In what was every bit as much of a collapse as a comeback, the Grizzlies probably deserved that shot.
Through three quarters everything was going right in the first home playoff opener in franchise history. As is so often the case when the Grizzlies' offense is at its best, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley — with four assists each — were directing a balanced attack as the Grizzlies sprinted out to a 34-16 run at the end of the first quarter.
When a 20-point Grizzlies lead eroded to 11 late in the second quarter — mostly with Gasol and Conley on the bench — the team responded with an 8-0 run to end the first half, capped by a buzzer-beating Gasol dunk off a Conley feed.
When the Clippers opened the third quarter on a 5-0 mini-run to get the Grizzlies lead under 15, the Grizzlies went on a five-minute 18-6 run to rebuild a commanding lead. It was during this stretch that Conley hit four consecutive threes and the Clippers' defense seemed beyond repair.
But the third time was in no way a charm.
The Grizzlies tipoff Game 1 against the Los Angeles Clippers at 8:30 tonight at FedEdForum.
Get your mind right, Memphis:
One of the league's smallest markets vs. one of its biggest.
Grit and grind vs. glitz and glam.
The Western Conference's top-ranked defense against the NBA's fourth-best offense.
Of course, these teams have a few things in common too.
This series will also pit two of the most unfortunate franchises in league history. The Grizzlies, who hadn't won a playoff game until last spring. The Clippers, who hadn't been to the playoffs since 2006, which was also the only season in which they've made it past the first round since moving the California in 1978. One of those franchises will be advancing this season.
Game 1 — Sun. April 29th — 8:30 PM TNT
Game 2 — Wed. May 2nd — 8:30 PM TNT
Game 3 — Sat. May 5th — 3:30 PM ESPN
Game 4 — Mon. May 7th — TBD
Game 5 — *Wed. May 9th — TBD
Game 6 — *Fri. May 11th — TBD
Game 7 — *Sun. May 13th — TBD
Ten Questions and Attempted Answers:
1. The Grizzlies we know all about. [And if you don't, check out my playoff-preview column from this week's paper.] What's the quick take on the Clippers as the playoffs start?:
I expected the Grizzlies to pass the Clippers for the fourth seed because of the differences in the two teams' closing schedules, but I expected it to happen a lot earlier than it did. Though they stumbled in their last two games — both on the road against playoff teams, the last without Chris Paul — to open the door for the Grizzlies, the Clippers were impressive in the season's final month or so. The Clippers were on a 14-3 run before the final two games, including taking both sides of a home/road split against Oklahoma City, winning at home against Memphis and Utah, and winning on the road against Dallas and Denver.
Though they lost veteran shooter/leader Chauncey Billups early on, the Clippers come into the playoffs with one of the most stable and cohesive lineups in the league. The current starting five — Paul-Randy Foye-Caron Butler-Blake Griffin-DeAndre Jordan — was the third most-used lineup in the NBA this season.
And they tend to stick to a nine-man rotation, the starters spelled by a couple of playoff-tested vets (guard Mo Williams and forward Kenyon Martin) and a couple of very untested kids (guard Eric Bledsoe and swingman Nick Young).
Stylistically, the Clippers are known for their highlight-ready lob dunks, but they're actually a slow-paced team (25th in pace) built around Chris Paul's pick-and-roll skills. They're big and athletic up front and use that to excel on the offensive boards (4th in offensive rebound rate). They keep turnovers down (2nd in turnover ratio). And they're good from long-range (5th in attempts per game, 12th in percentage). Defensively (18th overall), they're vulnerable, especially from the outside, where they're 27th in opponent three-point percentage.
Zach Randolph moved back into the starting line-up and the Grizzlies used the first half as a tune-up for the playoffs, building a 26-point lead early in the third quarter before mostly coasting home. The 88-76 win brought the Grizzlies to 41-25 on the season and secured the #4 seed.
On Sunday, against the Los Angeles Clippers, the Grizzlies will open a playoff series at home for the first time in franchise history.
And it appears they'll do so with, absent Darrell Arthur, a full complement of players — a rarity this season. Zach Randolph was energetic and productive (13 points, 12 rebounds, 3 assists on 6-12 shooting and 26 minutes). Gilbert Arenas and Quincy Pondexter played rotation minutes off the bench and looked mostly recovered for their recent injuries.
This team looks ready to go.
Check back mid-day tomorrow for a full preview of the first-round series with the Clippers.
