Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins declined to respond to a question about fourth-quarter performance in his post-game press conference, calling the issue “far-fetched,” but in a seven-game series where the teams seemed to be so evenly matched, the issue is unavoidable. The Grizzlies out-scored the Clippers 640-635 on the series, but the Clippers won the fourth quarters and overtimes 183-146.
The Grizzlies have often been able to build leads early in this series, but not today in an ugly first quarter that saw teams shoot a combined 13 for 47 and the Clippers take a 16-13 lead through the first 12 minutes. The Grizzlies responded to a 10-point Clipper lead midway through the second by closing the half on a 15-6 run that featured the kind of energy and intensity that eluded the Grizzlies for most of the game. But when the Clippers built another lead with an 11-2 run in the early minutes of the final quarter, the Grizzlies couldn't respond, as the Clippers' bench led a 27-16 fourth quarter.
And that was another series-long trend that became more prominent in this game. The Clippers entered this post-season with the reputation as a pretty, high-flying team. But, in the playoffs, hard-nosed, defensive players like Eric Bledsoe, Kenyon Martin, and especially Reggie Evans emerged into bigger roles, especially in the fourth quarters, transforming the character of their team.
In the regular season, Bledsoe and Evans averaged a combined 25.4 minutes a game. In this series, it was 36.2. Starting center DeAndre Jordan — a shot-blocker and dunker unskilled in the bump-and-grind of floor-bound, playoff basketball — saw his minutes decline from 27.2 a game in the regular season to 21.4 in the series, and he often sat for entire fourth quarters.
Evans' physical bordering on dirty rebounding and post defense, Bledsoe's ball pressure and strong drives, and Martin's defensive versatility frequently gave the Clippers an edge.
Chris Paul — 19 points, 9 rebounds, and 4 assists — was the best player in the game, as he had been the best player in the series. But, in the final quarter of the season for the Grizzlies, it was the Clippers bench that put in the decisive work. Martin and Evans out-rebounded the entire Grizzlies team 12-11, Bledsoe played more minutes than Chris Paul, and the Clippers bench scored 25 of their team's final 27 points.
On the game, the Clippers bench outscored their Grizzlies counterparts 41-11 and out-rebounded them 23-12. The Clippers superior depth also factored from the perimeter, though both teams struggled in this game. On the series, the Clippers three wing shooters — Randy Foye, Mo Williams, and Nick Young — combined for 40% three-point shooting. The Grizzlies came into the series with one true shooting specialist, O.J. Mayo, who was also supposed to anchor the team's bench. Mayo capped a disastrous series with a 1-11 shooting game, including missing a fastbreak layup off his own steal that could have cut the Clippers' six-point lead down to four with 1:33 to play.
On the series, Mayo shot 27% with the team's highest turnover rate. In the series last five games, Mayo was 6-34 from the field.
As bad as Game 7 was for the Grizzlies, the problems that were the team's ultimate undoing began early on — early this season and again early in this series.
Zach Randolph's January knee injury made it more difficult to consolidate the inside-out style that had driven last season's playoff run and left Randolph a diminished version of last spring's breakout star. After averaging 22 points on 50% against the Spurs in last year's first round, and scoring 25 or more in four of the series' six games, Randolph averaged 14 points on 42% shooting in this series, never hitting the 20-point mark. Randolph gave flashes of his old form, averaging 18.5 points and 13 rebounds in the Game 5 and 6 wins, but he could never quite sustain it.
Darrell Arthur's season-ending achilles injury proved costly in this series as well. Though makeshift replacements Marreese Speights and Dante Cunningham acquitted themselves well in the regular season, the Grizzlies tended to struggle with either on the floor against the Clippers. Speights (-2.4 plus/minus on the series) made some shots, but his defensive limitations and penchant for bad decisions were a problem. Cunningham (-4.9) proved too small for a match-up against a team whose power forward rotation consisted of Blake Griffin, Reggie Evans, and Kenyon Martin, and gave the Grizzlies little on the offensive end. Last season, against the Spurs, Arthur was better at both ends of the floor, shooting 55% in the series and often playing inspired defense from the rim to the three-point line. In Game 7, still searching uncertainly until the end, Hollins ran through Speights (3:26), Cunningham (2:30), and Hamed Haddadi (:52) all in the fourth quarter, and couldn't find a frontcourt reserve to give the team what it needed.
