The Memphis Grizzlies sit atop the clutch mountain

Marc GasolJoe Murphy/NBA/Getty Images

MARC GASOL IS nailing a Conor McGregor impression -- flapping his arms wildly as he struts down the floor of Staples Center just like the 5-foot-9 Irish UFC champion -- and the celebration is totally justified.

The Memphis Grizzlies should not have won this game. It's mid-November, and the Los Angeles Clippers, the NBA's hottest team with a 10-1 record, should have been cruising against the middling Grizzlies. After hobbling through 14 minutes of action, one of the Grizzlies' best players, Chandler Parsons, has succumbed to nagging injuries and exits for good in the second quarter. Still, the Grizzlies have hung around. And with 23 seconds left in the game, they were somehow within a point.

That's when Grizzlies guard Mike Conley drove into the paint, drew DeAndre Jordan off his man and kicked it out to center Marc Gasol in the left corner. Of all the available options on the menu, this seemed like a good outcome for the Clippers. After all, coming into this season, Gasol was a career 18.2 percent 3-point shooter, never having made more than three in any of his nine seasons. No way this is how first-year head coach David Fizdale drew it up.

But, of course, this is exactly how Fizdale drew it up.

"If they help off that corner," Fizdale later explains, "the read was to kick it to Marc [Gasol] in the corner."

Sure enough, Gasol's 3-pointer splashed through the bottom of the net. (By December, Gasol will sport one of the NBA's top 10 3-point percentages.) And now, on the Clippers' bench, Paul Pierce slaps his head with both hands in bewilderment -- and Gasol unleashes his McGregor routine.

Thanks to miracles like that this season, the Grizzlies are now an absurd 13-5 in clutch games -- those, according to NBA.com, in which the score is within five points in the final five minutes. Meanwhile, NBA teams as a whole this season are winning less than a quarter of games they trail by one to five points in the final five minutes. The Grizzlies, somehow, are 10-5 in those losing scenarios, which is the kind of thing that could make someone wonder if there's something in the water in Memphis.

Most quants would argue this run of clutch wins is unsustainable, a random string of coin flips going in one direction. Just plain ol' good luck. Except the Grizzlies have been doing this for years, defying all prevailing analytical wisdom that the clutch gene does not exist -- wisdom that John Hollinger, a pioneer of NBA analytics and current Grizzlies' VP of basketball operations, once fervently endorsed on these pages of ESPN.com.

Now? He's a clutch convert.

"I think there's something in the water," Hollinger says.

The question is, what?


AS AN EVIDENCE-BASED thinker, Hollinger's work often poked holes in the idea that anything was magic. And in basketball, he explained, the idea one team had magic at the end of games plainly took a backseat to point differential. The ethos was first introduced by Bill James, who decades ago arrived at the Pythagorean Expectation, after finding that the difference between runs scored and runs allowed was much better at predicting baseball games than using a team's record. Study after study across sports backed up James' revolutionary principles.

Based on this thinking, Hollinger then created a Hollinger Power Ranking formula that straight-up insulted close wins by ignoring win-loss records altogether, relying primarily on point differential. And from time to time, that formula created lots of uproar. In 2010, Hollinger caught flak for ranking the Dallas Mavericks, fresh off a 13-game winning streak, 13th in the NBA by his methods. Why wasn't Hollinger buying the scorching-hot Mavs?

The Mavs, Hollinger argued, had "freakingly good fortune in close games" and the team's lukewarm point differential was a better indicator of their true talent level. This column on ESPN.com ignited a 19-page message board thread on the Dallas-Mavs.com forum with the subject headline of "Behold, the idiocy that is John Hollinger" created by a user named joemoeschmoe.

Dallas proceeded to finish an incredible 55-27 that season, good enough for the No. 2 seed in the West. Hollinger remained skeptical. Sure enough, the Mavs lost in the first round to the No. 7 San Antonio Spurs. Turns out the Spurs' point differential was much better than the Mavs'. Hollinger remembers a couple of other times he sided with the unpopular opinion. He threw cold water on the 2007-08 New Jersey Nets and then again on a hot Blazers run in 2008-09. And he was right on the money. Both teams fell back to Earth.

But here's the thing: In 2012, Hollinger took a job as the vice president of basketball operations for, of all employers, the Memphis Grizzlies.

As he notes: "It is somewhat ironic that I would create a formula only for my team to destroy it."


IF YOU'VE EVER seen Hollinger in person, there's a high probability he's holding a hot cup of coffee. In the stands of an Eastern European gym, inside the halls of MIT Sloan Conference, anywhere -- chances are he's on the bean.

But all these dramatic finishes have made him cut back on the java.

"I've had to reduce my in-game coffee consumption," Hollinger says. "Now I'm going with the natural energy boost from all that late-game drama."

He quickly takes that back.

"Actually," Hollinger says with a laugh, "that's not possible."

Hollinger admits it has been impossible for him to stay seated during this wild Grizzlies season. Of the team's 29 games, 18 of them have entered "clutch time." By contrast, the Golden State Warriors have played eight such games.

The question is asked to Hollinger, a long-time columnist: If the Grizzlies were doing this back when you were writing, what would you have written?

"I probably would have been extremely skeptical," Hollinger says.

But this might be a different story, he explains. For this team, point differential isn't always the best predictor of what's to come.


