This is the season of the ball rolling around on the floor. Of the bounce pass off the knee and out of bounds. Of the ugly win. Teams like Dallas, Phoenix and the Lakers, those teams that employed pure and precise offenses to run up the scores–those guys are out of place in this rough and tumble, dense, dirty, 66 game season. Teams get tired and sloppy. But that’s just peachy with the Memphis Grizzlies, who are quickly becoming one of my favorite team to watch this year.
The Grizzlies are grimy. Yes they’ve got skill and they share the ball, but what makes Memphis scary, and consistently enjoyable to watch, is that they don’t want to just force a bad shot, they want to deny the opportunity to shoot at all–they come to steal the ball. The Grizzlies are barely in the top 10 in defensive efficiency, meaning they are very good but not great at limiting scoring opportunities, but they lead the league in steals, and forced turnover percentage.
One in every six opponent possessions ends a turnover.
One in nine ends in a Memphis steal.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of getting steals for a team like Memphis. There’s just nothing so surprising, so unnerving as having the ball and then suddenly transferring possession to the other team. On rebound opportunities, there’s a shared understanding that the ball is up for grabs, and both teams should prepare for a change of possession. But a steal is a wild moment, and the Grizzlies do a marvelous job of creating then thriving in the chaos. Once long limbs and greedy hands relief the offense of the burden of possession, it’s Rudy Gay and Tony Allen, two of the most single-minded finishers in the league, plunging at breakneck speed down the wings.
Of course it’s not savage banditry that yields so many turnovers and steals. It’s intelligent manipulation of angles to trim passing lanes to slivers, a clever philosophy that manifests as instinct just as the constant chanting of monks makes action from mantra.
What I like most of all is that Memphis does it the hard way in the hardest of seasons. Without enough rest, without time to fully prepare for each opponent, they muster the emotional and physical energy to make the long rotation, to remain disciplined in their reads, and to stay nasty in their intent.
It ain’t pretty, but it’s evolution. In the post-a-lockoutalyptic NBA environment, delicately designed sets explode on impact with live defense. This is the world we created, and the Grizzlies are just the sort of hard-boiled ruffians to thrive in this time replete with loose balls and broken plays.
I originally bemoaned the absence of clarity in this smushed season. But now I’ve learned to love this imperfect yellow sky reality, and the team that seems to make perfect sense in the midst of all the madness.