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VOL. 132 | NO. 224 | Friday, November 10, 2017

Bench Power

Grizzlies’ Second Unit Fourth-Highest Scoring in NBA

By Don Wade

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Through games of Nov. 7, the Memphis Grizzlies were 7-4. You probably knew that. You recall the thrill of taking down the reigning NBA champion Golden State Warriors at FedExForum and beating the much-hyped Houston Rockets twice – on the road and at home.

Of course, you also scratch your head over Memphis beating the Clippers in L.A. and a little more than 24 hours later losing on the same court to the Lakers.

But such is NBA life. The Grizzlies were 3-0 when the hapless Dallas Mavericks handed them their first loss. It happens.

Left: Memphis Grizzlies swingman Dillon Brooks (24) handles the ball during a game against the Dallas Mavericks on Oct. 25 in Dallas.  Right: Memphis Grizzlies guard Tyreke Evans (12) shoots in the second half of a game against the Houston Rockets Oct. 28 in Memphis. (Associated Press photos)

Eleven games represent 13.4 percent of the NBA’s 82-game regular season. So, as a sample size, 11 games probably lands above insignificant but falls short of substantial. Still, it’s what we have to work with as the Grizzlies head into their Saturday, Nov. 11 game at Houston.

With 13.4 percent of the season in the books, the Grizzlies are on a playoff path and the reasons are their stars – Marc Gasol and Mike Conley – and a bench with firepower, a bench averaging 43.9 points per night, fourth-best in the NBA, and sixth in steals at 3.8 per game, and shooting 37.2 percent from 3-point range, which is eighth.

“We are a deep team,” Conley said on a night when he and Gasol combined for just 14 points and yet the result was a 103-89 victory over the Rockets as Chandler Parsons scored a game-high 24 points off the bench and went 6-for-8 from long range. “We follow the game play. We are very unselfish. So there is going to be a lot of nights like this. Me and Marc do not care about scoring two points or 20 points, so long as we’re winning.”

It’s a true statement, not some throwaway line you might get in a different NBA locker room. The attitudes that Conley and Gasol bring each night allow the bench players more freedom. That’s perfect for veteran and former University of Memphis guard Tyreke Evans, who is the team’s third-leading scorer at 17.5 points per game, second-best 3-point marksman at 43.1 percent (yes, small data sample) and the player on the team with the most ability to make his way to the rim.

“I think he likes it when the lights are on,” coach David Fizdale said after Evans went for 32 points that ultimately were wasted in a 101-99 loss to Orlando. “Obviously, I feel very comfortable putting the ball in his hands and letting him go make plays for us … the part that I was actually most happy with is that he’s really taking pride defensively while doing this.

“No one’s ever looked at him as a guy that’s a deep defender or anything like that, but since he’s been here he’s really taken it to heart to be a good, solid defender for us.”

Which isn’t to say Evans is that 100 percent of the time. He lets guys go by unimpeded sometimes. Even on offense, for all his exploits, he will have his ball-stopper moments. He seems especially averse to passing to Parsons.

But, so far, the chemistry with the bench guys has been good. The fit natural.

“We got an identity for ourselves when we get out there on the second unit,” Evans said. “We’ve been able to push the ball, attack, we’ve got shooters. When we get the rebound, we’re pushing the tempo and we’re flying and making plays.”

Parsons, of course, was supposed to be a $94 million (over four years) starter. Still on a minutes restriction, he has been a better fit as a second-line rotation guy. The Grizzlies have rested him twice and the moderate approach has resulted in a 48.6 accuracy rate from behind the arc through his first nine games.

“If someone has an off night, we got plenty of guys to step up and get buckets and get us big shots and big plays,” Parsons said on his 24-point night. “The guys did a great job of finding me, screening for me, hunting me every time they beat their guy off the dribble.”

Point guard Mario Chalmers, rookie swingman Dillon Brooks and veteran big man Brandan Wright make up the rest of the second unit. Wright is only getting about 15 minutes a night as Gasol’s back-up, but he’s been productive, averaging 5.7 points and 4.0 rebounds. He can provide some rim protection and can run the floor and is a good lob target above the rim.

Chalmers is averaging 8.0 points per game and 3.4 assists, second on the team. He gets some of his 23 minutes a night with Conley on the floor, allowing Conley to play as a two guard and get more scoring opportunities. Chalmers, Parsons, Evans and Wright all have had recent injury issues, which makes just being on the floor and contributing its own reward.

“We’re all hungry,” Chalmers said. “We’ve all battled different things”

For Brooks, the battle is inexperience. Not that it is very noticeable. He brings 8.5 points and 4.3 rebounds per game and, most impressive, is savvy beyond his years.

“I like him,” Fizdale said. “He’s a tough kid. He knows how to play. He knows how to win.”

Collectively, it has been true of all five bench players. No, Parsons and Evans will not continue to hit threes at the rate they have to this point in the season. Evans’ 17.5 scoring average is almost certain to come down, though he may remain a viable Sixth Man of the Year candidate.

And when other players – JaMychal Green, Ben McLemore and Wayne Selden – return from injury, there could be something of a rotation re-mix. Although Fizdale also has said he likes the bench group knowing its role night-in, night-out.

In the preseason, there were plenty of national media predicting the Grizzlies would slip below .500 this season and one the chief reasons cited was a lack of depth after the losses of Zach Randolph and Tony Allen.

Today, that point of view looks like a rim shot.

“A lot of people (outside the team) kinda doubt,” Evans said. “But at the end of the day it’s their opinion. We know what we have to do on this team and we’re out there showing it.”

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