Then there was the self-inflicted wound: Jettisoning second-year point guard Greivis Vasquez — who had already proven his playoff mettle and was primed for a breakout season that happened in New Orleans — before the season began, entrusting the team's back-up point guard spot to unproven rookies Josh Selby and Jeremy Pargo. As a result, this position was an open sore for the team for most of the season. The Grizzlies carried four small guards — Pargo, Selby, veteran Gilbert Arenas, and late pickup Lester Hudson — into the post-season, getting a combined 24 minutes from this back-up point guard pu-pu platter. Twenty-three of those came from Arenas, who couldn't handle the quickness of the Clippers point guards and was ineffective on both ends of the floor.
And so it came to O.J. Mayo to handle most of the point-guard duties when Mike Conley was off the floor. Mayo was okay in this spot in the first couple of games, but as the series wore on, the Clippers began to turn up their pressure on Mayo when he was handling the ball and he proved not ready for that role.
“Juice can mingle at the point guard spot for us every now and then,” Tony Allen said after the game, echoing what many onlookers had been thinking over the series final five games. “But it puts pressure on his offense and takes away from his shot.”
The back-up point guard problem was so severe that Conley, apparently suffering flu symptoms and having one of the worst games of his career, was still charged with playing 40 minutes and seemed entirely spent in the fourth quarter. The Grizzlies most consistently effective player for much of the series, Conley was 2-13 in Game 7. After shooting better than 50% from three on the series, he was 0-2 (the entire team finished 0-13 from long range), and his drives were weak, contorting to avoid contact rather than seeking it out.
The Randolph, Arthur, and Vasquez issues had the Grizzlies fighting from behind in a season where they were supposed to primed to climb the ladder in the Western Conference. They were able to overcome them, finishing strong to secure a top 4 seed in the season's final week.
But blowing homecourt advantage with a historic collapse in Game 1 squandered that homecourt advantage and had the team fighting from behind again. This time, they weren't able to overcome it and winning three in a row against a good team led by a great player proved an insurmountable obstacle.
“Well, obviously, when you are up like we were up on them, we shouldn't have lost that game,” a sullen Rudy Gay said when asked to look back at how the series started. “This series would have been totally different if we would have won that game.”
Gay, playing in his first playoff series after missing last season, gave a frustrating, disappointing performance. Erratic up to the end, Gay was one of the team's best players in this final game, he and Marc Gasol the only players who were able to give the Grizzlies much on the offensive end. Both had 19 points, with Gay adding a series-high 9 rebounds. But Gay was scoreless in nine fourth-quarter minutes. His 19 points on 42% shooting on the series came by alternating stretches of very poor play with stretches of decent play. A contentious player heading into the series, he leaves it inspiring the same mix of hopes and doubts.
And the same goes for the coach that stuck with him for 40 minutes a night even in the stretches when Gay didn't have it. After a strong performance in last season's playoffs and a regular-season in which he again navigated his team through troubled waters, Lionel Hollins leaves this series with more questions: About the team's inconsistent style of play. About the up-and-down fourth-quarter role of Tony Allen, despite the team being much more effective, on the series, in his minutes than with alternatives Mayo and Quincy Pondexter on the floor. And about a final stretch in which the team put lineups on the floor (Arenas-Haddadi and Gasol-Haddadi combinations) that hadn't played together the whole series.
In fairness, of course, it's hard to imagine even Red Auerbach overcoming 0-13 three-point shooting, inconsistent play from the team's top scorers, and bench play so dire that it limited good options.
“Of course we were,” Marc Gasol responded when asked if the team was still searching in the second half of this final game. “We were trying to find something. Everybody's trying to win the game. The players. The coaches. Trying to find something.”
Gasol, the final Grizzlies player to speak to the media after the game, still in uniform, said that “Right now it hurts," and said, “It's too early,” to think about the off-season.
“It's not the time to try to blame somebody,” Gasol implored. “You have to come together as a team and you have to look at yourself.”
A nice sentiment, but sadly the questions probably begin tomorrow, as the Grizzlies will hold their final media session of the season and the front office — and fans — will begin looking toward the off-season.