When you can't score in the NBA Playoffs, problems arise. And, when you can't score in the half-court, those problems pile up in a hurry. Five games into its second-round series with Golden State -- the most lethal offense in the league -- Memphis has shown two very different sides. In Game 1, a 101-86 loss, it wasn't able to generate enough quality looks to keep pace. In Game 2, with point guard Mike Conley in the lineup, crisp ball movement and dribble penetration led to a key road win over a team that went 39-2 at home this year. We saw more of the same in a Game 3 win.
To be sure, Memphis has a defensive-oriented, physical mindset that wears down the opposition. During the regular season, the Grizzlies ranked second in points allowed and seventh in opponent field goal percentage. Against MVP Stephen Curry and company however, we've seen the good and the bad.
With the Warriors now clinging to a 3-2 series lead, let's take a look at how Memphis has defended Curry, whose Jekyll-and-Hyde play has been one of the crucial storylines. The Grizzlies do a superb job of playing defense on a string, and Curry has had his hands full with the pestering Conley.
In Game 1 though, Memphis -- playing without the injured Conley -- suffered late rotations and helpers which were over-extended. In this clip, the result is a kick-out to Curry, who calmly shot-fakes and gathers for one of his four made three-pointers.
Next, once again from Game 1, Curry uses a ball screen to force a switch. He gets the ideal mismatch when power forward Zach Randolph -- a terrific player, though not especially nimble -- does just that, only to end up in no-man's land. Curry then does the rest, creating the necessary space for the clean look.
Part of Curry's brilliance is his intelligence: He knows the defense is constantly fearful of his jumper. In Game 1, Memphis was forced to insert journeyman point guard Nick Calathes for Conley. In this video, Curry does a marvelous job of maintaining his dribble to force both defenders to commit. Once that happens, he makes the correct read to find Draymond Green for a wide-open look that he converts.
"It's pretty tough," Grizzlies coach David Joerger said of defending Curry. "He makes tough shots. You have to just keep your head up and keep pushing forward."
In Game 2, and then even more as the series shifted to Memphis, Joerger -- who has said "we have to prove it every possession" -- employed a more aggressive style of defense to push Curry further from the hoop. "Staying connected" is the term coaches often use.
Two-time First-Team All-NBA defender Tony Allen has primarily checked Curry's fellow backcourt All-Star Klay Thompson, meaning Allen is almost never able to help driving lanes. Allen has done his homework, though, and knows that a high percentage of Curry's assists come from kick-outs to Thompson. Allen reads Curry perfectly and jumps the passing lane for what is a potential five-point swing.
In this clip, Allen gets lulled into the same shot-fake we saw from Curry in Game 1. This time, however, he finds a way to get back into the play and disrupt Curry's line of vision to the hoop. The result is a missed three-point attempt. It's hard to ignore Curry's subpar play against Memphis. Until Game 5, he was shooting just 33 percent from three, and his assists are down as well.
In Game 4, Curry scored 33 points, 21 of which came in the first half. Here, he is thinking three the whole way, and creates the necessary space with the dribble, a specialty of his in transition.
This is an important example because it shows that sometimes, when defending Curry, it just doesn't matter what you do -- and the Grizz learned it the hard way.
Lastly, Curry once again uses the threat of his jump shot -- and then the pass -- to put the defense on its heels and find a better look: one of his patented floaters.
Curry's magic as a lead guard is not only his knack for keeping a "dead" play alive, but also his rare ability to maintain his dribble. In these two examples -- both from Game 4 -- the MVP is able to create two terrific looks off of what appeared to be two broken plays.
Following his team's Game 3 defeat, Kerr weighed in on Curry's woes. "I don’t think this is a confidence issue at all," he said. "I think it’s more, 'Let’s figure this out; let's get better shots, let's be more patient, let's use our fundamentals.' That’s the part that he has to sort through. But it’s never a confidence issue for him."
Or as Kerr said in April: "I have never seen a player with this skill set." And Kerr played alongside Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen.
The chess match between Memphis and Curry will ultimately determine which team advances to the Western Conference finals because so much of Golden State's action stems from its point guard. What cannot be lost is how well Conley -- a former All-Defensive Team selection -- has played on both ends, matching Curry step for step and even outplaying him at times. Furthermore, we should not dismiss how nimble both Joerger and Kerr -- neither of whom had any playoff coaching experience before this postseason -- have been with their adjustments.