Thursday, April 25, 2013

Griz-Clips Game 3 Preview: Lessons from Los Angeles

Posted By on Thu, Apr 25, 2013 at 9:30 AM

Its that time again.
The playoffs move from Flophouse to Grindhouse tonight, with an 8:30 tip down at FedExForum. A few things on my mind as the series moves to Memphis:

Fourth Quarter Contrast and the Unremarkable Bench Disparity: I don't have much in the way of expectation in terms of performance or outcome tonight, but I do in terms of strategy. Based on adjustments between Games 1 and 2 and his subsequent public statements, it seems like Lionel Hollins has come around to a notion that, frankly, I wrote and talked about in the run-up to the series: That, against the Clippers, the Grizzlies likely need to tighten their rotation, lean more on the starters, and be careful with early fourth-quarter lineups.

While the details are different between Games 1 and 2 in terms of foul issues and player performance, both games ended up only one bucket apart through three quarters. In Game 1, the Clippers lead 75-69 to start the fourth. In Game 2, the Clippers lead 75-71. After that, things went very differently, with the Clippers running over the Grizzlies 37-22 in Game 1, and the Grizzlies battling to a 20-18 advantage in Game 2.

What was different? Let's start with who was on the floor. In both games, the Clippers started with the same full bench unit, which happens to include what might arguably be three of their five best players this season — Eric Bledsoe, Jamal Crawford, and Matt Barnes.

In Game 1, the Grizzlies countered with a “throwing-stuff-against-the-wall” small-ball lineup, with Tayshaun Prince sliding to the four and three bench players on the perimeter. Marc Gasol was the only starter playing his regular position. This lineup made a couple of shots early to cut the deficit to one, but couldn't handle the Clippers on the boards or Eric Bledsoe in the backcourt and by the time the Grizzlies started coming back with more starters the game was already beginning to slip away.

In Game 2, by contrast, The Grizzlies began the quarter with a more conventional two-starter lineup (Mike Conley and Zach Randolph) but came in more quickly with other starters when signs of trouble emerged.

On the whole, the biggest difference between the two fourth quarters for the Grizzlies came in the backcourt, where starters Conley and Tony Allen combined for roughly five minutes in Game 1 but played 23 of 24 minutes in Game 2. Perhaps this had something to do with the enormous defensive disparity between the two games.

On the Clippers end, the biggest disparity was the odd gift from Clippers' coach Vinny Del Negro, who had played proven fourth-quarter Griz killer Eric Bledsoe for the full-fourth quarter in Game 1 and but then yanked him after five minutes in Game 2.

The good news for the Grizzlies is you can probably expect their Game 2 adjustments to carry over. The bad news is that Del Negro may not be so reliable.

In general, I shrug off worry about the bench disparity between the two teams, with the Clippers' bench outscoring their Grizzlies' counterparts 79-51 through two games. It is what it is at this point. The Clippers are built like this. Their strong bench isn't just a luxury. Reserve guards Bledsoe and Crawford are more dynamic than veteran starter Billups. Starting center DeAndre Jordan is such a deplorable foul shooter that he can't be trusted in the fourth quarter. All season, reserve small forward Barnes has outplayed starter Caron Butler. The Clippers best lineups, on the season, have tended to be bench-heavy lineups. While the Grizzlies would love to get better, more consistent production from the likes of Jerryd Bayless, Quincy Pondexter, Darrell Arthur, or Ed Davis, they don't need to play the Clippers even bench vs. bench. Basketball isn't played that way. The only match-up that matters is roster vs. roster.

The question for the Grizzlies is if the starters can play heavy minutes — and have their rest staggered effectively — without wearing down. Conley and Gasol played 44 minutes each in Game 2. That's probably a bit much to expect. But with the season on the line and no back-to-backs in the playoffs, there's no reason — beyond poor play or extreme foul problems — starters can't play 38-40 a game.

The Ever-Present Tony Allen Question: Let's compare:

In Game 1, the Clippers scored 112 points on 55% shooting. Tony Allen played 17 minutes.
In Game 2, the Clippers scored 93 points on 47% shooting. Tony Allen played 39 minutes.

I know correlation isn't causation, but …

Look, some among us — perhaps you have a good friend and radio partner of mine in mind — may give the impression they think Allen expels gold doubloons in his most private of moments. But we all know Allen can be hell to get along with. When Allen sends errant passes downcourt in key moments, blows lay-ups, misses free throws, and rises up for that wobbly jumper of his, Lionel Hollins isn't the only onlooker who wants to cover his face. I'm right there with him. So, probably, are you.

