The Memphis Grizzlies averaged the most points in the paint during the regular season — their 57.6 paint points per game was 4.3 more than the 2nd-place San Antonio Spurs. That is the same difference between the Spurs and the 9th-ranked team in the category (Sacramento Kings).
On the other end of the spectrum, the Golden State Warriors’ 44.7 paint points per game belonged in the bottom tier — 25th. It’s a natural consequence of their preference for the perimeter game. Paint points come to them opportunistically through cuts or dives to the rim, but rarely is it their primary form of offense.
Which is why this heated series has become a snapshot of what we’d call a “statistical anomaly.” The Grizzlies — the premier paint squad during the regular season — has largely been stifled with their forays in the paint. The Warriors — a below-average paint-scoring team — has scored in the paint almost at will.
The Warriors have a commanding points-in-the-paint-average lead during these playoffs — 50.3. The Grizzlies aren’t far behind them (49.8). But despite the lack of bona-fide rim protectors, the Warriors have limited the Grizzlies to a middling 43.3 points in the paint over the last 3 games.
Putting it in terms of raw points paints an even wilder picture: the Warriors have a commanding 178-130 advantage. Even the Warriors themselves probably didn’t expect to be a plus-48 in paint points coming into the series.
Game 3 proved to be the most lopsided outcome of the series so far. It also happened to be Exhibit A of how the Warriors have limited the Grizzlies’ paint scoring, while also punishing the Grizzlies inside.
Early during the game — amidst a barrage of hot outside shooting from the Grizzlies — the Warriors unsheathed a 1-2-2 matchup zone as a change-of-pace tool, something to make the Grizzlies reset their half-court possessions and spend a significant chunk of the shot clock trying to punch holes in the zone.
The Grizzlies found pockets of success against the zone, courtesy of outside shots and individual wizardry from Ja Morant. But the sudden change in defensive scheme largely achieved its objective.
One of the grand ironies about a zone is that the very shot it aims to draw out — a three-pointer — is one method of busting it. Context matters, obviously — it works better against teams who aren’t known for their outside shooting, such as the Grizzlies; you’d hardly see it being applied to an excellent shooting team, or more importantly, a team that possesses the knowhow and execution to pick at its weak spots.
Look at how the Grizzlies approached possessions against the zone above; save for some missed open shots, they were befuddled as to how to bend it. Patience is key when it comes to busting a zone, but the Grizzlies mostly had none to spare.
Early shot-clock attempts from the outside played straight into the Warriors’ hands. Attempts to screen for the ball handler proved futile, since any attempt to penetrate inside was met with rotating bodies to crowd the paint. Mid-range jumpers were welcomed with open arms by the zoning party.
The image below paints a striking image of how the Grizzlies were lost against the Warriors’ zone:
Besides opening up looks from the outside, the other classical method of busting a zone is through flashing someone to the middle and treating him as a critical fulcrum — something the Grizzlies failed to do on a consistent basis. Having four players spaced out with one parked at the dunker spot won’t bend the zone in any significant manner.
One possession had the Grizzlies successfully flash someone to the middle, which garnered them a wide-open dunk. But it was a glaring exception.
Flipping the script on the best interior-scoring team in the league involved becoming the best interior-scoring team yourself — something the Warriors accomplished through attacking the Grizzlies’ troubles with point-of-attack defense.
Naturally, the Grizzlies’ strategy against the Warriors involved taking away space as much possible, in the form of hard close-outs, overplays/top-locks, and aggressive forms of pick-and-roll coverage such as doubles, hedges, screen-level coverages, and going over screens. Switching was also on the table, in order to keep actions flat and personnel in front.
Defensive schemes are often geared toward taking away a particular aspect of an offense while sacrificing something in return; the allure of the reward often makes the risk palatable. The Warriors took their chances with their zone by walling off the interior and risking the possibility of outside-shooting variance favoring the Grizzlies.
The Grizzlies took their chances with crowding the Warriors’ space from the outside. However, the risk that such a gamble presented fully manifested.
Off-ball top-locking to take away catch-and-shoot looks around screens was met with a backdoor cut — generally an efficient play-type for the Warriors, but especially so during this series (1.19 PPP on cuts).
A serious case of cause and effect plagued the Grizzlies. In their attempts to take away the outside shot, they gave up plenty of interior points. They responded by overtly reacting to every instance of the Warriors touching the paint. Inward rotation opened up looks from the outside.
This feedback loop of sorts — the Warriors eliciting reaction after reaction from the Grizzlies defense — was what allowed them to run away with the game.
Dillon Brooks’ physicality and tenacity both at the point of attack and on off-ball screens was sorely missed. He is the easy solution for the Grizzlies, but whether he’s enough of a solution remains to be seen.
The Warriors turning the tables and sending this series to The Twilight Zone — a dimension where they are the dominant paint presence — has been quite an unexpected development. But it’s been working for them.
The ball is in the Grizzlies’ court. They can opt to take the paint away from the Warriors — at the expense of opening up the outside-shooting floodgates. That is the potential risk they will have to take, but outside of relying on variance favoring them on both ends of the floor, it seems as if the Grizzlies have no choice but to try such an option.