Sunday, April 21, 2013

In-Between Games: What Went Wrong (and Right) in Griz-Clips Game 1 and What Lies Ahead

Posted By on Sun, Apr 21, 2013 at 1:05 PM

Not being in Los Angeles for the opening two games of this first-round playoff series between the Grizzlies and Clippers and with only a one-day break in-between the first two games, I can't find much reason to separate a reaction to Game 1 and a preview of Game 2. So, I'll let this scattershot series of observations stand in for both:

Coming into the series, the Clippers already owned discernible advantages in terms of athleticism, depth, and shooting, and they pressed all three last night in Los Angeles until the Grizzlies finally broke, yielding a 112-91 defeat to a Clippers team that has now beaten them in five of the past six meetings between the two teams.

In theory, the Grizzlies should be able to mitigate the Clippers' roster advantages with the league's best perimeter defense, the league's second-best rebounding team, and, arguably, the front-court tandem that boasts the league's best mix of skill and brawn.

Instead, Clippers guards and small forwards shot 62%, including 39% from three-point range. The Grizzlies got demolished on the boards, where the Grizzlies were doubled-up (47-23) and allowed the Clippers to corral 42% of their own misses. The Grizzlies offensive rebound rate of 31.0 was second best in the NBA in the regular season. In Game 1, they secured barely more than 10 percent of their misses. As for the third component, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph weren't terrible offensively — 29 points on 10-22 shooting, with 8 assists — but it wasn't nearly enough. And they combined for a shocking six rebounds in 45 minutes of play.

The 21-point final deficit is in some ways misleading and in other ways a more honest expression of the game than the tighter differential that separated these teams for most of the contest.

This was — miraculously — a one-point game with 10 minutes to play, and was still a 10-point game with 4:29 to play. But the Clippers finally blew the game open with two familiar runs in a 37-22 fourth quarter. The first came in immediate response to the Grizzlies cutting the deficit to one, with a bench-driven Clippers unit (lead by Eric Bledsoe and Matt Barnes) blistering a “throw-it-against-a-wall” small-ball Grizzlies lineup. The final, decisive 9-0 run came in the span of 67 seconds in the final three minutes, exclusively the work of a trio of Bledsoe, Barnes, and a returning Chris Paul.

This loss felt more like a consequence of player performance than tactics, with a barrage of early foul trouble disrupting the Grizzlies rotations. But there was plenty of bad to go around. Beyond what's already been mentioned:

*We already feared that the Clippers are the worst possible match-up for Mike Conley, whose performance has been the leading indicator of team success this season. And Game 1 was another piece of confirmation. Early on, Conley seemed tentative offensively and overmatched defensively. He finally got some offense going in the third, where he scored a team-high 7 points on 3-5 shooting, but that was also the quarter where the Clippers went at him relentlessly, first with Chris Paul and then when Chauncey Billups when Conley was switched onto him. On the whole, Conley scored 12 points on 5-11 shooting and was a huge negative defensively. That has to change if the Grizzlies are to have any chance of making this a series.

*One troubling aspect of Conley's struggles is that it had little to do with Eric Bledsoe, who barely played for the game's first three quarters. In the fourth, though, it was as it ever was: Bledsoe played the full 12 minutes after playing only 6:19 up to that point. In the fourth quarter alone, Bledsoe had 13 points on 6-6 shooting, with six rebounds and four assists.

*Correspondingly, the worst news for the Grizzlies after Game 1 is how much healthier Chris Paul is than in last spring's series and how dialed-in he was. Paul and the Clippers handled the Grizzlies' usually sharp pick-and-roll defense easily, with Paul (23 points on 7-11 shooting, with seven assists and only one turnover) routinely getting into the middle of the floor. Meanwhile, other Clipper shooters were getting — and making — three-point looks too easily against what had been — since the Rudy Gay trade — the NBA' best three-point defense. They were especially wearing out the right corner, where Tony Allen fouled Clippers sixth-man Jamal Crawford on one made attempt.