UPDATE — The series schedule:
Game 1 — Sun. April 29th — 8:30 PM TNT
Game 2 — Wed. May 2nd — 8:30 PM TNT
Game 3 — Sat. May 5th — 3:30 PM ESPN
Game 4 — Mon. May 7th — TBD
Game 5 — *Wed. May 9th — TBD
Game 6 — *Fri. May 11th — TBD
Game 7 — *Sun. May 13th — TBD
*Photo by Larry Kuzniewski
Last season was a period of firsts for the Grizzlies franchise: First playoff win, first home playoff win, first playoff series win, first Game 7.
Now the team is on the precipice of another: With back-to-back road losses to the Atlanta Hawks and, last night, the New York Knicks, the Los Angeles Clippers have opened the door for the Grizzlies to host a playoff series for the first time in franchise history.
A Grizzlies win tonight over the Orlando Magic — 7 p.m. at FedExForum — will secure the #4 seed in the Western Conference, which would mean that the Grizzlies-Clippers series would open in Memphis this weekend.
I'll be tweeting live from the game tonight and will have a series breakdown post up on the site sometime tomorrow. In the meantime, my "state of the team" playoff preview column from this week's print edition of the Flyer is now online. You can read it here.
This amazing shot, from Grizzlies staff photographer Joe Murphy, needs to be on billboards, posters, ticket stubs, T-shirts, whatever:
It was "Ante Up" Tony Allen's night Tuesday at FedExForum, where he kidnapped fools on the way to a franchise record eight steals:
Playing without Zach Randolph, who was rested on this second night of a back-to-back, the Grizzlies' traded baskets with an even more under-manned Blazers team (playing without season-long starters LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicholas Batum, and Raymond Felton) in the first quarter, then finally built a double-digit lead near the end of the first half.
The lead swelled to 15 midway through the third, but the Grizzlies bench couldn't put the Blazers away. When a J.J. Hickson layup brought the Blazers to within six points midway through the fourth, coach Lionel Hollins was forced to bring four of his starters — Rudy Gay, Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, and Tony Allen — back into the game.
Even that didn't end the too-listless play. Holding a seven-point lead with under three minutes to play, the Grizzlies spent consecutive possessions funneling shots to new signee Lester Hudson — making his debut at the 4:41 mark of the fourth quarter — instead of running a focused offense. Hudson missed three straight jumpers and the Grizzlies found themselves clinging to a two-point lead with the shot clock off and the Blazers with the ball. This all gave Rudy Gay the chance for a game-saving block when Blazers guard Wesley Johnson rose up for a potential go-ahead three-pointer with five seconds left. But it really didn't need to be that dramatic.
Everyone I talked to after the game essentially acknowledged the mixed-blessing of the Grizzlies' “easy” closing schedule. It's nice to be able to win without playing your best, but it's harder to get up for these games with the playoffs looming and the odds of seeding mobility getting slimmer.
“We've played a lot of really good teams,” Hollins said, referencing the dramatic stretch that preceded this whimper of a closing run. “We've played Oklahoma City. We've played Dallas twice. We went to Miami and we played the Clippers at home. Those are the kinds of games that these guys get up for. Then, after we had that stretch, all of a sudden we get a stretch of teams that aren't in the playoffs. I can't say we struggled. But we haven't been as focused to go out and dominate them. But we won the game, and that's also important.”
Hudson first: The former Central High School and UT-Martin player is a dynamic 6'3” scoring guard who had a cup of coffee with the Grizzlies a couple of years ago, memorably scoring 13 points in 12 minutes in a home win over the Lakers back in February of 2010. Hudson, already 27, has been a journeyman through three seasons, playing 49 games for four franchises while spending time overseas and the “D” League, but has always shown good scoring ability when given the chance. And he finally got a major chance in 13 games this spring with the Cleveland Cavaliers, in which Hudson averaged 13 points in 24 minutes a game, including a recent four-game stretch in which he averaged 23 points a game and became a league-wide story for his sudden big-shot eruption:
Last April, when the team clinched in a home win over the Sacramento Kings, Tony Allen was on all fours at center court as the clock ticked down, and he was soon joined by a whole team sporting weeks-old “playoff beards.” The post-game celebration was jubilant. The drought was over.
This time there was another team huddle at center court after the final horn sounded, but the mood was more subdued.
