monday].”

How big a deal was this? Memphis is 27-5 when it holds opponents to fewer than 100 points vs. 11-25 when it does not. For the Grizzlies, first comes the D, then comes everything else.

“That’s where we get our confidence and our consistency,” center Marc Gasol said. “When we don’t play defense, we kind of lose our identity. You wonder, ‘OK, who are we? Who are we going to be going forward?’ With 15 games left, that’s not a good feeling.”

“There’s no excuses. That’s what we got into a little – instead of being accountable individually, we were like, ‘Why aren’t you helping me here? Why are you helping me there?’ I think we’ve nipped that in the bud and watched the film and corrected it.”

Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley

Some sense of normalcy has been restored. Memphis held Milwaukee to 93 points in a victory Monday, limiting the Bucks to 19 points in the fourth quarter and bothering Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton into 8-for-22 combined shooting. The Bulls shot just 37.4 percent and scored only 41 points after halftime. The Grizzlies get another shot at Atlanta Thursday night (7:30 ET, NBA LEAGUE PASS).

Still, this was an existential crisis for a group that so prides itself on making life miserable for opposing scorers. To abruptly stop doing that, well, it was as if the Golden State Warriors suddenly had forgotten to take 3-point shots. The Grizzlies had stopped being themselves.

“It’s tough,” guard Mike Conley said. “We control our effort, we control our intensity. There’s no excuses. That’s what we got into a little – instead of being accountable individually, we were like, ‘Why aren’t you helping me here? Why are you helping me there?’ I think we’ve nipped that in the bud and watched the film and corrected it.”

Said Gasol: “We’ve been trusting the guys behind us a lot more, and the guy behind has been there more often. You see guys moving at the same time which, when we’re organized defensively, takes a lot of pressure off our offense. Allows us to be more free with the ball. Allows us to run more. When you play defense, a lot of good things happen.”

Fizdale, Allen and the rest had managed to indoctrinate youngsters and newcomers into sizable roles – JaMychal Green’s minutes are up from 18.5 to 28.1 this season, with James Ennis, Andrew Harrison and Troy Daniels combining for another 60.7 minutes – without much drop-off in the defensive culture. As evidenced by the games of early March, it remains a work in progress for them all.

“Guys went into survival mode a little bit. And when you do that, your defense is disconnected,” Gasol said. “So I can’t be satisfied with how we won the last two games. We’ve got to compete with ourselves and worry about how we’re playing going forward. It’s not who you’re playing, it’s how you’re playing.”

Losing Chandler Parsons for what’s left of their season was a blow. But Memphis’ chances of snagging home-court advantage in the first round and doing anything beyond that in the postseason rest mostly on its defense.

In this league saturated with long-distance shooting and triple-double mania, the Grizzlies want to be that slap in the face that rattles opponents to their core.

“We’re a team that plays consistently the same type of basketball all year long,” Conley said. “And it bodes well for playoff basketball, where it’s a lot more physical, the refs let a lot of things go. So a lot of guys who get out in transition and get a lot of free throws in the early part of the year don’t get that opportunity as much. And we’re built for that kind of a grind.”

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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