THE GRIZZLIES ARE 18-11 this season, despite having been outscored by 10 points on the overall ledger. This does not seem possible, but the Grizzlies have pulled it off thanks to their 13-5 record in clutch situations, which is fourth in the NBA behind the past three champions (Warriors, Cavs and Spurs). The Grizzlies have a knack for this. Here is their ranking in the category over the past six seasons: fourth, sixth, third, third, fifth, sixth. They have been no worse than sixth -- a crazy achievement once you consider that no other team is ranked top 10 in each of the past six seasons. Not the Warriors. Not the Heat. Not the Spurs.

The Grizzlies are freakin' clutch.

If we zoom in even more and look at the final minute in games that are within three points (super clutch), the Grizzlies are a baffling 12-1 this season. These should be coin-flip games, but they've won every single one ... except for Friday's tilt against, of all teams, the Kings. Down three against New Orleans with 19 seconds left, the Grizzlies won by two. Down by two with 26 seconds left against the Clippers, won by four. You get the point.

The overall picture is even more staggering -- and confounding. Over the past six seasons, the Grizzlies are 105-46 (.695) in these super-clutch situations, which is significantly higher than the second-place Spurs over that same time span (.652). While the Spurs' outstanding clutch performance is understandable -- their teams boast the NBA's best overall point differential of plus-3,146 over that same time period -- the Grizzlies' point differential is plus-696, or 2,450 points fewer than the Spurs. Said another way, the Raptors are plus-739 overall over the same period, which means they're a smidge better than the Grizzlies over the past six seasons. The Raps' record in super-clutch games? A measly 64-80 (.444).

It makes literally no sense. And Hollinger, for his part, wouldn't believe it if he hadn't seen it with his own eyes, repeatedly. "The one thing that [the Grizzlies] have defied with every other team I've researched, they do it year after year after year," Hollinger says.

So what's going on in Memphis? Does the team inject itself with vials of the clutch gene? The team's point guard has a theory.

"I REMEMBER IT vividly," Conley says. "Right in front of the Heat bench." It happened six years ago: Rudy Gay's game winner over LeBron James and the Heat in 2010.

Current Grizzlies coach David Fizdale was there, as a Heat assistant. It's the first shot Fizdale thinks of when he catalogues the Grizzlies' heroics over the years. "It broke our back," Fizdale says. "Right in front of our bench. Rudy Gay rose up, right over LeBron. He broke our heart."

The first person to hug Gay on the court that night in Memphis was Conley, who had just turned 23 at the time. Two years later, Gay was traded to Toronto in a controversial move that sent away the team's top scorer and go-to threat in crunch time. The kids in Memphis would have to shoulder that responsibility.

But since then, the Grizzlies have only gotten better in close games. In the four full seasons without Gay, the team has won 12 more games in clutch time than any other team -- and Conley's theory: crunch-time ball is Grizzlies ball.

"We're accustomed to playing slower and more defensive possessions," Conley says. "What's helped us is that we've played a slower pace in previous years and teams always have played fast."

It's true. Fastbreak frequency drops by a third in crunch time compared to normal play, which makes sense given that coaches try to keep risky plays to a minimum in crunch time. And this plays right into the Grizzlies' hands. Over the past four seasons, the Grizzlies rank second slowest in pace, just behind Utah. When other teams have to switch up their style in crunch time, it's just another day at the office for the Grit 'N Grind Grizz.

"When it comes down to the last minute of the game, you're not running transition layups ... it's not transition 3s," Conley says. "It's 'what can you run in a set? Can you execute?' Those things are the things that we've had to do from the first quarter in order to score."

The honed half-court game shows up in the stats in various ways -- for instance, an almost total lack of turnovers. Last season, Conley averaged just 1.5 turnovers per game and amassed the best assist-to-turnover ratio in the NBA.

Fizdale says his team just executes better -- quite possibly because they've played so many years together. Hollinger notes that Zach Randolph, Gasol, Tony Allen and Conley comprise the longest-running, four-man core in the NBA now that Tim Duncan has retired.

"If you look at our games this year, it wasn't games we won with free throws going down the stretch; it's when we have to execute a play to win the game," Fizdale says. "They really have a way of locking in in that moment and focusing on execution, and they usually do a very good job of it."

Says Conley: "We've always had to take each possession like it's our last."


MANY OF THOSE?big moments for the Grizzlies start with Conley. In 53 minutes of clutch action this season, he has scored an astounding 50 points, shooting 42.9 percent from the floor, 54.5 percent from deep and 95.2 percent from the free throw line, according to NBA.com research.

But exactly one week after theorizing about the Grizzlies' clutchness, he suffered a transverse process fracture in his back, sidelining him for the next nine games. The Grizzlies lost their top scorer in crunch time, spelling doom for their golden crunch-time r?sum?.

Only that hasn't happened at all.

Down seven with 4:46 left against Orlando on Dec. 1, the Grizzlies won by one. Down one with 4:44 left against the Lakers, they won by three. Down three with 19 seconds left in New Orleans, they won by two (in double overtime). Down two with 1:26 left against Philadelphia, they won by five. Down eleven with 4:59 left against Portland, they won by two.

That last Portland win was sealed not by Gasol, Allen or Randolph. Memphis' hero was 30-year-old Toney Douglas, who, in his 10-day tenure with the team, scored Memphis' final six points, including two clutch free throws with less than a second left in the game. His basket with 35 seconds left was his first clutch basket in over three years.

So maybe something really is in the water.