Power Rankings

Power Rankings Notebook: Grizzlies' defensive turnaround, plus Giannis thriving at center

Breaking down stats and film on key storylines throughout the league.

Ja Morant and Memphis have posted the NBA’s best defense since Thanksgiving.

Each week during the season, NBA.com writer John Schuhmann surveys the league to compile stats and notes for his in-depth Power Rankings. Before the next rankings drop on Monday, here are some of the storylines he’s keeping an eye on this weekend.

1. From worst to first

The Memphis Grizzlies have won 10 straight games, the second-longest winning streak in the league this season. Given the level of competition — the streak includes wins over the Suns, Lakers (x2), Nets, Cavs, Clippers and Warriors — it’s nearly as impressive a run as the Suns’ 18-game streak earlier this season.

The streak has taken the Grizzlies into third place in the Western Conference, with the Utah Jazz having dropped into fourth with their loss to Cleveland on Wednesday. It’s also taken them into the top 10 in defensive efficiency, which is more remarkable when you consider where the Grizzlies were just after Thanksgiving.

Through their first 19 games (over which they were 9-10), the Grizz allowed 115.9 points per 100 possessions, the league’s worst mark by a wide margin, with the Orlando Magic ranking 29th at 112.0 allowed per 100. The Grizz ranked 18th in opponent field goal percentage in the paint (56.0%), but 30th in opponent 3-point percentage (40.7%).

Since then, the Grizzlies have had the league’s best defense, by a healthy margin. They’ve allowed just 101.8 per 100 over their last 24 games. It’s a remarkable turnaround, and it started with the first game that Ja Morant missed with a left knee sprain.

As Morant missed 12 games, the Grizzlies went 10-2, allowing less than a point per possession. And since his return, they’re also 10-2 (though he missed their win over the Clippers on Saturday) with the league’s sixth-ranked defense (105.5 allowed per 100). And over that latter stretch, they’ve been better defensively with Morant on the floor (101.5 allowed per 100) than they’ve been with him off the floor (108.8).

The ups and downs are largely about opponent 3-point shooting, and according to Second Spectrum tracking, the Grizzlies haven’t contested a higher percentage of their opponents’ 3s since the start of Morant’s 12-game absence than they did prior to that.

But the Grizzlies have also seen improvement in opponent field goal percentage in the paint and defensive rebounding percentage.

Grizzlies’ defense, 2021-22

Timeframe DefRtg Rank Opp. PTFG% Rank Opp. 3P% Rank DREB% Rank
Through Nov. 27 115.9 30 56.0% 18 40.7% 30 72.5% 20
Morant absence 98.1 1 50.5% 2 31.7% 4 74.2% 9
Since Dec. 20 105.5 6 52.9% 6 34.0% 11 73.6% 9

DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
Opp. PTFG% = Opponent field goal percentage in the paint
DREB% = Percentage of available defensive rebounds obtained

The ups and downs are also about strength of schedule. Eight of those first 19 games were against teams that ranked in the top 10 offensively over that stretch. Only four of their last 24 games have come against teams that rank in the top 10 offensively since Nov. 28.

The Grizzlies’ next two opponents don’t have elite offenses, but it’s a relatively tough back-to-back. They’ll host the Timberwolves on Thursday (8 ET, League Pass) and the Mavs on Friday (10 ET, ESPN).

2. The Steven Adams stunt screen

Having climbed into the top 10 on defense for the first time this season, the Grizzlies are one of four teams — the Heat, Bucks and Suns are the others — that rank in the top 10 on both ends of the floor. Their offense, which ranks fourth through Wednesday, has been good for a while now. And as is the case with their defense, they’ve been better offensively in their 13 games without Morant (115.0 points scored per 100 possessions) than they’ve been in their *30 games with him (111.0).

* The Grizz are 18-12 with Morant, having been outscored by 30 total points (1.1 per 100 possessions) over those 30 games. Ten of the 18 wins have been within five points in the last five minutes.

But when he plays, Morant (while more than willing to share the ball) is obviously the star in the Memphis offense. He ranks fourth in time of possession (7.4 minutes per game) and ninth in usage rate (31.1%). And while he’s been a much-improved 3-point shooter (37.3%, up from 30.3% last season), the bulk of Morant’s offense is attacking off the dribble. He ranks second in the league in drives (20.3 per game) and his 14.9 points in the paint per game would be the second-highest average for a guard (behind Russell Westbrook’s 15.0 two seasons ago) in the 26 years for which we have the stat.

Morant put the Warriors away on Tuesday with a pretty incredible pick-and-roll drive in the final minute. But he doesn’t necessarily need a screen to get to the cup. And in their third win on this winning streak, there were a couple of examples where Steven Adams crossed up the Lakers’ defense by not coming to the ball to set a pick.

