As an opposing player, when your plane touched down in the land of the Delta Blues and you entered the Grindhouse, you knew you were in for a rough night.
Whether you won the game or not, you knew you were going to leave Memphis with some bumps and bruises and some scrapes and cuts. The Memphis Grizzlies established a culture of ‘Grit and Grind,’ a hard working blue collar mentality for a hard-working, blue collar town.
These days, gone are some of the key originators of the phrase. Zach Randolph is in Sacramento. Tony Allen is out of the league. Shane Battier has long since retired.
But the spirit of ‘Grit and Grind’ is alive and well on Beale Street.
Mike Conley is healthy and still chugging along as one of the most underrated point guards in the league. Marc Gasol is still producing at a high level. But the players on the roster who might sum up the phrase make up the Grizzlies’ second unit.
The Grizzlies’ bench is near the bottom of the league in scoring, 22nd to be exact. But Memphis is one of the lowest scoring teams (27th) in the league to begin with. When the bench comes in, they know their roles might change on any given night, but they come in and help get it done however they can, especially on the defensive end.
Memphis has quietly become one of the best defensive teams in the league once again. They’re third in the NBA in opponent points per game. They slow the game down to a snail’s pace and prefer to assert their dominance defensively.
The strength of the bench can be partly attributed to newcomer Shelvin Mack. The veteran point guard has had previous stops with the Washington Wizards, Philadelphia 76ers, Atlanta Hawks, Utah Jazz and Orlando Magic before arriving in Memphis this season.
Mack was a late signing near the end of the offseason and, at the time, the Grizzlies had a glut of players at his position. He emerged from training camp as the frontrunner for backup to Conley, and he’s held on to that role since.
“Some games I’m scoring, some games I’m playing defense, some games I’m setting guys up. Settling into my role has been pretty good,” Mack told Basketball Insiders. “We play together, we got a good thing going. It makes things a lot easier.”
Now in his eighth year in the league, he’s been enjoying one of the best seasons of his career so far. He’s putting up 9.4 points per game on 45.3 percent shooting from the field and 40.3 percent from the three-point line to go with 3.6 assists.
But perhaps his biggest contribution to the team has been his effort and leadership on the defensive end. He’s helped the second unit come in and maintain the defensive effort given by the starters.
“We give effort every day, every night. We just compete at a high level every game. In the NBA, when you have a chance to make the playoffs, you have to play defense,” Mack told Basketball Insiders.
“We scramble a lot, guys are making second efforts on a lot of plays, trying to sacrifice for the team. We give it all on defense and the offense will take care of itself.”
Mack isn’t the only one who has prided himself on defense off the bench. While Mack might be the floor leader for the second unit, the one player who perhaps fits the description of ‘Grit and Grind’ best is JaMychal Green.
Green arrived in Memphis near the tail end of the ‘Grit and Grind’ era on a pair of 10-day contracts. He made an impact almost immediately with his workhorse approach to the game. He isn’t afraid to mix it up inside and do the dirty work, as well as get after it defensively.
“I just try to be the dog, I try to do all the small things. I go out there and fight, rebound, lock up defensively, just do whatever the team needs me to do,” Green told Basketball Insiders.
“It starts with the defense. The defense is okay right now, but it can get better. But I feel like we’re doing a great job, just making the next play on defense, just hustling and being all over the floor.”
Green is also experiencing one of the best seasons of his career. He’s averaging 9.6 points per game and 6.6 rebounds while shooting a career-high 42.1 percent from three-point range.
But it isn’t his offense that makes him so valuable to the Grizzlies – it’s his versatility as a defender. He can guard multiple positions, from bodying up big men in the post to switching out and sticking with guards on the perimeter. And most of all, it’s bringing unlimited energy, something that’s become infectious for the rest of the bench unit.
“We just come in and keep playing, we pick up the energy. We’ve got a couple energy guys in that group, we just have to keep the same type of level of play like the starters are,” Green told Basketball Insiders.
“We got to come in and do our job and keep the score up. We can’t come in and just settle for anything. We just go out there and play with confidence.”
One other player who has exemplified coming in and playing with that confidence is Wayne Selden Jr. Selden is also the epitome of a blue-collar player. He went undrafted in the 2016 NBA draft and has had to work double to get where he is.
After a brief stint with the New Orleans Pelicans, he arrived in Memphis and has quickly found a home. Behind Mack and Green, Selden has emerged as the third member of the Grizzlies second unit. The three of them are leading the team in minutes off the bench this season.
“We got a great group of guys that have all bought in,” Selden told Basketball Insiders. “That’s the biggest thing, we’re all on the same page. We’re just trying to get better.”
He knows that, coming off the bench, he might be asked to do a variety of things on any given night. But he always comes back to his calling card, which is defense.
“I just do whatever I need to do to help the team win,” Selden told Basketball Insiders. “I know I can play defense every night, so just being a defensive stopper whenever I can be.”
As it stands, the Grizzlies have surprised many and have fought and clawed their way into the conversation as one of the top teams in the Western Conference. They currently sit in sixth place in the West, but are only a mere 2.5 games out of the top spot in what’s become an increasingly competitive race.
Their chemistry is off the charts, and, as Mack puts it, it’s the key reason they’ve had such success – especially with the bench.
“Everybody’s ready to play every day. We’re very unselfish, that’s the biggest thing that helps us out,” Mack told Basketball Insiders. “Any given night could be somebody’s night. Nobody’s sitting there and complaining, we turn it on, it gives the guys confidence, and that’s what’s helped us out a lot.”
And in a league where high octane offenses have become the norm, the Grizzlies are bucking the trend. They’re getting it done in old-school fashion with tough, physical play.
So when opponents come walking in Memphis, they better put on their blue suede shoes and buckle up, cause they’re going to get hit with a heavy dose of ‘Grit and Grind.’