*Speaking of Allen, he played only 16:30 amid all this mess. He wasn't playing great when he was out there — zero rebounds and the aforementioned four-point foul — and he did get two fouls in the first quarter. But Allen's ultimate lack of playing time felt like an overreaction to the fouls and the Grizzlies' early deficit. By my purely observational recollection, Allen only guarded Chris Paul on a couple of possessions. They switched him onto Paul in the third after Paul was torching Conley, but then switched him back when Chauncey Billups scored on Conley too. Obviously, Conley was in a bad place last night, but on the season he's been less susceptible to bigger guards like Billups than in the past. So I would take the chance with Conley on Billups and use Allen on Paul much more. I said that before the game and still feel that way.

*Less flagrant perhaps than the point guard match-up, but perhaps even more disappointing, was how thoroughly Tayshaun Prince was outplayed by Clippers small forwards Caron Butler and Matt Barnes. Prince, as chronicled here, had played three strong games against the Clippers in the regular season, but wasn't effective on either end last night.

*Austin Daye's mysterious first-quarter appearance — ahead of Quincy Pondexter — ended up being an omen of the lineup searching that plagued the Grizzlies all game. Daye did pretty much nothing in six minutes of play — one missed field-goal attempt and one block shot vandalizing what would have otherwise been a pristine row of zeros on his box-score line.

*Other lineup irregularities are open to glass-half-full/glass-half-empty interpretation. Ed Davis, making his playoff debut, was effective around the rim, hitting three of four attempts and grabbing a team-high (!?!) six rebounds in 13 minutes of play. Despite that solid production and the team's rebounding woes, Davis mostly yielded to Darrell Arthur after the first quarter. Arthur was generally ineffective, missing all three attempts and securing three rebounds 12 minutes of his own. Why go with Arthur over Davis in the middle of the game? I wasn't in Los Angeles to ask, but watching the game suggested two potential rationales: One that the Grizzlies wanted to feature Gasol in the low post rather than in the high post, necessitating a frontcourt partner who could play above the free-throw line and (potentially) stretch the defense. The second is Arthur's superior pick-and-roll defense. These would both be defensible explanations. I would only counter that I think the team's offense is best with Gasol in the high post anyway and that the Grizzlies were getting hammered on the boards, an area where Davis may have helped.

*Similarly, you can chose how you want to feel about Keyon Dooling's play. I'd say he played well, especially relative to expectations: He knocked how two of three long-range attempts, had a couple of assists, no turnovers, and supplied at least better defense than Conley had been giving the team. But playing Dooling — who had been on the couch most of the season — more than 18 minutes in a playoff game is a symptom of larger problems.

Anything good to take from this game?

*Being within one point in the fourth quarter despite all the foul trouble and wildly subpar defense and rebounding is somewhat encouraging.

*Zach Randolph (13 and 4 on 6-10 shooting) did indeed bear-wrestle Blake Griffin (10 and 5 on 3-9 shooting) to something approaching a draw, though Griffin's ability to find three-point shooters from the paint was an early key to Clippers success.

*Most encouraging, perhaps, was the play of Jerryd Bayless, who didn't flinch from the moment, scoring a team-high 19 points off the bench on 6-12 shooting and displaying the kind of aggressiveness the rest of the team needs to find before Monday night.

As I mentioned at the outset, the Clippers have now won five of the past six meetings between these teams. Another decisive win in Los Angeles on Monday night and “Clips in 5” will become the most likely scenario here.

After the last regular season loss to the Clippers, I suggested — contrary to conventional wisdom — that the Nuggets might be the more preferable Grizzlies opponent. Part of that reasoning was match-ups and the relative health of those teams entering the playoffs. Part of it was analysis fatigue — a personal desire to dive into a different opponent. But a big part of that assertion was psychological: I worried — and worry more now — about coming back to FedExForum down 0-2 to this particular team with this particular recent history. Not just the mood in the locker room and on the floor in the event of such an occurrence, but in the stands as well. For that reason, as much as for the raw competitive calculus, Monday night's Game 2 will be enormous for the Grizzlies.

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