Thursday, April 18, 2013

Grizzlies-Clippers Series Preview: Ten Takes, Part One

Posted By on Thu, Apr 18, 2013 at 12:17 PM

Its that time again ...

Rematch. The Grizzlies and the Clippers open their first-round series Saturday night in Los Angeles, with the Grizzlies looking to avenge last spring's seven-game loss against a team that seems to have their number. Here's the first half of a two-part series breakdown. Look for the rest tomorrow morning:

1. The State of the Clippers: For much of this season, the Clippers were right there with the Heat, Thunder, and Spurs among the NBA's elite. They went undefeated in December as part of a 17-game win streak and stood at 32-9 in mid-January, a pace that would have garnered them the top seed in the West. At that 32-9 peak, the Clippers boasted the league's fourth best offense and third best defense. The Spurs were the only other team in the top five on both sides of the ball, and they were right behind the Clippers in both measures. At that time, the Clippers could rightfully claim to be the NBA's best team and seemed on the short list of legitimate title contenders.

But then the Clippers went on a four-game losing streak and played .500 ball — 17-17 — for more than two months. During the 17-17 streak, the team's offense fell off some (8th in that span), but the real story was on the other side of the ball, where the team plummeted to 20th.

This wobbly defense had the Clippers looking more like a potential first-round casualty than a championship hopeful, but, unfortunately for the Grizzlies, April has been a period of rebirth in Los Angeles. The Clippers have ended the season on a seven-game win streak. There are caveats aplenty: Beyond the microscopic sample size, five of the team's seven opponents in this closing stretch have been lottery participants. But for whatever it's worth, the Clippers have ended the season with their offense absolutely humming and their defense back to the high level displayed earlier in the season.

On the season, this Clippers team has been a little bit better on both sides of the ball than a year ago. They're a little more turnover prone, but have also done a better job capitalizing on their athleticism with a sharp uptick in both fastbreak points and points in the paint.

They've turned over most of the bench that gave the Grizzlies so many problems last spring, but still own an edge — on paper at least — over the Grizzlies there, with two Sixth Man-caliber candidates in Jamal Crawford and Matt Barnes. Perhaps most importantly, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin have had another year to hone their two-man-game chemistry and, after being banged up last April, will enter this postseason in what seems to be good health.

For a deeper look into how the Clippers look on the eve of the playoffs, check out this report from ESPN's Clipperologist Kevin Arnovitz.

Mike Conleys breakthrough season faces a brick wall named Bledsoe.
  • LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Mike Conley's breakthrough season faces a brick wall named "Bledsoe."
2. The Conley Correlation Meets Eric Bledsoe: It sounds like a vintage horror flick — if a particularly lousy one — and that's pretty much what it is for the Grizzlies.

All season long, the Grizzlies' fate has tended to align with Mike Conley's performance. In team wins, Conley averaged 16 points, 7 assists, and 47% shooting. In losses, Conley averaged 13 points, 5 assists, and 37% shooting.

This dependency on Conley is not surprising given the Grizzlies' roster construction and is something I've written about on multiple occasions. And with Conley having a career-best season, that connection has worked in the Grizzlies' favor. But it could be a big problem against the Clippers.

A bulked-up Conley has held up much better late in games this season than last, when his fourth-quarter performance plummeted. But that stamina and effectiveness will get a stern test against perhaps the best defensive point-guard tandem in the NBA — Chris Paul and rugged, Popeye-armed reserve Eric Bledsoe. The latter, in particular, has been Conley kryptonite, with the Grizzlies' lead guard shooting 30% in the season series with the Clippers but even worse when Bledsoe has been on the floor. In last year's postseason series, per NBA.com, Conley shot 25% when Bledsoe was in the game and 48% when he wasn't.

While there are lots of factors in the Grizzlies' now-notorious fourth-quarter struggles against the Clippers, I think this has perhaps been the leading factor. Consider: The Grizzlies have played 11 games against the Clippers in the past year, four this season and seven in last season's playoffs. In one of those (game 3 this year, a Griz win) Bledsoe didn't play. In another (game 2 this year, a Clippers win) he started and the game got so out of hand that the entire fourth quarter was rendered “garbage” time.

