For Grizzlies, Defense and Mental Toughness Trump Style of Play

By Don Wade

In their last game of the 2015 calendar year, the Memphis Grizzlies had survived an epic fourth-quarter scoring drought, climbed above Marc Gasol’s broad shoulders in overtime, and emerged with a 99-90 victory over the Miami Heat at a happy FedExForum.

Marc Gasol scored seven of his 23 points and made two of his four blocks in overtime as the Grizzlies defeated the Miami Heat 99-90 on Tuesday, Dec. 29, at FedExForum. 

(AP Photo/Karen Pulfer Focht)

Grit and Grind’s most faithful supporters – and Grit and Grind vs. The New Small Ball sometimes feels like a political fight as we enter this 2016 election year – had much to cheer.

With Matt Barnes out of the starting lineup because of his two-game suspension from the NBA – thou shalt not beat up the New York Knicks’ diminutive head coach at the home of your ex-wife – the beloved Zach Randolph began the Tuesday, Dec. 29 game vs. Miami on the floor instead of on the bench.

When the game was over, Randolph (17 points, 7 rebounds, 3 assists) had been a solid contributor. One of the reasons that the Grizzlies – despite the block-party presence of Heat center Hassan Whiteside – had won points in the paint (52-38) and rebounds (46-38) and left fans with a warm, nostalgic, feeling.

“Old days,” Randolph said with a grin. “Old Grizzlies basketball.”

But if we have learned anything about the Grizzlies over the last few weeks, it is this: Never again can they be all-in on ground-and-pound offense, ignoring the space-and-pace paradigm shift across the NBA, and pretending their own particular deficiencies don’t really exist.

Randolph, for example, wasn’t sent to the bench because he no longer knew how to rebound, score around the rim, or had forgotten his jab step move. Coach Dave Joerger made the change because opponents – almost all of whom play quicker stretch fours – were abusing Randolph, and by extension the Grizzlies, on the defensive end of the floor.

This, coupled with Golden State having created the scouting report for defending Tony Allen by not defending Tony Allen, forced Joerger go with Barnes and Courtney Lee in the starting lineup with Gasol, point guard Mike Conley and the very athletic and sometimes perplexing Jeff Green.

The right change? We could have formal debates and let FOX and MSNBC inject their own special biases into the argument, but the truth is there is no perfect answer.

The New Small Ball has been less than a landslide victory if the ultimate measurement is wins and losses and that really is all that matters, now isn’t it?

Joerger first unveiled the new starting lineup on Dec. 13 at Miami. The Grizz played pretty well but lost and through the victory over the Heat here the Grizzlies have gone 4-6 with two of the wins over the NBA’s bottom feeders: Philadelphia and the Los Angeles Lakers.

When Randolph was injured earlier in the season and missed a few games, the Grizzlies pretty much had to play some small ball. It worked well enough, presumably, to get Joerger thinking. As time went on, and before he committed to the lineup change, the Grizzlies had one foot in the past and one in the future but often looked like they weren’t too sure about the present.

As Conley explained after the Grizzlies’ 20-point loss here in early December to San Antonio, “We can get caught (between the two styles) a little bit. It’s different. We went there for (a few) games and caught a rhythm playing a certain way and then we have to jump back into a different rhythm, try to find our way again back to the old stuff. We just gotta find ourselves.”

As the Grizzlies step into 2016 and begin a three-game road trip on Saturday, Jan. 2, at Utah, Conley’s comment still rings true. The difference, though, is that of late the Grizzlies have shown much more willingness to defend no matter what is or isn’t happening on offense.

The overtime victory against the Heat was illustrative of this. Randolph hit a turnaround hook shot with 6:33 left in the fourth quarter to give the Grizzlies an 81-72 lead. It was their last field goal of the quarter, their other points coming at the 5:58 mark when Randolph made a pair of free throws.

Meantime, Dwyane Wade was doing Dwyane Wade things and the Heat rallied from an 83-74 deficit to send the game into overtime knotted at 83-83. Quarrel if you want about what happened to the offense – “we slowed the ball down too much,” Conley said – but consider that Miami also didn’t score in the last 2:57 of regulation.

“We took a hit,” Gasol said, saying that he counted the victory over Miami as one of their best wins of the season. “We couldn’t find our offense in the fourth, but we didn’t let it dictate our effort defensively. That was good. It shows more character. It shows more of who we want to be and it shows more mental toughness.”

Defense and toughness, these Grizzlies are learning, never go out of style.