Not Wednesday night at FedExForum. The Grizzlies and their fans had spent two days trying to forget the unimaginable collapse at the end of Game 1. But just before Game 2 tipped, the big board went off the usual script: It highlighted failure. Rudy Gay's missed shot. The Clippers running to center court to celebrate. And then one Memphian after another looking into the camera saying, “I believe.”
That kind of cornball defiance drove last spring's playoff run for the then-upstart Grizzlies. But opening a series at home as a favorite, christened far and wide as “the team no one wants to play,” it's hard to feel like the underdog, even against a glamor team from Los Angeles.
So while the Grizzlies and their fans would most certainly prefer to have a Game 1 victory instead, the humbling loss seemed to help the team get that defiant, hungry feeling back.
Game 1 came too easily — until it fell apart. The Grizzlies, even at their best, didn't look like themselves. The defense wasn't chaotic. They weren't controlling the game physically up front. Three-pointers were falling at a thrilling but unsustainable rate. The pretty first quarter was perhaps as aberrant as the devastating last one.
Wednesday night, two days after California visitors from Chris Paul to newspaper columnists were justifiably mocking this whole “grit and grind thing,” the Grizzlies snatched it back.
The first game's four combined steals and blocks multiplied to 20 this time. The Grizzlies had 16 offensive rebounds to the Clippers' four. The steals helped the Grizzlies jump out for 20 fastbreak points (to the Clippers' 6). The offensive rebounds helped them win in the paint, 46-38.
“They shot it well, but we rebounded and we limited their shots,” Rudy Gay said to a reporter who pointed out the Clippers' 57% shooting. “You have to look at all of it.”
The Clippers came out much more aggressive and focused than they did Sunday, building an early seven-point lead. But once the Grizzlies settled down, they gradually but decisively took control of the game, getting a lead midway through the second quarter and holding it the rest of the way.
This was the kind of game we expected of this series. Close (the first double-digit lead coming midway through the fourth quarter) and tough: The Grizzlies' depth (six players in double figures, lead by Rudy Gay's 21) combatting the Clippers' stars (29 from Chris Paul, 22 from Blake Griffin). Clipper dunks and threes (9-16 from long-range on the game) balanced by Grizzlies' hustle plays. And physical play all around: Zach Randolph and Blake Griffin battling in the paint. O.J. Mayo and Kenyon Martin bumping chests and getting double technicals. Marc Gasol nearly flattening Chris Paul with a hard pick that nearly ignited a scuffle. Paul getting in a little extra with a hard sideline foul on Conley late.
“It was definitely a physical game. It felt very physical when I got dunked on,” Tony Allen joked afterward, thinking back to a DeAndre Jordan jam he decided to contest.
“This is more our style. Grind it out and play defense,” Mike Conley said. “Turn them over and get in transition. We just played hard tonight.”
The biggest strategic change for the Grizzlies was a shortened rotation that left Gilbert Arenas out and limited Dante Cunningham. This meant the Grizzlies were able to go bigger and more athletic on the perimeter, especially when Mike Conley was out, with O.J. Mayo getting minutes at point guard and Quincy Pondexter at scoring guard. And, despite Paul's game-high 29, Mayo looked very good on Paul, his physical defense denying shots and frustrating Paul at times. In the frontcourt, the Grizzlies kept Zach Randolph's minutes under 30 and bumped Mareese Speights' over 20, with improved results from both players.
After a dreadful Game 1, Randolph looked a little more like his old self, scoring 15 points on 6-11 shooting and 8 rebounds (including 5 on the offensive glass). Randolph's explosive-by-his-standards hoop-and-harm drive that pushed the lead from 8 to 11 with under five minutes to go might have been the play of the game. And Speights (11 and 5 on 4-6 shooting) disproved the notion that he can't play well off the bench.
Elsewhere, Rudy Gay, while struggling to dribble against pressure at times (four turnovers), was a strong shotmaker all game, with 21 points on 9-13 shooting, most of his buckets coming in halfcourt sets over defenders. Tony Allen was an animated force, mixing bad jumpers and turnovers with dynamic steals, blocks, and offensive rebounds. And O.J. Mayo (10 points in the fourth quarter, including consecutive makes that extended the lead from four to nine early in the quarter) and Mike Conley (7-8 from the free-throw line in the fourth) were the closers.
For the Clippers, Paul and Griffin didn't get enough help. Game 1 heroes Reggie Evans (one rebound in 16 minutes) and Eric Bledsoe (1-3, two turnovers) fell to earth, while sharpshooter Randy Foye (2-6) was again kept under wraps.
There was still a hangover from Game 1 at times. You could feel restlessness rippling through the arena in the opening minutes, when the Clippers built an early lead and the Grizzlies had missed four shots and registered two turnovers before Conley got to the rim for the team's first field goal, nearly four minutes into the game.
And you could feel it late, when the Clippers shaved a 10-point Grizzlies lead down to five in the final two minutes and the whole building tightened up.
But the Grizzlies gutted this one out, and did so despite a subpar performance from Marc Gasol, whose shot was off (3-9).
Now it's back to Los Angeles, where the Grizzlies will need at least a split to regain home court advantage coming back to a Game 5 in FedExForum next Wednesday that is now definite.
“I know that building is going to be rockin' and we'll have to make our own energy,” Allen said, looking ahead to Saturday's Game 3.