Grit 'N' Grind rises from the primordial mud

With the offense speeding toward the future, the gritty Grizzlies look like legit title contenders. Justin Ford/USA TODAY Sports

Last week’s matchup between the Memphis Grizzlies and the Houston Rockets was more than a division clash between teams with two of the league’s best early-season records. It was an ostensible contrast of styles: The Grizzlies’ Old World ground-and-pound, rooted in a slow pace and deliberate sets, against the Rockets’ fast-paced Analytic Ideal of 3-pointers, rim runs and free throws.

“I ain’t never known us to be no fancy, run-up-the-score, Golden State kind of team,” was how Tony Allen underlined the difference after the game.

But the Grizzlies not only blasted the Rockets 119-93, they did so in a way more befitting Moreyball than the usual Grit ‘N’ Grind, outscoring Houston from the foul line, from behind the 3-point arc and in transition.

That performance might -- might -- have been an outlier. But changes are happening in Memphis. They’ve been happening for over a year now.

This time last November, the Grizzlies were mired in a 7-7 start and star center Marc Gasol had just suffered a major knee injury. The standard-issue optimism of then-rookie coach Dave Joerger’s debut news conference had faded, and the changes he made to a team that had just made the Western Conference finals under a different coach were being blamed, both externally and, to a degree, internally.

The Grizzlies were said to be playing too fast, losing their identity. Behind the scenes, the slow start threatened Joerger’s job.

The team would eventually rebound, overcoming a slew of injuries to total 50 wins and push the Oklahoma City Thunder to seven games in the first round. But the rejuvenation was billed by some as Joerger’s comeuppance. The young coach surrendered his ego and returned to the way the team was meant to play.

In truth, the Grizzlies’ struggles last November were a matter of execution and communication. Not ideas.

“I think last year we had guys who kind of thought, ‘Well here's an assistant coach turned head coach. This is my buddy.’ And I think guys took some liberties in making some plays that weren't there,” Joerger said recently. “It's just a process we had to go through. I took the hits, and it was fine. [But the backlash] was so stupid.”

This time, players arrived at training camp healthy and focused, and Joerger more secure in his head-coaching voice. And now the same offensive changes that once provoked such consternation have become the very reason the Grizzlies are starting to look like a title contender, not just a tough out.

While still among the slowest third of the league, Memphis is playing at its quickest pace since 2010-11 -- faster even than last November’s “too fast” -- and the team’s current 3-point attempts, free throw attempts and True Shooting percentage through 14 games are each the highest of the “Grit, Grind” era. The result: an overall offensive efficiency ranked in the top 10 of the league, a place the team hasn’t been in a full season since Hubie Brown was head coach.

“Really, I think we’re doing what we tried to do last year,” point guard Mike Conley said. “We tried to implement it early on and it didn’t flow as quickly as we thought it would. But this season, guys came in earlier, we got our system in place better. And we understand what’s being asked of us a little bit more on the offensive end.”

For the Grizzlies, a quicker pace is less about pursuing early offense than avoiding late offense. The team isn’t necessarily doing more in transition, but it is seeing significantly fewer possessions push into the final few seconds of the shot clock, per 82games.com.

“I think our bigs so far this year have run the floor tremendously well,” Conley said. “They’ve allowed us to get the ball into the post earlier and not rely [on shots late in the clock]."

This has always been the goal for Joerger. Where past Grizzlies teams would routinely delay the business of trying to create a shot until halfway into the 24-second clock, this season’s model is operating at a more brisk, more purposeful pace.

Last season, a (slightly) quicker tempo was blamed for the team’s high turnover numbers. But this season, an increased pace has coincided with a lower turnover rate.

“It's based on getting into the offense quicker,” Joerger said. “Have more ball movement. Create more opportunities for the defense to make a mistake. And so far that's happened, but we're also making shots, which helps the whole world go around. Our turnovers are decently low. That helps, because the more ball movement, the more opportunities for turnovers. Getting one and not having the other symptom is positive for us.”

When he was introduced as head coach last season, Joerger said, “I like 3-pointers ... but I love free throws,” and promised a team that would put pressure on the rim. And that’s been perhaps the biggest result of the team’s quicker, more aggressive style, with free throw attempts jumping from 29th in the league last season to 12th this season. A more aggressive Gasol has been the biggest instigator, but free throw rates are generally up across the roster.

“I think [Joerger] had good intentions to come in and try to change like we did,” Conley said of the team’s delayed evolution. “Some teams just need time. We had played a certain way for so long with the same group of guys that it’s tough for everybody collectively to jump in and go with the flow. I think having a good year under our belt, we’re able to understand it a little bit better.”

Further improvement could be coming, too. In an era of “3-and-D” wing players, the Grizzlies have more often employed “3-or-D” options. But this roster minimizes that dilemma. Two-way scoring guard Courtney Lee is off to a blistering start, and despite slow starts as they recover from injuries, reserve wings Quincy Pondexter and Vince Carter fit the mold here, too. If all three can get going at once, the team’s still-anachronistic 3-point attack is likely to get at least a slight boost.

Put them around the as-good-as-ever core trio of Gasol, Conley and Zach Randolph and the Grizzlies suddenly have a chance to pair a top-10 offense with their reliably elite defense, giving the team the résumé of a legitimate title contender, maybe for the first time ever. Since Gasol returned from injury last January, the Grizzlies own a 41-12 regular-season record when Gasol and Conley have both played, a 63-win equivalent over a full season. And after scoring fewer than 90 points 22 times last season, the Grizzlies have failed to top that threshold only once so far this season.

But while Joerger has tilted the team’s attack, he’s continued to play the rhetorical hits, paying public lip service to a slower pace and heavier style than he’s actually pursued.

“Grit Grind” is a team slogan born organically, an accidental utterance by Tony Allen in the moment of his team’s initial ascent back to relevance, embraced first by fans and later by players and coaches as an emblem of a proudly unfashionable playing style.

Long at risk of ossifying into cliche, it’s a rallying cry that’s proven as durable as the core players it embodies.

The Zach Randolph-inspired corollary is playing “in the mud,” and Joerger frequently mentions pulling opponents there.

There’s no doubt he means it -- to a degree. But you also sense that, after getting his hand slapped last season for daring to do what he knew to be right, he’s content to tell people what he thinks they want to hear while going about the work of transforming his team.

“The mud” has become a beautiful place for the Grizzlies and their fans, but to get to the top, you have to leave the ground.

Chris Herrington is an entertainment editor and NBA contributor for the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Follow him, @HerringtonNBA.