The Memphis Grizzlies, long known for their defensive prowess during the Grit N’ Grind era, slipped to 24th in defense in 2017-18 through a combination of a coaching change, an injury to Mike Conley, and a step back on that end of the floor from their anchor, Marc Gasol. With that hellish year behind them, the addition of Kyle Anderson on the wing, and Conley’s return, Memphis has taken its rightful place among the league’s top defensive units. Its second-ranked defense this season would be the team’s best finish since 2012-13, when it posted a ludicrous 99.7 defensive rating on its way to a Western Conference Finals appearance.
The Grizzlies’ defensive acumen this season is fueled by a conservative approach on both ends of the floor. They rarely turn the ball over and don’t crash the offensive glass, instead opting to get back in transition and wall off opponents’ full-court drives to the rim. This continues in the half court, as the team drops Gasol and their other big men deep in the paint in pick-and-roll defense and rely on their perimeter length and the math of a two-point pull-up jumper to work in their favor.
For the most part, it’s worked. Gasol in particular has looked revitalized this season. He’s rebounding better than he ever has and has more than doubled his steal rate over last season. In areas that cannot be measured, he also looks to be a lot more engaged as a team defender, consistently communicating switches and coverages loudly throughout games.
In the above clip, the Utah Jazz go to their Thumb Series on a vital late-game possession. Joe Ingles sets the down screen on Gasol, which allows Rudy Gobert to set a ball screen for Donovan Mitchell. In an effort to keep Gasol in the paint, the Grizzlies switch the down screen, leaving Anderson and Garrett Temple to contend with the Mitchell-Gobert pick-and-roll, which they’ll switch with relative ease.
At this point, Gasol is matched up with Ingles, which would normally drag him way outside the paint. However, he does a great job communicating with Temple to leave Gobert and take Ingles, allowing Gasol to remain anchored. Ingles never touches the ball, as Anderson does a good job pressuring Mitchell while Temple plays the passing lane in his recovery, knowing that Ingles’ backdoor cut is covered by Gasol in the paint. Mitchell and Gobert try to re-work their two-man game together and Gasol is right there to take away any options going to the basket.
However, this clip also highlights the biggest problem Memphis has defensively: They give up a ton of corner three-point attempts. One in ten of their opponents’ shots are a corner three, the second-worst rate in the league. They’re on pace to be tied with the 2015-16 Milwaukee Bucks for the worst rate this decade.