“The game slows down in the playoffs.”
It’s an old NBA adage that has persisted into many modern circles. With focus and energy levels so much higher possession by possession, the thinking goes, playoff basketball becomes more of a grind. Teams that thrive on pace and athleticism don’t hold the same edges they would over the 82-game regular season, especially facing opponents devoted to scouting them in detail.
Through this lens, the 2021-22 Memphis Grizzlies seem like an obvious candidate for a postseason letdown. The Grizzlies finished in the top five in overall pace for the regular season, and they were the NBA’s most aggressive group running in transition,1 relying on the fast break to generate offense more than any other team. They were also the league’s best offensive rebounding team and scored the most per-possession second-chance points overall; because offensive rebounds actually slow the pace of the game (a new NBA possession only begins when the ball changes hands from one team to the other), broad numbers like pace likely undersell Memphis’ breakneck approach.
Their style of play has led to questions about whether they can sustain their success in the playoffs. Are those questions based on a sound premise, though? Both in terms of the Grizzlies and the league in general, the answer might surprise you.
Over the past 10 completed NBA seasons, the average offensive possession length has risen from the regular season to the playoffs by just 0.32 seconds, per data via Inpredictable. That’s an increase of only 2.15 percent.
Meanwhile, transition frequency — as defined by Cleaning the Glass — has decreased by 4.49 percent in the playoffs versus the regular season over that same 10-year sample. There was a much larger decrease in the 2019-20 playoffs, but the Orlando bubble environment for that postseason may have played a significant role there.
To be clear, these numbers are not irrelevant. In a game that averages around 100 possessions over 48 minutes, even mild changes like those are worth noting. But should they be enough to concern the Grizzlies or their fans?
In Ja Morant, Memphis has one of the league’s most fearsome open-court players. Morant pushes the ball whenever the Grizzlies have even a slight edge in manpower — and often even when they don’t. He runs after steals, after rebounds, even after opponent made free throws; if you’re backpedaling, it doesn’t really matter if you have guys back. Morant is going through, up and over you.
Will playoff game-planning stop that?
Memphis’s fast-break arsenal stretches well beyond just its superstar, though. Second-year wing Desmond Bane is a bull with a head of steam in open space but is also capable of pulling up to catch a backtracking defense with a three. Kyle Anderson may be nicknamed “Slo Mo,” but he initiates many a fast break by picking steals with his excellent hands. Steven Adams and Jaren Jackson Jr. are both aggressive and accurate outlet passers. Ziaire Williams is a revelation on the break, sprinting for lobs Morant is clearly looking for.
As for Memphis’s dominance on the offensive glass, there’s even less reason to believe it can’t sustain.
Across the NBA, offensive rebounding outside garbage time has dropped by an average of 1.04 percent from the regular season to the playoffs over the past 10 years — and has actually gone up in two of the past three postseasons, per Cleaning the Glass.
Second-chance points have dropped by an average of 2.59 percent from the regular season to the playoffs in that time, a bit more notable, but again have risen in two of the past three postseasons. Last year, in fact, 10 teams (including Memphis) generated a higher rate of per-possession second-chance points in the playoffs than in their corresponding regular season, per PBP Stats. Clearly, it can be done.
Moreover, nothing about the Grizzlies’ profile — statistical or otherwise — suggests they can’t keep crashing the glass with success. They’ve maintained their league-best offensive rebounding while boasting a borderline top-five transition defense on the year, per Cleaning the Glass — one of a few teams challenging another long-held notion that chasing too many offensive boards kills you on the fast break the other way.
There’s even a recent precedent here: the defending champion Milwaukee Bucks.
While last year’s Bucks ran in transition a bit less frequently during the postseason, per Cleaning the Glass,2 their efficiency increased by so much that they actually “added” more to their overall offensive rating via transition play during the playoffs than the regular season. They needed it, too — they were just 12th among 16 playoff teams in halfcourt offensive efficiency.
Know what else helped? The Bucks leapt from 13.0 second-chance points per 100 possessions (below league average) in the regular season to 16.8 in the playoffs (tops among all teams), an increase of nearly 30 percent. Much of that was pure physical domination by Giannis Antetokounmpo, who more than doubled his per-possession second-chance rate in the postseason.
They aren’t identical rosters at all, but it’s easy to see some similarities between those Bucks and these Grizzlies in these areas. If there’s a guard version of the Greek Freak, it’s unquestionably Morant. And both teams boast plenty of length; the Grizzlies don’t have a wing of Giannis’s stature (no one but Milwaukee does), but they often play Jackson and Adams together in a twin-towers lineup that can sustain offensively due to Jackson’s shooting prowess. Even when Memphis “downsizes,” guys like Williams (6-foot-8), Brandon Clarke (6-foot-8) and Dillon Brooks (6-foot-7) roam the court.
This is no guarantee of a Grizzlies title or even a deep playoff run, of course. Other obstacles abound, including a tough Western Conference road ahead. Some might also point to the lack of major playoff experience across most of this Memphis rotation, which is technically accurate; some Grizzlies would surely dispute that they’re entirely green in this environment. They beat the San Antonio Spurs in a tightly contested play-in game last season before marching into Golden State and upsetting the Warriors for the No. 8 seed, after all. They even took the first game of their first-round matchup against the Utah Jazz before falling in five.
If Memphis does fall short, though, it’s hard to imagine it being for stylistic reasons alone. There’s strong evidence, both at the league and individual team level, that the game really doesn’t “slow down” that much in the playoffs. Teams with profiles similar to the Grizzlies have proven capable of winning the possession game in the postseason. Do you want to be the one to tell Morant and Co. they can’t do the same?
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