May 21, 2021

Enjoy the bruising dominance of Jonas Valančiūnas

Enjoy the bruising dominance of Jonas Valančiūnas

"If you just run through somebody's face, people ain't gonna be able to take that over and over and over and over and over....they're just not gonna want that" - Marshawn Lynch

Athletes thrive on skill and grace, but size alone can sometimes win the day. Take Maroune Fellani. A Belgium midfielder, Fellani played for many teams, including a stint in the Premier League for Everton and Manchester. For what he lacked in skill and grace, he made up for with sheer size and brawn.

I believe the Men in Blazers podcast, long-time fans of Fellani for his accidental chaos, described the barrel-chested midfielder's movement as a sentient armoire, a hulking piece of furniture able to bump and jostle as it rampaged through the pitch. This image wedged itself into some underdeveloped cortex in my brain and replays itself every time I watch Jonas Valančiūnas play.

Valančiūnas, the bearded giant playing center for the Memphis Grizzlies, just posted a 23 point, 23 rebound line in his team’s 100 - 96 win over the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday. He ended the night +26 in a game his team won by a mere four points.

The Grizzlies lost the 11 minutes without Valančiūnas by 22 points.

Memphis’s victory kept them alive and earned a shot at the Golden State Warriors tonight; the winner there will head to the real NBA playoffs against the top seeded Utah Jazz.

Background on the bruiser

Valančiūnas joined the Memphis Grizzlies in the middle of the 2018-19 season, traded from the Toronto Raptors in a package for Marc Gasol. He's grown immensely for his new franchise, improving across the board in points, rebounds, assists, steals, and blocks per Basketball Reference.

He averages a double-double for the Grizz in his three seasons, and he's no stranger to monster box scores. Per Stathead, only 14 players hit the twenty point and twenty rebound threshold in a single game this regular season. Valančiūnas tied Enes Kanter for the second-most with four of those games this season, trailing only Clint Capela and Rudy Gobert.

He punctuated this list with a 34 point, 22 rebound performance in an April loss to the Indiana Pacers, putting up 12 offensive rebounds and shooting 64% from the field.  

His best NBA skill might be that massive rebounding ability.  Cleaning the Glass tracks the share of potential rebounds snagged by each player on offensive and defense. Valančiūnas produced the 94th and 96th percentile for rebound rate on offensive and defense, respectively; the man vacuuums up misses like a hirsute Mr. Clean.

What happened against the Spurs?

Valančiūnas invested early and often in muscling his way to the rim for an easy bucket. His shot chart from the Spurs game jumps off the page; green indicates a field goal rate above the league average for those areas.

never too early for Christmas colors

The chart alone fails to tell the whole story of Valančiūnas's dominance. His highlights from the NBA recap encapsulate the beating he unleashed on poor Jakob Poetl.

Here, he faces up on Poetl, who prepares for the expected shoulder bump and post-up. Instead, Valančiūnas uses that room to delicately splash a jumper over him for Memphis's first points of the game.

He then reversed course on another post-up, slamming into Poetl to open up space before once again dropping a sweet fadeaway to help stop a Spurs run.

Sometimes, he scored by virtue of being a giant. Memphis employs the "toss it up to the big guy strategy" to great effect.

In the most emblematic play of the game, Valančiūnas wrestles Poetl on the block as his teammate shoots a three. Even with one arm trapped and his body off-balance, Valančiūnas manages to get one hand free and tip-in the miss in one motion.

Poor Poetl probably woke up covered in bruises, haunted by the image of a gigantic beard bobbing toward him.

Can it work against Golden State?

Memphis' first elimination matchup seemed ideal for a Valančiūnas breakout. San Antonio shot the second-fewest three pointers per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com, and allowed the fifth-most points in the paint. With the Grizzlies 25th in threes themselves, the game set up nicely for a physical interior battle.

I'm not sure the Warriors will follow the same plot.

Tonight's game reminds me in part of a matchup between a dominant running back and a high-flying passing game in the NFL, Derrick Henry against Patrick Mahomes. Announcers point to the efficacy of the body blow, of getting touches for your back or your big guy in the post to wear out a defense, all while the opponent's passing game scores from long distance.

Valančiūnas should have the opportunity to be that back, to stomp around down low against the Warriors' bigs, but he faces the harsh reality of cold mathematics. Most of his bone-shaking post-ups and put-backs earn Memphis two points, while a Curry long-range bucket nets the Warriors three. Golden State will take that trade all game long.

The Warriors ended the year sixth overall in threes per 100 at 37.6 a game—something about having the greatest shooter of all-time encouraged them to shoot. They're stingier in the paint, letting up the ninth-fewest points, and they've already charted the path to success in their regular season series against Memphis.

Memphis lost two of their three games against the Warriors this year, despite Valanciunas bullying his way to box score excellence in each. Per NBA.com, he averaged 19.3 points and 15.7 rebounds across that regular season series.

The NBA's tracking data shows that Golden State mainly deployed Draymond Green and Kevon Looney on Valančiūnas, with the two splitting duties nearly evenly across the series. A variable to track here is the return and reintegration of sharpshooting big Jaren Jackson Jr. into the mix for Memphis. He played only in the final game of the Warriors/Grizzlies series, with Draymond his most frequent defender.

Will Jackson Jr.—slowly but surely rounding into form after a lengthy injury break— drag away Draymond to the perimeter and open up the paint for Valančiūnas?

The plan seemed to work in part last time, as Valančiūnas' best game against the Warriors came with Jackson Jr. by his side. In it, he shot 80% from the field, dropping 29 points and 16 boards.  Yet, Valančiūnas ended the night -13 as the Warriors won by twelve.

Despite his individual success, the Grizzlies stumbled for the same reason any team flounders against the Warriors—Curry's inimitable brilliance. Curry scored 46 points on a career-high 36 attempts, clinched his scoring title for the season, and carried Golden State to a much-needed victory.

The bruising back might run for 100 yards and break a ton of tackles, but that production matters less if the opposing quarterbacks tosses a couple quick touchdowns to take a quick lead. Racing for a comeback does not often rely on lengthy post-ups and wrestling matches for two points.

Valančiūnas will hit somebody in the face over and over and over again, but he's fighting against someone with knockout range from everywhere.

Styles make fights, and tonight should be a great one.

Pick: Valančiūnas gets another big-time double double, but Curry and the Warriors get it done

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