Friday, April 27, 2012

Grizzlies-Clippers Series Preview

Posted By on Fri, Apr 27, 2012 at 11:11 AM

Tipoff! — Marc Gasol and DeAndre Jordan will jump it up on Sunday night.
  • Tipoff! — Marc Gasol and DeAndre Jordan will jump it up on Sunday night.
The playoff series that begins at FedExForum at 8:30 p.m. on Sunday will be quite the study in contrasts.

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.

The 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

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.

2. Does the season series mean anything?:

The Clippers won the season series 2-1, but benefited from the uneven, lockout-shortened schedule. The Clippers won the two games in Los Angeles. The Grizzlies won the one game in Memphis. Unlike in the season series, the Grizzlies will have homecourt advantage in this one.

Beyond that, I wouldn't put too much stock in the outcomes. The first game, a 98-91 loss in L.A., included Chauncey Billups, but not Zach Randolph. The second game, a 101-85 loss in L.A., came at the end of a bad stretch that found the Grizzlies in a funk. They came out and beat the Lakers the very next night and have been rolling since. The third game, a 94-85 home win, by contrast, came in the middle of the Grizzlies hottest stretch of the season. There are some more specific patterns in these games that might be meaningful, and I'll sprinkle those in some of the remaining answers, but the season series overall doesn't seem to suggest anything definitive.

3. How scary is Chris Paul?:

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

The Clippers offense over the course of the season mirrors their offense over the course of a game: Blake Griffin lead the team in scoring every month this season, except the last one. The final stretch — like the final quarter — is Chris Paul time.

Paul's New Orleans Hornets — a less talented group than these Clippers — lost in six games in their first-round series against the Los Angeles Lakers last season. But Paul won two games for the Hornets pretty much single-handedly. His line on the series? Try 22-7-12 on 55% shooting.

Chris Paul: Ninja assassin with a basketball.
  • Chris Paul: Ninja assassin with a basketball.
And Paul comes into these playoffs buoyed by a stronger regular season than he had a year ago. In his final season in New Orleans, Paul often seemed to be dealing with nagging knee problems, pacing himself on the way to season averages of 16 points and 10 assists on 46% shooting, with a 23.8 PER. This season, he's looked healthier more consistently (I wouldn't put much stock in the groin injury that held him out of the Clippers' final game), finishing with 20 points and 9 assists on 48% shooting, with a 27.1 PER (second in the league). He'll probably finish third in the MVP race. He should finish second.

He's been a beast, and he'll face a team that sometimes struggles against opposing point guards. According to, the Grizzlies allow opposing point guards to perform slightly above the average PER of 15. That number doesn't appear to be updated for all of April's games, but I doubt it would improve. Look at some of the April stat lines put up by opposing point guards:

Kyrie Irving: 25 points on 10-16 shooting
Jerome Dyson: 24 points on 5-7 shooting, 14-16 from the line
Juan Jose Barea: 28 points, 5 boards, 8 assists on 10-20 shooting
Devin Harris: 20 points, 6 assists

Paul wasn't spectacular in the season series: 19 points, 9 assists, 39% shooting. The Grizzlies would happily take those numbers from Paul again. I doubt they get them.

Mike Conley, as Paul's opposite number, will be the primary defender on Paul. But you'd have to think that Tony Allen — one of the top handful of perimeter defenders in all of basketball — will get this assignment for stretches. I don't remember Allen guarding Paul much in the season series, but I have a clear memory of him switching onto Paul late in one of the games with the Hornets last season and getting a steal. In the season's penultimate game, against Cleveland, Allen switched onto point guard Kyrie Irving — who had been torching the Grizzlies — for the last few minutes of an up-for-grabs game, holding Irving scoreless and registering a steal. Preview of coming attractions?

“We've got to have Tony on him some, because he's our best defender” Conley said after the Thursday night's game.

The Clippers tend to play small — with the 6'4” Foye or the 6'1” Williams — at scoring guard, making it easier to switch Conley to the opposite guard defensively, and Conley said he expects he and Allen will be switching assignments based on fouls and the flow of the game.

Paul will be the Clippers' everything, especially in the closing stretches. And he'll operate primarily in pick-and-roll sets, typically with Blake Griffin. The Grizzlies ability to defend the pick-and-roll might be the most important thing in the series, and there's no easy or obvious answer to this dilemma.

Allen didn't want to get into details about defending the Clippers' pick-and-roll after the Orlando game. “You know, the pick-and-roll, the Blake Griffin dunks,” he said, nodding. “As far as how to play them, we gotta holler at coach [Dave] Joerger tomorrow about that.”

