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Grizzlies Need to Regain Defensive Identity

After the Memphis Grizzlies stormed out of the gate and coasted to a 15-2 record to begin the NBA season, there was speculation that Dave Joerger, in just his second season as the head coach in Memphis, would be a viable candidate for Coach of the Year. Joerger had his team playing with a ton of confidence, and they looked like a legit contender in the Wild Wild Western Conference.

But as of late, the Grizzlies have struggled immensely. Memphis has lost three straight games by an average of 19.6 points after Sunday night’s loss to the defending champions. They’ve failed to reach the 100-point mark during this losing streak and have surrendered an average of 107 points in these contests.

In fact, the Grizzlies have only scored 100 points four times out of 16 during the month of March. After a strong start to the season offensively, it has been a struggle for this group on that end of late, as they now sit at 18th in the league in scoring at 98.6 points per game.

Given the litany of deficiencies being put on display by the Grizzlies, how do they respond and get back to playing well?

Well, it has to start with the identity they’ve reified – defensively this team has to play better and get back to their style of basketball. The woes experienced this month include blowout losses to the Warriors, Cavaliers and the Wizards, where they’ve surrendered at least 107 points each time.

On March 12, albeit against mostly non-starters as Joerger elected to rest some players, they allowed Marcin Gortat to go off for 22 points and nine rebounds. John Wall also contributed with 21 points, seven rebounds and six assists. The “stingy” defense of Memphis allowed Washington, who had been struggling, to shoot 50 percent from the field.

Against Cleveland on March 26, the Cavs dominated the Grizzlies by outhustling, outplaying and essentially wanting it more as they cruised to a decisive 111-89 victory. Led by Kyrie Irving’s 24 points, the Cavs shot a blistering 51 percent from the field and 41 percent from three-point range. They outrebounded Memphis by 17 and led by as many as 29 at one point during the third quarter. Five guys scored in double figures for Cleveland.

Stephen Curry added to his MVP-caliber season with a 38-point, 10-assist outburst against Memphis on March 27. The Warriors shot 51 percent from downtown and put on an absolute show. Their starting backcourt outscored that of Memphis’ by a score of 66-20. For a team that has prided themselves on excellent defense, they look extremely lost at the moment.

Of course, you can look at the fact that their starters sat against Washington and surmise this was the reason they played atrociously. You can also excuse their performance against Cleveland and say it amounts to the fact that the Cavs have just been virtually unbeatable since James returned from his hiatus. You might also look at the greatness of Golden State’s backcourt and their firepower and excuse that loss as well. But this team came into the season looking to hang the first banner in their franchise’s history, so these excuses have to be eradicated. This is a results-oriented league, and if you snooze, you lose, especially in the postseason.

During Lionel Hollins’s tenure with the team, he elected to elevate Joerger’s coaching duties by placing him in charge of the team’s defense. At the time, they were an abysmal defensive team and were in desperate need of help. Under Joerger’s defensive leadership and acumen, the Grizzlies became one of the best defensive teams in the league as they steadily increased their ranks each year from ninth to seventh to second. In his first year at the helm of the team, they ranked third in team defense. As you can see, his abilities have indeed paid dividends and the impact has been astronomical.

The mediocrity displayed by this group recently has catapulted Houston to the division lead and the second spot in the Western Conference. If Memphis wants to regain its position as the No. 2 seed, they’d better get back to their winning ways, because the Rockets aren’t going to acquiesce to their demands.

At 50-24, Memphis still ranks second in the NBA in points allowed per game, which is a testament to how good they were before. We just aren’t accustomed to watching this group allow these types of offensive barrages. In no way am I insinuating that this team has an exorbitant amount of issues that should warrant fans to have a sense of panic and fear about their team. After all, they’s still battling atop their conference. But if they have championship aspirations that transcend the goals of just making the playoffs, they need to correct the issues that are currently plaguing their team.

In their last loss, we witnessed the Spurs, one of the smartest and best passing teams, deviate from their game plan simply because the Grizzlies had no answer for Kawhi Leonard. The reigning Finals MVP erupted for 15 of his game-high 25 points in the fourth quarter, and San Antonio just continued to feed the hot hand as Leonard pulverized the Memphis defense.

The Grizzlies certainly have the roster and playing style to compete in the postseason. Joerger has done a sensational job in his short time at the helm in Memphis and has successfully ingratiated himself with the front office due to his excellence on the defensive end and his particular interest in analytics.

The front office severed ties Hollins in what was a highly contentious move two seasons ago. They elected to elevate Joerger to the head coaching position as they showed extreme confidence in his abilities. We know what he can do defensively and it has produced exceptional results thus far. But now, we’ll need to find out what he can do in the face of adversity, as this team will need their coach to galvanize them and get them back on the winning track.

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