In those other nine games, all of which featured Bledsoe coming off the Clippers' bench, the Grizzlies averaged only 18 points in the fourth quarter. In those games, Bledsoe played 46% of his total minutes in the final quarter. Though Conley's shooting has held up in the fourth quarter this season, that has not been the case against the Clippers, against whom Conley shot 9% — 1 of 11 — in the fourth quarter in the season series, this after shooting 25% in the fourth in last spring's playoff series.

Bledsoe — perhaps the most physically destructive defender in the league at his position — is a problem that could decimate all of the Grizzlies' playoff hopes. One can hope the return of Chauncey Billups will muck up the Clipper rotations enough to limit Bledsoe's minutes (he averaged 20.5 a game in the regular season), but the fear is that Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro now realizes what a match-up advantage Bledsoe is in this series.

Working further in the Clippers' favor is that the Grizzlies can't really punish them for playing Bledsoe and Paul together. The Grizzlies don't have a scorer with size at the two that Paul can't guard, allowing the Clippers to play Paul and Bledsoe together for long stretches while letting Bledsoe defend the point. Jerryd Bayless isn't big enough to discourage these lineups and Tony Allen and Quincy Pondexter aren't dangerous enough as scorers.

The Grizzlies will have to figure this out. It will require Conley to play at a high level and may prevent Keyon Dooling — who struggled to bring the ball up the floor against Bledsoe's pressure last weekend — from playing much at all. But if Bledsoe is preventing Conley from effectively initiating the offense, the Grizzlies may also have to shift their emphasis elsewhere. More on that to come.

Tony Allens Thirsty Dog defense will try to slow down the NBAs best point guard.
  • LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Tony Allen's "Thirsty Dog" defense will try to slow down the NBA's best point guard.
3. Defending Chris Paul: This issue of point guard defense is something of a mirror image in this match-up. With either Bledsoe or ostensible starter Chauncey Billups on the floor (or Willie Green, should the Clippers choose to play him), the Grizzlies have the option of putting Tony Allen on Chris Paul without worrying too much about Mike Conley's defensive match-up. (This becomes a little more problematic when Paul pairs with sixth man Jamal Crawford, a bigger guard and more dynamic scorer.)

Like the Clippers, the Grizzlies have tended to wait until the fourth quarter to throw their best defender onto their opponent's point guard. This makes some sense. It keeps Allen fresher. It reduces the likelihood of early foul trouble. And it fits the way Paul's play tends to evolve over the course of a game. Expressed per 36 minutes, this season, Chris Paul has been an old-school point guard in the first quarters — 13 points and 12 assists. By the fourth quarter, though, he's morphed into Lebron James — 28 points and 8 assists.

This has tended not to be true against the Grizzlies, however, where Paul's shooting and scoring has been subpar in the fourth, both in this season's series and the playoff series. And the guess here is that Allen has a lot to with that. You could see it last weekend, where Allen got the Paul assignment for the final seven minutes, holding Paul to a single bucket (a tough step-back baseline jumper) and no assists. The Clippers have arguably the best guard in basketball in Paul, but the Grizzlies have arguably the best guard defender in basketball in Allen, and that defense is a weapon that shouldn't go underexploited.

As frustrating as Allen's offense can be at times — and his missed tip-in and two missed free throws against the Clippers last weekend were both costly — evidence contradicts aesthetics. In both Clippers series, the Grizzlies have been better on both sides of the ball when Allen's been on the floor, and yet Allen averaged only 24.3 minutes against the Clippers last spring.

My suggestion would be to give Allen's overall minutes a bump while also shifting him onto Paul more often.

Marc Gasol went missing in the fourth quarters last spring. The Grizzlies cant withstand a repeat.
  • LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Marc Gasol went missing in the fourth quarters last spring. The Grizzlies can't withstand a repeat.
4. More From Marc Gasol: Two years ago, when the Grizzlies made their deep playoff run, Marc Gasol was Zach Randolph's sidekick. This time, the roles need to be reversed. But that requires a team-wide recognition: From the coaching staff, from Gasol's teammates, and, perhaps most of all, from the unselfish-to-a-fault Gasol himself.

While Gasol's usage rate has shot up since Gay's departure, it still lags behind both Randolph and Jerryd Bayless. Gasol is the Grizzlies best match-up advantage against the Clippers, the team's likely first-round opponent, where he averaged 17-9-4 on 54% shooting in the season series while still taking fewer shots than Randolph, who shot 37%.