“We didn't want to be a one-and-done kind of group. We had a lot of success last year and we just wanted to make sure we got back,” Lionel Hollins said after the game. “We were up-and-coming last season, so there was more enthusiasm. This year, we're more professional about it, but we also had to endure more, especially with those early injures. We had to dig in.”
There was a Dickensian aspect to this clinching game. In the first half, the Grizzlies played down to their competition's level, as they've tended to do this season, trailing 48-47 after two quarters. But in the span of the 15-minute break, the Grizzlies transformed from looking like an “out in five” to a “deep run,” picking up their defensive energy to blow open the game with a 20-4 run to start second half, en route to a 37-12 quarter and a 24-point-lead in the fourth before extended “garbage time” made the final score look more mundane.
Marc Gasol: One day after suffering a knee injury that had Griz fans quaking, Marc Gasol was in typical warrior mode, slapping a brace over his bone-bruised left knee and taking to the court in a game most expected him to miss. Whether Gasol should have been out there last night, however, is a matter of debate. Gasol didn't look hobbled, but clearly lacked lift and was not his usual self, finishing with 4 points on 2-8 shooting and only 3 rebounds in 34 minutes. Gasol's injury is one that apparently won't get worse by playing and also won't totally go away by playoff time, so he's going to have to get used to playing with it. But I thought he was wearing down/banged up even before Sunday's knee injury. Gasol may not want to sit — ever — but it seems like he needs some rest. In the likely scenario that the Grizzlies are locked into the fifth seed before the regular season ends, I would hope Gasol would be made to take a breather.
Zach Randolph: With Gasol making an unexpected start, Zach Randolph did not move into the starting lineup as many had anticipated. But he did have a strong game off the bench reversing a troubling downward trend. Randolph played 32 minutes off the bench and was aggressive and effective in his time: Scoring 16 points on 8-15 shooting, with a team-high 11 rebounds and most of his attempts coming in or around the paint. Randolph capped off this bounce-back game with a crucial hustle play, diving on the floor in the final minute to keep a loose ball alive that the Grizzlies were able to secure. As for Randolph's role going forward, I've been a proponent of late of returning him to the starting lineup, but if he can get 30+ minutes, 10+ field-goal attempts, and seemed fully dialed-in coming off the bench, then the current set up would be fine. I remain skeptical, however, that the team can really get the best from Randolph in this current bench role when the playoffs come around.
Give the the Hornets a little credit, despite an 18-42 record, the team has played hard and been good defensively all season, and with the return of shooter Eric Gordon from a season-long injury, they now have just enough offense to be competitive. Last night's win completed a 4-1 homestand for the Hornets, with the only loss by two points to the Lakers. The Grizzlies had been unusually good on the second night of back-to-back sets this season, but last night looked like the classic road back-to-back slog.
Though falling to the Hornets perhaps severely impacts the Grizzlies' playoff-positioning calculus, watching the standings is overshadowed for the moment by a bigger concern: As the Grizzlies prepare for the post-season over these final six games, there is a queasy uncertainty over the two players most responsible for driving last season's dramatic run: Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph.
Gasol left last night's game with what was initially diagnosed as a hyperextended left knee and had an MRI done in New Orleans following the game. The play itself didn't look that bad despite Gasol's initial reaction and he was able to stay in the game to hit a free throw and then walk to the locker room without assistance. If this is just a hyperextension, it likely wouldn't impact Gasol's availability for the post-season. (Dallas' Shawn Marion and Boston's Brandon Bass seem to have suffered hyperextensions this spring without missing games.) But Grizzlies fans have learned from recent injuries to Zach Randolph, Darrell Arthur, and Rudy Gay to withhold judgement on these matters until the outcome is crystal clear. I think Gasol was looking pretty banged up even before this latest mishap. And even if the MRI comes back negative, I would think it might be wise to sit Gasol in this week's Tuesday-Wednesday back-to-back, at least.
The Jazz had beaten the Grizzlies in the two previous games of the season series. Maybe it's their depth of size. Maybe it's the ghost of Jerry Sloan still gumming things up. Maybe it's that the Jazz might be the only team that chooses to start their road games with their offense on the Grizzlies' bench end of the court. (Okay, maybe that just disorients me.) Whatever it is, the Jazz have been a tough opponent for the Grizzlies this season. And this game was no different.