Conley was a little more specific.

“You need to get it out of [Paul's] hands as early and quickly as you can,” Conley said. “We might trap some, but we need good help-side defense.”

One thing the team definitely wants to avoid is leaving big men on an island against Paul.

“We don't want to switch,” Conley said.

Beyond strategy, another aspect to guarding the Clippers pick-and-roll could be personnel. Allen might be the optimal defender on Paul. But what about on the roll man? Hollins has expressed concern about Zach Randolph's pick-and-roll defense, and it's hard to imagine that Mo Speights will be much if any better. When the Grizzlies stay big, expect Marc Gasol — a good pick-and-roll defender for his size — to potentially be on Griffin down the stretch. But the Grizzlies best frontcourt defender against the pick-and-roll? Definitely Dante Cunningham, who can show hard on Paul and is quick enough to still get back after Paul's been — theoretically — contained. Having Cunningham in this situation would have the added benefit of letting Gasol hang back to protect the rim. Of course, that would mean having Randolph on the bench in crunch-time. Can the Grizzlies afford that on the offensive end? Probably depends on how effective Randolph is in each game.

Zach Randolph and Blake Griffin will get physical on the block.
4. What's the most compelling match-up in this series?:

It has to be Zach Randolph and Blake Griffin.

You would think, with Griffin's athleticism, that he would be a bad match-up for Randolph, but that hasn't quite been the case. Last season, when Randolph was 100 percent, he outplayed Griffin head-to-head in three contests, including wearing the rookie down so much in a game at FedExForum that Griffin seemed to just give up.

In two games this season, with Griffin on the ascent and Randolph coming off a serious injury, Griffin has shot a better percentage when both players have been on the floor together, but Randolph has actually outscored him and has doubled him up on the boards.

Since Randolph's been back, he's been getting to the rim less (50% of his attempts at the rim last season, down to 41% this season) and relying on his mid-range jumper more (24% from mid-range last season, up to 36%). And he's struggled to finish shots in the paint the way he did pre-injury — so much so that Lionel Hollins only half-jokingly wondered, after the regular-season finale, if Randolph was leading the league in getting his shot blocked.

Still, I'm fairly optimistic about Randolph in this series. You get the sense that Griffin, for all his power, likes to play free and pretty. Lots of big dunks, not as much sustained defensive concentration. Battling with Zach Randolph is like wrestling a bear. Based on their five head-to-head match-ups so far, there's reason to wonder if Griffin really wants to fully meet that challenge. I think Griffin will be effective in this series, and will probably put up better numbers than Randolph, but I think the match-up will be a lot closer than each player's season averages.

Another question, however, will be how much time they really spend on the floor together this series. Randolph moved back into the starting lineup against Orlando, and was good, not great — 13 points on 6-12 shooting, 12 rebounds, and 3 assists in 26 minutes. But Hollins wouldn't commit to sticking to this lineup when the series opened. To the contrary, he seemed to hint that he might return to bringing Randolph off the bench, saying that he didn't like the frontcourt rotations in the game and worried about Speights not getting his game going in his off-the-bench rotation spot.

So, for now at least, Randolph's status as a starter remains uncertain.

5. How will Rudy Gay respond to his first post-season?:

Impossible to say. Obviously, Gay is still subject to questions about his make-up, and not without reason, but you have to like the way he's playing as the playoffs start.

Rudy Gay will be making his post-season debut.
Gay began April with a back-to-back-to-back stretch in which he scored a total of 31 points on 28% shooting, his worst three-game offensive sequence since the week Marc Iavaroni was fired, and this at the tale end of an 0-19 three-point shooting slump that stretched across eight games. But Gay has followed some of the worst basketball of his career with some of the best: In 13 games since capping that three-game nightmare, Gay has averaged 21.4 points on 51% shooting. He's been making more decisive moves to either set up short jumpers or get to the rim, and, as a result, his free-throw attempts have also trended up.

Gay's in a good groove, and was good in the season series, averaging 17 points on 51% shooting. The Grizzlies need Gay to be an effective primary scorer in this series, but his work at the defensive end shouldn't be forgotten. Gay can be a very good defender when he's focused on that end, but that focus still wavers too much at times. The Grizzlies can't afford to let Clippers small forward Caron Butler have a big series offensively. Butler isn't as dynamic as he used to be, but he's strong and can still get hot from the perimeter. He shot 48% from the floor and 50% from three in the season series when Gay was on the floor (Butler barely played when Gay was on the bench). The Grizzlies really need those numbers to go down.

