LOS ANGELES -- The Memphis Grizzlies converted a total of two 3-point attempts in their 94-92 loss on Monday night to the Los Angeles Clippers. The Griz made some ungodly shots from midrange, Zach Randolph in particular, but as Memphis has learned all too well over the past several seasons, it's hard to make the math work when you're almost exclusively plugging 2s into your offensive formula.
That's a shame, too, because for three quarters on Monday night, the Grizzlies were handsy, chunky and confrontational -- their old selves. The defense locked in early. Tony Allen burrowed his way through screens and punched at the ball. Marc Gasol played centerfield like Willie Mays. Zach Randolph lathered himself up and made Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan work to move. But none of that can undo the mathematical realities that the Grizzlies have to reconcile. Their half-court game simply can't find anyplace to spread out.
"The paint is a zoo," Mike Conley said. "It's clogged. It's hard for guards to drive, hard for our big guys to have room to make plays."
Coming into Monday's game, the Grizzlies shot only 28 percent on their open 3-point attempts (27th overall), and those shots, normally choice looks, represent a small percentage of their overall shot total (21st overall). When things are clicking for the Grizzlies' defense, they've been able to overcome low returns from the 3-point line with just enough half-court finesse. Gasol perches at the high post, where he palms the ball overhead, then slings it to the appropriate party. This isn't high-yield stuff, but when Randolph is bullying on the block, Conley is picking up handoffs, Lee is hitting shots and Allen is cutting along the baseline, it can suffice.
But Conley is right: The place is a zoo, and it was never more unruly than in the most crucial possession of the game on Monday, inside of a minute to go and Memphis down a single point. Conley held the ball for 21 of the 24 seconds of possession. He couldn't find any kind of daylight, neither outside nor inside, and had to settle for a fling in desperation from 25 feet. If Conley weren't unimpeachably rock solid for the Grizzlies year in and year out, it would have been the gif of the night on Twitter.
The offense has always had to subsist without many resources along the perimeter and has never posted robust numbers. This isn't new. It is the defense that's been the lead balloon in the Grizzlies' lousy start this season. They came into the game ranked 26th in defensive efficiency, which is why Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger was comparatively rosy after the game. The defense challenged the Clippers at the point of attack on step-up screens and battled Griffin on every possession. Joerger referenced "Grizzlies basketball," and to a man, the locker room praised the effort in a game where a successful Gasol free throw with six seconds left could have tied the score.
Prior to the game, Joerger was asked about his job security, and he disavowed any reports of his precariousness as Grizzlies head coach as untrue. For management's part, the Grizzlies' convivial general manager Chris Wallace voiced support for Joerger. In reality, only one person can fairly appraise Joerger's prospects in Memphis, and that is owner Robert Pera.
The conversation surrounding Joerger is a proxy for the larger existential debate raging in Memphis. Continuity is treasured as the mother's milk of the NBA, and the Grizzlies retain the league's longest-tenured core of talent. Conley, Gasol, Allen and Randolph have logged six seasons as a group. Put another way, they've grown old together.
Joerger has inferred as much, and it is on the defensive end where the Grizzlies' collective age has been revealed. Randolph, 34, has moved at glacial speed as a help defender behind the Memphis pick-and-roll defense. This gives Gasol a little less confidence to move out of the goalie box in the lane, which in turn puts pressure on Conley guarding the ball. Strung together as a chain, and that's how a top-10 defense sinks to the bottom of the league.
For a few seasons, the Grizzlies have identified 3-point shooting and youth as the top items on their wish list. The void has been addressed by Courtney Lee, Vince Carter, Jordan Adams, Jeff Green, JaMychal Green and Brandan Wright, among a few others. All have their virtues, but as a collective group they don't sufficiently fulfill the needs.
Memphis is unlikely to remain a below-average defensive team, much less a bottom-five defensive team. And opponents won't continue to hit 42 percent of their contested 3-pointers against the Griz. When their sturdy defense regresses toward the mean, a correction is in order.
But the Grizzlies from the top to the bottom of the organization will remain a source of intrigue. Their basketball operations side is an unusual melding of styles with edges that still need some smoothing. There are a couple of NBA mandarins and others who came to the league through the side door. Some like analytics, while others have little use for it as a discipline. There is a wide variance of management sensibilities, and communal trust is still a work in progress, to be generous. And that's before you ever enter the locker room.
There is a point when continuity becomes staleness and a commitment to old-school smashmouth basketball becomes a willful ignorance of league trends and the premium on spacing in today's NBA. The only way to reverse direction is with a thoughtful reconstitution of the roster, or at least some careful additions that sincerely address need.
The Grizzlies played hard on Monday night, but competing in the NBA's Western Conference is a results-oriented business where effort is no consolation. The Grizzlies know that, which might be their saving grace.