The Grizzlies trailed 51-50 at the half, with the Jazz's three primary bigs — Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, and Derrick Favors — combining for 28 points on 14-22 shooting, and some careless turnovers negating some of the Grizzlies' own good shooting.
In the third quarter, the Jazz built their largest lead — 72-66 — with a big lineup that shifted starting power forward Millsap over to small forward and put second-year man-child Favors in the middle next to Jefferson. The Jazz trailed by three midway through the quarter when they went to this lineup and reeled off a 9-0 run after going big, with Rudy Gay understandably struggling to check Millsap on the block.
The Grizzlies still trailed by six early in the fourth quarter, but began a 31-20 closing run with the insertion of Dante Cunningham. Cunningham played only seven minutes in the game, but six of those came in the fourth quarter when he was summoned to match-up with Millsap at small forward. And even when the Jazz went back to a conventional lineup a minute later, the Griz stayed with Cunningham against the even bigger Favors.
“Dante did a really nice job with his quickness and activity,” Lionel Hollins said. “We were able to play the pick-and-rolls better.”
Cunningham helped spur better energy defensively, then O.J. Mayo got hot, this symbolic baton handoff made literal in a sequence three minutes into the quarter when Cunningham harassed Favors into consecutive point-blank misses and then fought him for a defensive rebound that was quickly converted into a pull-up transition three from Mayo. Coming out of a subsequent timeout, the Cunningham defensive rebound/Mayo three sequence repeated itself to give the Grizzlies their first lead since early in the third quarter.
With the game tied 86-86 at the 4:27 mark, Mayo kept scoring, but Rudy Gay took the handoff for a series of big plays on both ends of the floor: Blocking Favors at the rim on one end and getting an offensive rebound off a missed Gasol free-throw at the other end that set up a Mayo lay-up. Hitting a straight-away three-pointer to bump the lead from one to four with just over two minutes to go. Stealing the ball on a possession where the Jazz had a chance to tie or take a lead and drawing a foul in transition. Finally hitting two free throws to push the lead from three to five with 11.6 to play and all but seal the game.
With Suns center Marcin Gortat carving up the Grizzlies early — he scored or set up his team's first 14 points — then getting help from a bevy of cutters and drivers (especially Josh Childress, who hit all five first-half shots, all at the rim), the Suns scored 32 of their first 36 points in the paint on the way to a total of 42 first-half paint points (21-26 interior shooting), staying within six points (59-53) of a hot-shooting Griz team at the break.
The Grizzlies tightened up their defense in the second half, allowing only 14 paint points, but other problems emerged.
In the third quarter, the Grizzlies built, lost, and rebuilt a double-digit lead, going on an explosive 8-0 run out of a late-quarter timeout that was bracketed by a pretty left elbow bank shot from Rudy Gay and then a prettier right-to-left baseline reverse off a Marc Gasol feed.
But when it looked like the Grizzlies had finally seized control, a series of fouls and better bench play helped Phoenix get back in the game: A fifth foul on Gasol that kept him on the bench most of the final quarter, then the Grizzlies picked up five team fouls in a minute-and-a-half span early in the quarter. And while the Grizzlies were in the penalty early, the Suns were hitting shots, including a three-pointer from back-up point guard Sebastian Telfair to bring the Suns to within one and then a mid-range shot from Telfair to take a lead, 83-81.
But the Grizzlies got it back together and closed with a 17-6 run in the final six minutes that featured some terrific offensive execution, with five of seven baskets assisted and many possessions milking the shot-clock while also getting good shots, goals that are often in opposition.
But, in this scoreboard-watching portion of the season, while the Grizzlies were putting in work, they weren't getting the help they needed. With Chris Paul hitting a game-winning lay-up in the final minute in Oklahoma City and Andrew Bynum snatching 30 rebounds in San Antonio, both Los Angeles teams pulled off road upsets, staying a half game and two games, respectively, above the Grizzlies in the standings.
Despite dramatic recent wins in Miami and Oklahoma City, a home victory over defending champion Dallas, and a big win Monday night in a showdown with playoff-seeding rival and potential post-season opponent Los Angeles Clippers, the biggest night of the Grizzlies season so far is tonight.