6. What happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?:

In physics, this results in an endless transfer of energy. In the heat of a playoff series, it might feel that way too, but there will be an end. And in a couple of key areas where these teams are at odds, something is going to give.

Can the Grizzlies consistently score in the paint? Behind the strength of the Marc Gasol/Zach Randolph tandem, the Grizzlies led the NBA in points in the paint last season. Even missing Randolph most of this season, the Grizzlies were still the league's fifth most prolific team in terms of inside scoring. The Clippers, conversely, were good at denying close scores, ranking seventh in opponent points in the paint. (Per The Clippers actually scored more points in the paint in the season series.

Can Marc Gasol and the Grizzlies go hard in the paint against the Clippers big frontline?
  • Can Marc Gasol and the Grizzlies go hard in the paint against the Clippers' big frontline?
As a tandem, Randolph and Gasol stepped up their games in last season's playoffs, with combined post-All-Star-break averages of 63 minutes, 32 points, and 17 rebounds increasing to 80 minutes, 37 points, and 22 rebounds. This spring, Gasol and Randolph have been less sharp individually and have had less time on the floor together, ending the season with more modest post-break totals (61 minutes, 25 points, 16 rebounds). They'll step it up when the playoffs start, but it's probably not reasonable to expect a repeat of last season's playoff dominance.

There were good signs heading into the post-season. Against Orlando, Gasol had his first 20-point game (22 on 8-13 shooting) since March 22nd, which came right after a 17-point performance against Cleveland a few nights earlier. Gasol looks more or less fully recovered from his recent knee injury. And while Randolph is still somewhat limited, he showed Thursday night that just picking up his energy will go a long way to making him a scoring threat again. And that shouldn't be a problem in the playoffs.

Another area of statistical collision will be turnovers. The Grizzlies have led the NBA in both steals and opponent turnovers for two straight seasons. The Clippers, with Chris Paul dominating the ball, are one of the lowest turnover teams in the NBA. The Clippers were actually right at their season turnover average (13.3) in the season series.

You would think that if the Grizzlies can't score well in the paint or convert turnovers into points against a mediocre Clippers' defense, they might struggle to score enough to win the series. One note of hope, though: The Grizzlies' league-leading steal and opponent turnover averages declined in last season's playoffs. Last I checked, they still went on a pretty good run.

7. What secondary players are likely to have a major impact on the series?:

The focus of this series is going to be on Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph (and Tony Allen). But the performance of role players and secondary scorers is going to have a big impact.

I think a couple of defensive-oriented, relatively non-scoring big men could be key: DeAndre Jordan was slightly off his season averages in the regular-season series, but did put up a 14-14 in the most recent game between these teams. Especially if fatigue is a factor for Marc Gasol, Jordan is the kind of long, athletic center that could end up giving Gasol — and the Grizzlies — problems. We've seen Marcus Camby and Andrew Bynum have big nights on the glass against the Grizzlies lately. Jordan is not the same caliber of player, but is capable of having a similar impact if he keeps his motor revving.

For the Grizzlies, I keep thinking that Dante Cunningham could be a really important player in this series. I've already talked about his ability to defend the pick-and-roll. Beyond that, he's proven to be the team's best transition defender. And even though the Clippers don't actually play fast, I think Cunningham is more likely to beat Griffin down floor and deny early looks and much more likely top break up those lobs the Clippers love. And in the final month, Cunningham has routinely provided the boost of energy the Grizzlies have needed to put away opponents in the second halves of games.

If Randolph remains in the starting lineup, I could easily see Cunningham passing Marreese Speights as the third big in the rotation for this series. But if Hollins reverts back to using Speights as a starter and bringing Randolph off the bench, it makes Cunningham's rotation spot a little bit trickier.

O.J. Mayos offense could be an X-factor in the series.
A potential major X-factor in this series: Three-point shooting, and especially each team's primary sniper, Randy Foye and O.J. Mayo.

Mayo (40% on nearly 5 attempts a game) and Foye (44% on nearly 7 attempts a game) both enter the playoffs on a hot streak from long-range. If one stays hot and one cools off — or gets cooled off; paging Tony Allen — that could be a big advantage in the series.

On the season, the Clippers have been the much better and more prolific three-point-shooting team. But there's a good chance the difference is more minimal in this series. On the season, the Grizzlies' 12.9 three-point attempts per game was 28th and their 33% success rate was 25th. However, with Mayo joined by Mike Conley (50% in April), Gilbert Arenas (39%), and Quincy Pondexter (25%, but a more viable corner-three threat since the All-Star break), the Grizzlies were much better in April — up to 15.5 attempts and 35% shooting. And in the season-series against the Clippers' vulnerable three-point defense, the Grizzlies shot 41% from three on 15.3 attempts per game. Conversely, against the Grizzlies' stronger defense, the Clippers season averages from three-point range declined significantly, from 21.8 attempts to 18.7 and from 36% shooting to 32%.