Early in the third quarter, Morant dribbled up the left side of the floor, a situation where Adams would normally come to the ball with a screen. But instead, Adams continued into the paint and screened his own defender. Morant beat Avery Bradley (expecting that Adams screen) off the dribble and, with Adams’ help, had a clear path to the rim …

Ja Morant drive

In the fourth quarter, Morant brought the ball down the right side and Adams started approaching for a screen. But he cut his approach short and, again, screened his own man. Morant got a step on Russell Westbrook, who had to foul him from behind …

Ja Morant drive

Morant and Adams (acquired this past summer) have played in just 28 games together, but they already seem to have great pick-and-roll chemistry. Adams has missed the last three games in Health and Safety Protocols, but (as of Thursday morning) is listed as questionable for the Grizzlies’ game against Minnesota.

3. The league’s best center?

Giannis Antetokounmpo has played a lot more center for Milwaukee this season.

Rather than guarantee his contract for the rest of the season, the Milwaukee Bucks waived DeMarcus Cousins last week. With Brook Lopez on the shelf after having back surgery in early December, the Bucks have Bobby Portis starting at center and Sandro Mamukelashvili (the 54th pick in last year’s Draft) backing him up.

Of course, the Bucks also have Giannis Antetokounmpo, who received a couple of votes as the league’s best center in the NBA.com GM Survey. With Lopez out since the first game of the season, Antetokounmpo has already played a lot more minutes as the lone big man on the floor (375) than he did all of last season (220).

Those 375 minutes (without Lopez, Portis, Cousins or Mamukelashvili on the floor) account for 34% of Antetokounmpo’s total minutes on the floor. And the Bucks have been better in those minutes (plus-11.7 points per 100 possessions) than they’ve been with him playing alongside another big (plus-7.3). They’ve actually been better offensively with another big (Portis is a floor-spacing five, after all), but have allowed just 98.2 points per 100 possessions with Antetokounmpo (who has rim protection numbers on par with those of Rudy Gobert) at the lone big.

Bucks with Giannis Antetokounmpo on the floor

On floor MIN OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg +/-
Antetokounmpo + Portis 535 113.3 103.5 +9.8 +140
Antetokounmpo + Antetokounmpo 80 104.8 100.6 +4.2 +3
Antetokounmpo + Cousins 67 117.4 120.1 -2.8 -4
Antetokounmpo + Mamukelashvili 36 101.3 119.0 -17.7 -17
Antetokounmpo + Lopez 15 122.6 81.3 +41.3 +12
Antetokounmpo + C total 733 112.4 105.1 +7.3 +134
Antetokounmpo as lone big 375 109.9 98.2 +11.7 +115

OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

Down the stretch of close games, the Bucks have leaned a little more toward the Antetokounmpo-as-the-lone-big lineups. He’s played 35 clutch minutes, with a little more than 19 of those minutes coming without any of the other bigs on the floor. Those 19 minutes have generally been great for the Bucks (58% shooting, 10-for-17 from 3-point range), but in Charlotte on Monday, they closed with Portis on the floor (probably because they were without Jrue Holiday, while Donte DiVincenzo and Pat Connaughton were a combined 0-for-14).

In the three games since the Bucks waived Cousins, Antetokounmpo has played just a few minutes as the lone big. But they’ve been outscored by 15 points in his 20 minutes with Mamukelashvili over that stretch and they may need maximum defensive mobility on Thursday.

There’s another Kia Defensive Player of the Year candidate who starts at the four but often plays as the lone big down the stretch. Unfortunately, he (Draymond Green) won’t be available when the Bucks host the Warriors on Thursday (7:30 ET, TNT). Golden State will still have Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson for the first meeting between two teams that could possibly meet in The Finals come June.

4. Klay behind the elevator doors

With the way Stephen Curry moves without the ball, the Warriors might have the most enjoyable offense in the league to watch. They also have some of the best baseline out-of-bounds (BLOB) plays.

There’s the simple one where Curry sets a back-screen around the foul line, effective because his defender doesn’t want to leave him …

Stephen Curry back-screen

There’s one where Curry sets a screen for Andrew Wiggins (the inbounder) to quickly duck in to the paint…

Andrew Wiggins duck-in

In a similar set-up (or just as a continuation of the play above), Curry can curl off a couple of screens, causing the usual panic in the opposing defense …

Gary Payton II fouled

He can also be the inbounder to get him running off a pin-down screen …

Stephen Curry inbounder

And in Memphis on Tuesday, the Warriors broke out the most glorious of all BLOB plays, an elevator-doors look for Klay Thompson. And it worked to perfection, with Wiggins and Gary Payton II closing the doors on Desmond Bane as Thompson stepped back to a corner 3 …

Warriors elevator doors play

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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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