Grizzlies fans witnessed a splendid basketball game Monday night at the FedExForum as an undermanned Griz squad gutted out a 93-90 win against the San Antonio Spurs. The game was atypical of the Grizzlies this season for how much it looked and felt like last year's Grizzlies: a chaotic, energetic effort where hustling, scrapping defense negated poor defensive rebounding.
Despite a poor start to the season that caused more than a little panic, the Grizzlies have actually been better in a lot of ways than the team that won 50 games last year. Heading into Monday's game, their rebounding differential had improved from -2.2 last season to +2.2. The team's shooting percentage is up, as is their marksmanship from the three-point and free-throw lines. Meanwhile, their opponents' shooting is down. As a result, the team's overall point differential is even better, improving from a +2.4 last season to a +3.0 so far this season. (The Grizzlies are currently one of only two teams with a positive point differential but a losing record. The other is the Los Angeles Clippers.)
But if the Grizzlies are outperforming last year's numbers in so many ways, why do they have a losing record? Well, there are a few reasons for that. The combination of opportunistic defense and efficient offense that defined last year's Grizzlies hadn't come together until Monday night. Coming into that game, this year's Grizzlies were averaging fewer steals and blocks than last year's model while also turning the ball over more.
You can chalk that up to the team's most active perimeter defenders losing a bit of their growl. Injured swingman James Posey's efficiency took a frightening tumble in his three appearances before being placed on the injured list. Posey went from averaging more steals than turnovers a year ago to having a nearly 10-to-1 ratio in the other direction. The question for the Grizzlies, which can't be answered until Posey returns to the lineup, is how much those struggles had to do with his injury and how much they had to do with a new rule emphasis that's putting the clamps on aggressive perimeter defenders.
A reason for pessimism in this regard is that, until Monday night, Earl Watson has been plagued with some of the same problems. Often a game-changing defender, Watson's steals had dropped by 50 percent in the same number of minutes while his turnovers had gone up. On offense, neither of the team's point guards has been quite as efficient as last season in taking care of the ball and setting up their teammates for shots.
If this opportunistic style hasn't jelled, the question is why. It might represent a real and lasting falloff (or suggest that the Grizzlies were merely playing over their heads last season). More likely, it's a result of Posey's injury and the simple fact that it's too early in the season for the team's vaunted depth and 10-man rotation to wear other teams into a rash of fatigued turnovers. (Remember, last year's Grizzlies were only 6-5 at this point.) But fans also have a reason to be concerned that the league's crackdown on aggressive perimeter defense may hurt the Grizzlies more than other teams.
Of course, there's been another problem this season atypical of last year's Griz: fourth-quarter execution. Last season, the Grizzlies were famous for their late-game execution, going 35-2 when taking a lead into the fourth and going 5-0 in overtime games. This year, through 11 games, the Grizzlies have outscored opponents in the fourth only twice and have hit the 25-point mark in the fourth quarter only once. In three games -- on the road against the Houston Rockets, Seattle Sonics, and Sacramento Kings -- the Grizzlies have taken leads into the fourth only to watch their offense fall apart and the games slip away.
This has been a team-wide problem (witness Shane Battier's missed free-throws and Mike Miller's clanked three against the Kings), but Pau Gasol, the team's new $86 million man, has received the brunt of the blame, especially on the most recent road trip. Gasol played part of the fourth against Sacramento on a bad ankle that currently has him in street clothes, but he was simply terrible against Seattle.
The rub is that Gasol, like his team, has been playing better overall this year. His scoring, rebounding, and assists are all up despite playing fewer minutes, and he's been, for the most part, a marvelously effective offensive player, shooting 55 percent from the floor and drawing fouls with more frequency than almost anyone in the league. But this production won't justify his contract if Gasol can't be effective on the boards (his career-high-tying 18 caroms against the Kings was a great sign) and can't be a more effective scorer in the clutch.
The Grizzlies have gone 5-2 since their 0-4 start and are looking at a chance to get healthy in a hurry against a heavily Eastern Conference schedule in December. Gasol should be healthy soon too, and how he responds to the pressures that come with his max-salary contract will likely emerge as the key to this season. •