One note on Arenas, though: He played 13 minutes in the regular-season finale and looked much more comfortable handling the ball than he has since his mid-April finger injury. However, he still hasn't made a shot — 0-7 in 26 minutes — since the injury. The Grizzlies' best basketball of the season — those back-to-back wins over Miami and Dallas — came when Arenas gave them another three-point shooter off the bench. It's is very unclear whether he'll be able to do that in this series.

8. Who gets the ball in crunch-time for the Grizzlies?:

This is a subject of some anxiety for Grizzlies fans, who remember Zach Randolph's heroic exploits last spring — especially those two mammoth Game 6 fourth quarters. But a lot of people seem to have forgotten the games where Randolph struggled — 11 points on 5-14 shooting, 15 points on 2-13, 9 points on 3-9, etc. All of those in losses.

As good as Randolph was last season, the Grizzlies could have used better balance. And this time they'll likely have it.

Based on my quick reading of game play-by-plays, here's how the “clutch” offense — using the typical definition of “under five minutes, five-point spread” — was divvied up in April:

Rudy Gay: 26 points on 9-16 shooting, 6-8 from the line
O.J. Mayo: 20 points on 7-16 shooting, 4-9 from three.
Marc Gasol: 13 points on 5-8 shooting, 3-4 from the line.
Mike Conley: 4 points on 2-6 shooting
Zach Randolph: 2 points on 1-4 shooting
Tony Allen: 2 points on 1-2 shooting
Dante Cunningham: 1 point on 0-2 shooting
Quincy Pondexter: 0 points on 0-1 shooting

So, Gay and Mayo have been pretty good closers down the stretch, with Randolph not very involved. My guess is you see a little more Randolph (maybe more than a little more) and a little less Mayo (who may give way to Allen more for defensive purposes), with Gay holding steady.

My instinct — maybe it's just my hope — is that fans need “hero ball” more than the Grizzlies do. I think it's closer-by-committee. That the ball will more likely to go whichever viable scoring threat is having the best game, has the best match-up, has the best shot the defense gives them. And isn't that how it's supposed to be?

9. Can Grizzlies fans work up some good “sports hate” for this series?:

Are you kidding me? This team is owned by Donald Sterling, and that's just the start of the stuff to work up dislike over.

How about the flopping?

How about the showboating dunkbot that is Blake Griffin?

More than anything, for me at least, it's the unbearable stupidity of Lawler's Law.

Or, there's Ralph Lawler and broadcast partner Michael Smith's on-going boorish antics about Hamed Haddadi.

And there's Lawler and Smith dismissing the Grizzlies' series win over the Spurs last year as a “fluke” despite the fact that the Grizzlies went on to take the Thunder to seven games:

Take your pick.

10. What are reasonable expectations?:

After so many post-season disappointments were followed by so many terrible years, local fans can't really be spoiled by last spring, can they? I worry that some have been. No one should be shocked if the Grizzlies lose this series.

The team with the best individual player tends to win the series in the NBA, and there's no doubt that the Clippers have the best single player in this series. Most would tell you that they have the two best players in Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.

The team with the homecourt advantage tends to win the series as well, and the Grizzlies — 26-7 on the home floor this season, with four of the losses to the Spurs and Thunder, three of them before February —have that.

Fishing for a tiebreaker: I like that the Grizzlies have more playoff experience as a unit — three of the Clippers' five starters will be making their post-season debut. And I really like that the Grizzlies tend to play tougher, more intense defense.

One a neutral site, I'd give the Grizzlies a slight advantage, maybe 55/45. If the Clippers had homecourt, I'd call the series a coin flip. With the Grizzlies sneaking up to get that advantage, I feel good about them being able to win it – more like 60/40 now. But it won't be a walk.

And what might determine whether this Grizzlies team has the upside to not only survive this series but make another significant run is how good Zach Randolph and Gilbert Arenas can be. All season long, the Grizzlies have been an elite defense and a middling offense. A few weeks ago, when Randolph and Arenas gave the team a simultaneous offensive boost, the offense caught up with the defense and the Grizzlies looked like a title darkhorse.

And that uncertainty gives the Grizzlies a wider range of possibility than perhaps any team in these playoffs. They could be finished playing basketball next week. Or we could have yet another franchise first: NBA basketball in June.

The happy ending the Grizzlies are hoping for in this series.

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