The Grizzlies now return home for Games 3 and 4 with a sense of missed opportunity but also with a renewed sense — and, perhaps just as importantly, a renewed sense among restless fans — that they can battle this Clippers team: That they can win a fourth quarter (20-18). That their league-best three-point defense, post-trade, can put the squeeze on the Clippers' deep array of shooters (2-15). That Mike Conley's tentative, out-of-his-depth play from Game 1 was not a terminal condition (a bravura 28 points and 9 assists in 44 minutes). That maybe Clippers' coach Vinny Del Negro doesn't have it all figured out (Eric Bledsoe played fewer than 14 minutes). And that maybe Lionel Hollins has figured out a few things (No Austin Daye, more Tony Allen, a tighter rotation that relied more on starters).
In a loss like this, frustrations are many, starting at the foul line: The Grizzlies missed 11 free throws (23-34) in a two-point loss, and then let Matt Barnes and Bledsoe have multiple uncontested fourth-quarter dunks where hard fouls were called for. Jamal Crawford scored 10 quick in the second quarter as Tony Allen first watched from the bench and then from the scorer's table, waiting to check in. “Foul trouble” limited Zach Randolph's second-half minutes just as he was finally heating up. Randolph had 7 points and 7 rebounds in 14 second-half minutes. In retrospect, it's hard to fault Lionel Hollins for pulling Randolph after he got his fifth foul — down six with 4:34 to go. Darrell Arthur made two big plays in Randolph's stead down the stretch, helping the Grizzlies tie it up, though Arthur's recent history certainly didn't suggest this could have been expected. Might Ed Davis — a superior shot-blocker who was benched after a couple of first-half miscues — have contested the final shot better than Arthur? Perhaps, but that's nitpicking.
But, once again — and this has become one of my biggest basketball pet peeves — a key player got few minutes (31) than his team would have presumably preferred because of “foul trouble” even though he didn't actually foul out. Too often, preventing a player from fouling out takes precedence over maximizing a player's impact on the game.
It was a shame to see such terrific games from Conley and Allen (16 and 10, with 2 steals) go unrewarded. And winning this series against a deeper team with a 2-0 lead and the best point guard in the world still looks daunting. But now, at least, Memphis — its team and its fans — can greet the challenge ahead with a bit more hope and enthusiasm than seemed likely after that Game 1 blowout. A great game — even from the losing end — can energize.