In the playoffs last spring, Gasol's shots attempts and assists cratered in the fourth quarter — after the impact of Bledsoe's defense, the dip in Gasol's usage may have been the second biggest reason for the team's sluggish late-game offense. Last Saturday night, with homecourt likely on the line, we saw an unwelcome repeat. Gasol led the team in points, rebounds, and assists, yet had only one field-goal attempt and zero assists in a stagnant 14-point fourth quarter.

Against the Clippers, Gasol is going to almost always be the team's best match-up, regardless of who's guarding him: Deandre Jordan, Blake Griffin, Lamar Odom, Ryan Hollins — no-one in the Clippers' current frontcourt rotation is a particularly daunting defender against Gasol.

I'm no fan of hero ball and I'm not advocating it here. But Gasol is this team's best overall player, best passer, and has the best offensive match-ups against this particular opponent. More than ever, the offense would be best suited to run through him. It's incumbent on everyone to not forget this when games get tight.

Has Z-Bo been playing possum, or was the regular-season finale a mirage?
  • LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Has Z-Bo been playing possum, or was the regular-season finale a mirage?
5. Can Randolph Rally in the “Real Season?”: Two years ago, when the Grizzlies took the Thunder to seven games in the second round, Zach Randolph averaged 22 points on 17 field-goal attempts a game, playing nearly 40 minutes a contest and shooting 45%. He got to the line nearly eight times a game.

Last season, when the Grizzlies lost their first round series to the Clippers, Randolph, not long removed from a pretty serious knee injury, averaged 14 points on 13 field-goal attempts a game, playing about 35 minutes a contest and shooting 42% from the floor. He got to the line about five times a game.

In both instances, Randolph's per-game production ramped up across the board over his post-All-Star-break regular season numbers, while his shooting percentage dipped.

What if the pattern holds this time? In that case, you could expect Randolph to average something like 17 points on 15 field goal attempts, playing about 36 minutes a contest and shooting about 41% from the floor. He'd get to the line about six times a game.

Is that good enough? Maybe. But, after watching Randolph struggle a bit through the end of this regular season, I'd be expecting fewer points and hoping for better efficiency.

And, yet, there's the faint hope — one that grew a bit clearer and louder in the regular-season finale Wednesday night — that Randolph might yet ramp it up a little more in the playoffs. Randolph made the All-Star game this season and was leading the NBA in double-doubles at one point.

Randolph averaged 16 points and 12 rebounds on 44% shooting in February and ended that month with five consecutive double-doubles. But in the first minute of the first game in March, at Miami, Randolph suffered what seemed to be a pretty bad ankle sprain. Instead of taking the bench, he stayed on the floor for 37 minutes. He didn't play again for 11 days and when he did come back he didn't look quite right. He's had consecutive double-doubles only once since.

So maybe the ankle made Randolph's decline look for steep than it's really been. There's also reason on believe that Randolph's focus has drifted some in the past month or so. You could see it on the floor at times. Lionel Hollins suggested as much after the season finale. And then there was this tweet from Randolph a couple of weeks back:

Screen_Shot_2013-04-18_at_11.07.34_AM.png

Against the Jazz, Randolph put up 25 and 19 — his best rebounding total since late January and his highest scoring game since mid-December. And while the defensive match-ups weren't the most daunting, it was Randolph's energy, focus, and relentlessness that impressed, lending hope that we might see at least a slightly better version of Randolph in the “real season.”

While it's unfair to expect Randolph to be the offensive force he was two springs ago, and probably unwise to funnel him the ball as if he is, the Grizzlies still need him to impose his physicality. While Randolph's shooting and scoring have declined, his elite rebounding has held steady. And his penchant for close-quarters combat doesn't seem to suit Blake Griffin, who averaged only 14 points and 7 rebounds on 44% shooting against the Grizzlies this season, well short of his All-Star averages. Griffin topped 20 points only twice in seven games against the Grizzlies last spring.

Randolph playing Griffin close to even doesn't have to mean elevating to Griffin's normal box-score numbers. It can also mean pulling Griffin down into the mud.

Randolph's bully ball has proven effective against Griffin on the block. It's in the pick-and-roll, when Randolph has to defend in space, that the match-up could become more problematic. The Grizzlies' team defense is strong enough, that they can probably handle this, but there are options to throw different looks at the Clippers. I'll look at some of those in tomorrow's post.

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