ANALYSIS: Beneath Ja Morant’s flashy game, there’s substance to Grizzlies’ unexpected playoff chase

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Just before the Grizzlies’ dramatic and emphatic 121-110 win over the Houston Rockets, I was scouring the NBA’s official stats site, looking for numbers that would back up something Ja Morant told me after their win over Golden State.

I’d asked the young phenom what it was about Coach Taylor Jenkins’ system that has been able to unlock these dimensions of Morant’s game. Without batting an eye, he said something both surprising and obvious:

“Getting stops. Get out and run,” Morant said. “That’s what we try to do. I feel like I’m at my best in transition in the open floor, and once we get stops, we’re able to get in the open floor. Also, it’s just getting downhill, making reads.”

Then, he paused and flashed a shy grin that belies his on-court swagger.

“I’m pretty sure everyone knows that’s my game, so . . .”

In other words, it’s the defense, stupid. In the Grit-N-Grind era, the defense was all about dragging opponents “in the mud” as Tony Allen would say. But those teams didn’t have young athletic legs to run the fast break.

Back then, the Grizzlies would grind teams into submission, deliberately slowing the game down to limit possessions. Memphis was as known for its reliably slow pace as it was its “we-don’t-bluff” defense.

Well, Taylor Jenkins has taken that blue-collar ethos that Grizzlies fans love and molded it into a relentlessly ferocious, attacking defense – one that gets deflections, steals and rebounds, hands the ball to Morant and then turns on the jets.

Morant, in the open court. Everyone knows that’s his game. And if they didn’t, the Houston win provided some context for those NBA statistics I mentioned a moment ago.

Getting stops

Much like the Hubie-ball era Grizzlies, these bear cubs play a swarming, disruptive style of defense that forces turnovers and mistakes.

Memphis is among the league leaders in deflections, with 16 per game. They also are second only to the Bucks in contesting shots. And over these last 10 games, they’re third in the NBA in blocks with 6.4 per game – during which period they’re also No. 8 in rebounding.

They are not an elite defensive team – not yet, anyway. But they are already good enough to facilitate the offensive style they want – fast, furious, fun and free.

Get out and run

For years now, the Houston Rockets have been among the league leaders in pace – how many possessions they get in a game, how quickly they shoot – after all, head coach Mike D’Antoni pioneered Phoenix’s “seven seconds or less” offense 15 years ago.

Well,  over the past 10 games, the second-fastest team in the NBA is the Grizzlies (103 possessions per 48 minutes), behind only the Milwaukee Bucks (105). The Grizzlies also lead the league in points in the paint during that span (59) and are second only to the Lakers in fast break points.

That showed up in the Houston game, where Memphis outscored Houston 25-7 on fast break points, as well as 56-44 on points in the paint. You can bet that a number of those are pinpoint passes to or from Morant for a highlight reel dunk.

Getting downhill, making reads

During Golden State’s dynastic run, the dubs averaged more than 300 passes per game.

This season, the Grizzlies are third in the NBA in passes – 310 per game. Correspondingly, Memphis is leading the league in assists (29 per game). Against Houston, Memphis got those 29 assists on 46 made baskets – accounting for 63 percent of their scoring.

Fast. Furious. Freewheeling. And fun.

“Playing hard is all we know,” Jackson said. “At the end of the game, in terms of pace, we can sustain it. It’s just a matter of habit. If you’re doing it at both ends, you’re in a rhythm of playing hard and just going fast.”

GRIND ON!