The Memphis Grizzlies Thrive With Poor Shooting

The gameplan for a Memphis victory is a mixture of defense and ball control. Offense need not apply.

If you watched Game 2, it's not too hard to come up with an explanation why the Grizzlies won. "Kevin Durant did everything himself" is the easiest one, but really, his 35.0 percent usage rate is nothing we haven't seen from Melo or LeBron these playoffs. "Mike Conley secretly zapped the lifeforce from Greg Oden's knees and injected it into his blood pre-series" is another, and really, I'm not going to count it out.

But there is one clear answer that is statistically unsound: "The Grizzlies shot well." Try telling that to Tayshaun Prince's 2 for 9, Tony Allen's 4 for 13 (figuring out why he's shooting that much would be a whole other column), and Jerryd Bayless's 1 for 6. The Grizzlies' .442 effective field goal percentage was their second-worst mark of the playoffs, only behind their atrocious .413 eFG% from Game 3 of the Clippers series.

Except that, you know, they not only won that Game 3 of the Clippers series as well, but they won it handily. The Clippers outshot the Grizzlies by .042 eFG% and still managed to lose by 12.

This isn't a unique phenomenon for the Grizzlies. They shot .442 eFG% or worse in 25 games during the regular season. But they went 13-12 in those games, including two wins against Chicago, two wins against Houston, a win against Denver, and a win against, yes, the Oklahoma City Thunder.

How exactly have they dominated? For starters, it's all about making sure opponents have just as miserable a time from the field.


Let's take a look at the Grizzlies' 10 worst shooting performances from the regular season that happened to be wins. In each of these games, the Grizzlies finished with a low effective field goal percentage, but they also managed to drag their opponents into the gutter with them.

OpponentDateMEM eFG%Net eFG%

The Grizzlies don't mind winning ugly. However, if the opponent gets hot, there isn't much they can do in response. In fact, an effective field goal percentage deficit right around .060 percentage points seems to be the cutoff point. What happened to their net effective field goal rate in the ten worst-shooting losses?

OpponentDateMEM eFG%Net eFG%

Disaster. Nine of those losses featured a larger divide between the two teams than even the largest deficit (11/9 against Houston) featured among the Grizzlies' worst-shooting wins. And the one that wasn't, the January 4 Blazers loss where the Grizzlies fell short of Portland's percentage by only .062, the Grizzlies only lost by two points.

Even in these cases, a large rebounding and turnover advantage won't help. Memphis actually won both the turnover and rebounding battle in seven of these ten losses, but because they weren't able to keep the opposing team from heating up, they fell.

Hold Onto the Ball

Defense. Got it. That makes sense. But what about those games where the Grizzlies actually keep the opponents from shooting too much better? If they're still trailing the opponents' shooting by about .050, wouldn't they need to make up the difference somehow? Yes, and the advantage may just be the big men, but not in a way you'd think.

Everybody knows about the Grizzlies' advantage down low. Behind Zach Randolph's 13.8 percent offensive rebound rate and 25.1 percent defensive rebound rate, the Grizzlies vaulted into the top ten in rebounding on both ends of the floor. While the Thunder and Heat and Warriors and really everybody these days spend so much of their time playing small-ball, the Grizzlies will hold a rebounding advantage in the majority of the games they play.

A lesser known key aspect of the Memphis game, though, is how well the Grizzlies hold onto the ball. Memphis turned the ball over on just 13.3 percent of offensive possessions during the regular season, eighth-best in the league. Conley and Bayless each turned the ball over on 15.1 percent of their personal possessions, but not a single other Grizzlies player (even the big men) turned the ball over more than 13.5 percent of the time. The league-average turnover rate this season was at 13.7 percent.

Couple that with the Grizzlies' ability to force mistakes with their second-best 15.2 percent defensive turnover rate, and Memphis has a distinct advantage heading into every single game. Turnovers are the way they can create useful possessions even when their shot isn't falling. Let's head back to that first chart, the Grizzlies' ten worst shooting performances that were wins.

OpponentDateMEM eFG%Net eFG%MEM TOV%Net TOV%

Each time that the Grizzlies shot poorly and worse than their opponent (a negative net eFG%), they needed to grab the turnover battle to win. When the Grizzlies held their opponent to an even lower eFG%, however, the turnover rate was not nearly as necessary. This trend held up slightly worse for rebounding: two of the seven games where Memphis had a low eFG% and were outshot, they were also outrebounded.

Also nothice that the Grizzlies keep their turnover rate under 14.0 percent in eight of these ten wins, allowing them to control the game at their slower, preferred pace. Among the worst shooting games that they lost, meanwhile, the Grizzlies finished with a turnover rate over 15 percent in five of them, allowing their opponent to better dictate the flow of the game. That allowed opponents to shoot much higher from the field than they would have playing Memphis' style of ball thanks to fast-break points.

You'd expect the Playoff games that Memphis won to go along the same lines, and you'd be right. When they shot a poor eFG% themselves, they were also able to drag the Clippers and Thunder in the gutter, keeping the field goal battle close and beating them down with turnovers and rebounding.

OpponentGameMEM eFG%Net eFG%MEM TOV%Net TOV%
LACGame 3.413-.0429.4%-7.8%
OKCGame 2.442-.0519.1%-9.7%

The Grizzlies lost the shooting battle in both games, but by cutting down on the turnovers and forcing both teams to play their game, Memphis pulled out the win. Both games finished at under 90 total possessions, while the Thunder and Clippers each averaged at least 91 possessions per game this season.

So How Can This Help Memphis?

If I'm the Memphis Grizzlies heading into Game 3, I'm holding onto the ball for dear life. Even if you don't shoot well, you need to stay within arm's length of the other team's eFG% in order to have a chance. And the best way to do just that is to slow the game down as much as possible.

When the Grizzlies don't turn the ball over, they are able to use all of the shot clock and prevent their opponents from fast breaks. For a Thunder team that finished with the 10th-quickest pace in the NBA, that's a crucial element to take away. Kevin Durant had a .649 eFG% in the first 10 seconds of the shot clock this season (36 percent of his total attempts); slow him down, and he shot under .515 eFG% the rest of the time.

For most teams, a shooting night below 45 percent is the kiss of death. In Memphis, though, poor shooting can be the breath of life. And it all starts with dragging the other team's shooting down as well and beating them over the head with ball control and rebounding.