Memphis is mucking up the new NBA with Grit ‘n Grind 2.0

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — You won’t offend the Memphis Grizzlies by flipping right past them on NBA League Pass. They’ll gleefully admit that 29 other teams are more fun to watch.

But as the rest of the league trends toward a fast, beautiful brand of basketball, the Grizzlies play slow and ugly by design. Coming off a 22-win campaign in 2017-18 — a season doomed by a heel injury that sidelined point guard Mike Conley for all but a dozen games — Grit ‘n’ Grind has been revitalized in Memphis. Nobody plays at a slower pace than the Grizzlies — 96.3 possessions per game, according to — who firmly believe that going against the grain works to their advantage.

“We want to bring people to the mud and see how comfortable they are in that type of fight,” Grizzlies coach J.B. Bickerstaff told ESPN after Monday’s practice. “There’s not a ton of practice time anymore, so the games are coming and everybody’s playing one way, and then all of a sudden you play us and it’s a completely different game. How do you handle that?”

So far, the answer often is: not very well. Memphis, a team many observers believed had a decent chance to keep the top-8-protected first-round pick they owe the Boston Celtics in the 2019 draft, is smack dab in the middle of the Western Conference playoff picture as the season nears the quarter pole.

The Grizzlies are off to a 12-7 start and only a game and a half out of the top spot in the West standings as they welcome the East-leading Toronto Raptors to FedEx Forum on Tuesday night.

“It’s Grit ‘n’ Grind 2.0,” said New York Knicks coach David Fizdale, whose firing last November led to his friend and assistant Bickerstaff becoming the Grizzlies’ interim head coach before getting the full-time job over the summer. “They’re playing to their strengths. They’re playing to what fits them. J.B. has identified exactly what works for this group.”

Memphis is managing to win despite ranking dead last in the league in scoring with an average of 103 points per game, a product of their walk-it-up, shot-clock-milking style of play. Adjusted for pace, the numbers still aren’t pretty for the Memphis offense, which ranks 25th in the league in efficiency. But the Grizzlies are trying to win basketball games, not beauty pageants, and that means trying to “take the rhythm out of the game,” as Bickerstaff puts it.

With 33-year-old big man Marc Gasol playing as well as when he was voted Defensive Player of the Year six seasons ago, the Grizzlies allow the fewest points per game (100.9) in the NBA and embrace that their hopes hang on being a dominant defensive team. Only the Celtics and Oklahoma City Thunder are giving up fewer points per 100 possessions than Memphis (103.7).

“If you’re going to play here and be successful playing here in Memphis, you’ve got to own up to what we are and who we are,” Conley told ESPN. “You can feel that the uglier the game is, the more uncomfortable it is for most people. That’s what we try to accomplish.”

Gasol, the other remaining mainstay on the Memphis roster, added, “What we all feel is that this gives us the best chance to win consistently.”

Four large, light-blue letters are painted on the white cinder block wall in a hallway outside the Grizzlies’ home locker room:


It’s a word that has been part of the franchise’s identity since ex-Memphis defensive stopper Tony Allen’s famous postgame television interview in 2011. “Grit. Grind. All heart,” Allen barked after that win over the Thunder, inadvertently coining a marketing slogan that perfectly suited the Grizzlies’ personality and the proud, tough, small-market city they represent.

Much smaller, black letters are printed across the big, blue GRIT. They spell out the dictionary definitions of the word in both English — 1. ABRASIVE PARTICLE OR GRANULES 2. FIRMNESS OF CHARACTER; INDOMITABLE SPIRIT — and Spanish, a nod to Gasol.

It’s fitting for this team. “All heart” gets Grizzlies fans fired up and sells T-shirts, but it was never entirely accurate. It also takes a bunch of brains and a good amount of guile to grit and grind your way to the NBA playoffs, as the Grizzlies did for seven straight years before last season.

“The most important thing, and I think people don’t put enough on it, is intelligence,” Bickerstaff said. “Our guys’ ability to think is what is going to make it work. If we didn’t have the guys with the intelligence, with the experience, I don’t think we’d be able to play this style of basketball.”

In Conley and Gasol, the Grizzlies have a pair of basketball purists as franchise cornerstones — stars as much because of their smarts as their skills.

“And you add guys like Kyle Anderson and Garrett Temple and Shelvin Mack, guys who are just as smart as you are on the court, and that’s tough for opposing teams to deal with,” Conley said, referring to three under-the-radar offseason additions that have been great fits as role players for the Grizzlies.

After more than a decade together, Conley and Gasol have the kind of chemistry that led Philadelphia coach Brett Brown to make a John Stockton/Karl Malone comparison after the 76ers lost in Memphis earlier this month. The Grizzlies can dictate tempo in large part because they have the luxury of relying on the Conley/Gasol two-man game — featuring two veterans with good vision who are capable of scoring all over the floor — to generate decent looks late in the shot clock.

“Conley and Gasol are the stars, but all the other players fit very well around them and play their roles perfectly,” San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. “I think that understanding of roles and the leadership that they’ve exhibited and the confidence they have in that system all shows.”

“If we just let everybody run and have fun and play up and down and play free, at that point we don’t really dictate anything. If you have a good night shooting, you might win the game. And if you don’t, you’re probably screwed.”