The Grizzlies enter tonight in fifth place in the West, but only a half a game behind the Los Angeles Clippers for fourth and two games behind the Los Angeles Lakers (and only one game in the loss column) for the third seed. And if the all three teams' games play out tonight in the most likely fashion, the Grizzlies would end the night in sole possession of fourth and tied in the loss column with the Lakers for third place. What to watch for:
7 p.m. - Suns at Grizzlies: For all this to happen, it has to start with some Griz TCB on the home floor, and despite how well the Grizzlies are playing right now, it might not be easy. The Suns have won both previous meetings between the teams this season, both in Phoenix — 86-84 in late January and 98-91 in mid-March. The Grizzlies gave up 34 offensive rebounds in these two games, with Marcin Gortat, Jared Dudley, and Robin Lopez, in particular, hurting the Grizzlies on the glass. This was a different Grizzlies team, especially in the first game, where the Grizzlies bench produced on 15 points, including getting 22 scoreless minutes from Josh Selby and Sam Young. But the Suns are a different team too. A surprisingly playoff contender, the Suns have gone 5-1 in April with their only loss by single digits at Denver and have averaged 120 points in their past two games while getting strong recent bench play from Michael Redd, Sebastian Telfair, and rookie Markieff Morris. I'll be on hand again tonight, commenting live on my FlyerGrizBlog Twitter feed and filing a postgame notebook later in the night.
7 p.m. - Clippers at Thunder: This is the first of two meetings between the Clippers and Thunder in the Clips' next four games. The Clippers are coming off Monday's loss to the Grizzlies. The Thunder are coming off a 20-point road win in Milwaukee. Hopefully, for the Grizzlies, those opposite trajectories continue.
7:30 p.m. - Lakers at Spurs: The Lakers are supposedly playing this one without an injured Kobe Bryant. The Spurs, after sitting their top players in the last game at Utah, will presumably get them all back tonight, and they won 11 straight before sitting their stars Monday night. This is the first of three games against the Spurs in the Lakers' next six, so there's real potential for the Lakers to slide and open up that third seed.
The Lead: The Grizzlies started what Rudy Gay called “Revenge Week” — four straight games against Western Conference playoff contenders the team had not beaten so far this season — with a commanding win, controlling the game from buzzer to buzzer despite under-performing in what are usually areas of strength and making some late miscues that made the game closer than it needed to be at the end.
Most importantly, it was a win that brought the Grizzlies to within a half-game of the currently fourth-seeded Clippers. Given the scheduling disparities the rest of the way, the Grizzlies should now be the favorite to get to #4 and host a playoff series for the first time in franchise history. And if the Lakers stumble, the third seed could well be in play.
In this one, the team's recently sharp three-point shooting fell off (4-13 overall), they got outscored in the paint (46-40), and, worst of all, they were +9 on turnovers.
Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph combined for half of the team's 20 turnovers, but the worst one came in the final minute, when O.J. Mayo sprinted past two Clippers defenders attempting to foul him and instead lost the ball out of bounds. This came immediately after an “over-exuberant” (per Lionel Hollins) Quincy Pondexter foul on Chris Paul that sent the Clippers star to the line.
The result of these maddening dual errors gave the Clippers, down by double digits two minutes earlier, the ball, down 90-85 with 26 seconds left. But Mike Conley leapt over two taller defenders to rebound a Randy Foye miss then made both free-throws the push the lead back to 7, subsequently stealing the ball in the backcourt after the Clippers in-bounded to seal the game.
Despite a more compelling than necessary final couple of minutes (“I knew that they weren't going anywhere,” Hollins said. “Chris Paul is one heck of a competitor and he just kept willing them back into the game.”), the Grizzlies impressed with the combination of sharp defense and balanced offense that has the team looking increasingly playoff-ready.
Though Paul (21 points, 6 assists) and Blake Griffin (19 points, 6 rebounds) were both effective, the Clippers were never able to get their hi-octane “Lob City” game going, with the Grizzlies generally denying them home-run plays and holding the Clippers to 25 or fewer points in all four quarters.
“That was our theme going in,” Hollins said. “We didn't want them to run free and get a lot of lobs. We wanted to be physical and aggressive with them, and I think we accomplished that.”
On the offensive end, the Grizzlies continued to look like a more high-powered version of the old Hubie Brown 10-man rotation teams. Eleven players saw the floor, with 10 scoring and six players players hitting double digits. Marc Gasol led the way with a modest 18. No-one had more than 12 field-goal attempts.
The Grizzlies have now won eight of their past 10 games, with six of those wins coming against potential playoff teams.
“We're definitely getting in playoff mode,” Zach Randolph said afterward. “It's coming.”