After turning around another stinker of a first half in Friday’s matchup against the Orlando Magic, the Memphis Grizzlies inspired some nerdiness out of me. Well, more than the usual level of nerdiness, I guess. Having binged on YouTube videos of video game glitches this week, I’ve run into a lot of discussion around things like characters sprouting a third arm or enemies taking unusual amounts of damage. Specifically, that discussion revolves around one key question–are all these quirks flaws or features?
And thus, the nerdy ball of neurons in my head attempted to connect that to the Grizz. After three consecutive flameouts in the first half followed by resurgent third quarters, I had to wonder: is Memphis’ third quarter strength a bug or a feature? A strength, or random noise? A skill or a coincidence?
So, being lucky enough to attend media availability after the game, I asked Taylor Jenkins for his thoughts. “I think it’s a credit to our group,” said Jenkins. “I’ve said it a number of times: depending on whatever happens in the first half…our guys are able to take a moment, regroup physically [and] mentally, talk about the things we need to reemphasize or new things we have to emphasize and go out. They execute it usually pretty well and consistently all season long. I think it’s a product of our guys embracing that time to recollect and get better for the last 24 minutes.”
In other words, neither a bug or a feature, but a reorientation. While certainly the halftime adjustments are helpful, I can’t help but think there’s more to the equation than a simple reset. It’s palpable that the team plays differently in the third quarter, and I believe that the numbers back this up well.
First of all, I’m willing to wager that Jenkins is lighting a fire under the guys at halftime, reading them the riot act a la your favorite high school football coach. The Grizzlies come out of the locker room with an unmatched focus on getting to the rim–since April first, they’ve shot nearly 50 more attempts at the rim in the third quarter compared to the first, hitting them at a 65% clip. For a team that’s so young, it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that the team’s success aligns with them going back to basics.
That said, Memphis tends to generate easy points from all possible sources in the third quarter, and at game-high rates. On average, the Grizzlies rack up two more fast break points over the third quarter as opposed to the first. Don’t count out the team’s effort on the boards either. For what it’s worth, the team has shot 19 tip shots in the third quarter this month, up from just six in the first. With such a litany of better shots available, it shouldn’t come as a surprise when the team drops a 36 point third quarter, as they did in their first matchup with the Magic.
However, I don’t mean to paint the Grizzlies as a mere brute, barrelling their way into third-quarter success. Though the team’s midrange field goal percentage drops significantly in the third, there’s certainly some finesse to the team’s efforts in the penultimate quarter. This predominantly rears its head in above the break threes. Memphis shoots at a relatively constant rate from the corners, but above the break, the squad shoots nearly 8% better in the third. This is perhaps due to an uptick in playmaking, as these triples are assisted nearly 10 percentage points more in the third as compared to the first.
That said, don’t count the Grizzlies’ isolation game out, either. As evidenced by Dillon Brooks’ 25 point outburst in Miami, the midrange game is very much alive and well for the Grizzlies in the third quarter, making their bread and butter on the pull-up jumper. The team shoots 58.3% on what NBA.com classified as ‘running jump shots’ in the third quarter–more than double their clip of 26.7% in the first quarter. My best guess is that this jump is a product of an increased sense of urgency in the third, translating to a greater level of focus and difficult shot-making. Again, I wouldn’t be surprised if Jenkins has grilled the team in more than a few halftime huddles to wring this out of the younger players.
Finally, on a more qualitative note, I think that the Grizzlies are simply better at controlling the game’s playstyle in the third. This all stems from their defense, in which they’re generally excellent at cleaning up execution errors from the first quarter. They’re especially strong at preventing the long ball–only allowing opponents to shoot 33.3% from deep, on 2.2 less attempts as compared to the start of the game. It seems the secret behind this is physicality, While Memphis’ opponents shoot worse in the third, they’re also shooting free throws at double the rate they do in the first quarter, meaning the Grizzlies seem to be putting their bodies on the line as the game rolls along.
Of course, these numbers are all based on the law of averages. By no means am I attempting to claim that the Grizzlies *won’t* put up the occasional stinker in the third (hell, just look at their last matchup with the Magic on Saturday). However, when looking at the bigger picture, it’s clear that Memphis has built up a toolbox to shoot out of the halftime gates, a necessary skill for NBA contendership. Look no further than the Golden State Warriors of yore, known for their third quarter runs. While the Grizzlies may not be dynastic, they’re certainly hoping to match some of the Dubs’ success. The third quarter might just be the best place to start.
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