Grizzlies C Marc Gasol

Because they play so slowly, the Grizzlies put a major premium on protecting the ball. They commit the third-fewest turnovers in the league, averaging only 13.3 per game. The top priority on a lot of the Grizzlies’ offensive possessions is to make sure they’re in position to get back and set their defense.

“The sooner we can load up our defense, the better off we are,” said Gasol, who is averaging 18.1 points and 3.9 assists per game, ranking second on the team behind Conley (20.3 points, 6.6 assists) in both categories. “We can control the tempo of the game. We set up our defense, and it’s a different type of game.

“If we just let everybody run and have fun and play up and down and play free, at that point we don’t really dictate anything. If you have a good night shooting, you might win the game. And if you don’t, you’re probably screwed.”

It’s hard to have a good night shooting against the Grizzlies, whose opponents’ field goal percentage (44.3) is the fifth lowest in the league.

Based on analytics, Gasol is a clear early front-runner for his second Defensive Player of the Year Award. He leads the NBA by a wide margin in ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus (5.03) and defensive win shares (1.4). The Grizzlies give up only 99.5 points per 100 possessions with Gasol on the floor, compared to 106.3 when he rests.

The 7-foot-1, 255-pound Gasol provides a physical presence in the paint, but he’s a dominant defensive player because of his mind. He excels in the cat-and-mouse game of pick-and-roll defense, preventing the Grizzlies from having to help and often baiting guards into bad decisions.

Gasol’s preparation allows him to have uncanny anticipation, a significant factor in his averaging a career-high 1.63 steals, the most of any big man in the NBA this season. And all of Gasol’s teammates benefit from his preparation via his communication on defense.

“You don’t know until you play with him,” said Temple, who was acquired from the Sacramento Kings for spare parts and joins Conley and Gasol as the only Grizzlies to start every game this season. “I knew he talked on defense, but it’s the things that he says.”

If an opponent calls a play, Gasol knows it and tells his teammates what’s coming. He calls out actions before they happen. He barks out where screens are coming and where he is, letting teammates know where they have help.

Gasol is also helping groom another potential Defensive Player of the Year in rookie Jaren Jackson Jr. The No. 4 overall pick’s future is probably at center in the post-Gasol years. But as a 19-year-old, Jackson is playing primarily power forward and making his presence felt, especially on defense, by possessing the mobility to defend on the perimeter and the length, athleticism and instincts to rank fifth in the league with 2.16 blocks per game.

Gasol and Jackson as a defensive pair is almost unfair, as the Grizzlies give up only 91.9 points per 100 possessions with them both on the floor.

Jackson, who is averaging 13.1 points per game, is the rare prized lottery pick who prides himself first and foremost on defense. (“He has the ability to be special on the defensive end of the floor,” Bickerstaff said.) That makes Jackson a great fit for the Grizzlies, as Gasol considers the desire to defend to be as valuable as all of his preparation and experience.

“More than IQ, it’s the commitment and believing in whatever it is that you’re doing,” Gasol said. “Not just when things go well for you. It’s believing no matter what. Even if your guy scores, if it’s within the system and the kind of shot that we’re willing to give up, don’t let it affect you. Do it again.

“It’s just trusting each other, doing multiple efforts, the simple things that we always talk about. It’s the mindset of doing it over and over and over again until the other team hopefully breaks.”

The previous Grizzlies teams from the Grit ‘n’ Grind era, quite frankly, were more entertaining if not pleasing to the eyes. Allen and power forward Zach Randolph were the snarling faces of the franchise. One was a ferocious, trash-talking defensive stopper, the other a low-block bully — a couple of big personalities with rough edges that endeared them to the Grizzlies’ fan base.

The current gentlemanly Grizzlies might not be as intimidating. They’re quieter, but no less competitive.

“We’re all hard-nosed,” Conley said. “We might not talk a lot to you, but we’re going to be in your face. We lost a little bit of that ugly, ugly, in-your-face stuff with Z-Bo and Tony gone now, but we still have a few guys who can get it like that.”

Conley points to power forward JaMychal Green as the primary “ready-to-fight guy” on the Grizzlies’ roster. Green, like Temple, had to toil in the G League before getting a shot to stick in the NBA and eventually earn a starting role.

Green’s last start came in the second game of the season. He broke his jaw that night, sidelining him for a dozen games and opening the door for Jackson to crack the starting five.

Bickerstaff admits to being a bit concerned about the situation when Green, a veteran in a contract year, was ready to return. The coach didn’t think it was fair for Green to lose his starting job due to injury, but he couldn’t imagine demoting a rookie as talented as Jackson who was helping the Grizzlies win.

Bickerstaff pulled Green aside to discuss the situation. Green assured his coach that he had been watching Jackson blossom and understood the situation — and that he was cool with any role as long as he had a chance to contribute.

Green’s response, according to Bickerstaff, is an example of the mentality that is a must for Memphis to keep winning.

“They don’t care about themselves,” Bickerstaff said. “Everything is for one of their teammates, and whether it’s a defensive coverage, it’s a weak-side help, whether it’s an extra pass, that’s all their focus is on. I keep saying this, but this is a fun f—ing place to be right now.”

Maybe it’s not fun to watch, but that’s fine with the mud-wrestling Memphis Grizzlies.

ESPN’s Michael C. Wright contributed to this story.

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