But just because Allen's miscues are so flamboyant doesn't mean they're any more damaging than the more mundane poor play of others. Or the silent killer of uneventful play too many of Allen's wing counterparts often supply.

Allen's memorable miscues — we know all about them. But that the treats far outweigh the tricks on most nights? We all know about that too, or we should.

There are some opponents where Allen wouldn't be quite the must-play. If Allen were playing against the Grizzlies, with this team's minimal perimeter scoring, his coach might be wise to limit his minutes in favor of getting more shooting on the floor. (You don't need Tony Allen to guard Tony Allen, though I'm sure we would all dearly love to see such a thing and you may now spend a few minutes contemplating the idea, as I did.)

But against the Clippers — and Thunder, if the Grizzlies were fortunate enough to advance — you need Tony Allen on the floor.

Last spring, in seven games against the Clippers, the Grizzlies were better on both sides of the ball when Allen was on the floor. This year, though it's only two games, the Grizzlies have been dramatically better defensively with Allen on the floor and only barely worse offensively.

Allen, as Lionel Hollins has noted, can't guard everybody — though he's always happy to try. But against the Clippers, with their deep rotation of dynamic guards, there will always be somebody you want him to be guarding. It won't always be an easy choice, but my proposed gameplan would be this: Through three quarters, have Allen on Jamal Crawford whenever Crawford's in the game and on Chris Paul in the stray minutes when Allen's on the floor and Crawford's off. In the fourth quarter, when Paul starts to look for his own offense more, I would have Allen on him earlier if at all possible.

Allen's like an flame-throwing relief pitcher — you want to use him in high-leverage situations, where his impact can be the greatest. You can't afford to save him just for closing duty.

Another reason Allen should play major minutes in this series in particular: Rebounding. The Grizzlies got hammered on the boards in Game 1 (where Allen, admittedly, failed to secure a missed shot in his 17 minutes) but played the Clippers roughly even in Game 2 (where Allen pulled down 10).

It's clear, in this series, that the Grizzlies bigs need help on the boards, and that's mostly likely to come from Allen, who is not only the team's best perimeter defender, but also the team's best perimeter rebounder, despite being shorter than both Quincy Pondexter and Tayshaun Prince. Check the regular-season rebound rates for rotation players:

Zach Randolph 19.4
Ed Davis 17.1
Marc Gasol 13.3
Darrell Arthur 10.4
Tony Allen 10.2
Tayshaun Prince 7.8
Quincy Pondexter 6.3
Jerryd Bayless 5.9
Mike Conley 4.8

With Ed Davis' minutes in doubt, Allen's rebounding becomes all the more important.

Add it up, and the Grizzlies need Allen playing more than his 27-minute regular season average in this series, not less.

The Not-at-All-Obvious Davis/Arthur Dilemma: While I think tightening the rotation and playing Allen more are obvious, I don't feel quite the same way about the choice between Darrell Arthur and Ed Davis as the team's third big. Some of us — and I'm often guilty — shake our heads at Lionel Hollins' “coach by feel” penchant, but this is one area where that's inevitable.

I know that regular-season lineup data suggests Davis is the play here; I've pointed this out. But there are stronger caveats than usual with this. Davis' Grizzlies sample size is pretty small and is impacted heavily by the four games he spent as a starter, playing sizable minutes with Gasol and Conley rather than in bench-heavy units. Arthur's regular season play was impacted by health questions — returning from a long layoff early on and dealing with a new back and shoulder injury late — though he still doesn't look quite 100 percent to me.

More than that, though, are the match-up specific issues at play. The Grizzlies could certainly use Davis' superior rebounding and ability to contest shots around the rim. But Arthur guards better in space, which means dealing with the Clippers' pick-and-roll onslaught and trying to stick with Blake Griffin on face-up moves. Arthur has more history with this team, more familiarity with the team's defensive schemes, and has come up big in the playoffs before (including late in Game 2). Davis is making his first post-season appearance.

This is a “coach by feel” decision — and should be.

Thirtysomething and Feeling It: It's been a pretty disappointing series so far for the Grizzlies' late-career starting forwards, who are looking their age against more athletic Clippers counterparts.

Zach Randolph is shooting a good percentage in the series when he isn't getting his shot swatted, and has shown signs of getting his game going. But we've been seeing signs for most of the season; the breakout game rarely follows. Fouls and defensive concerns have conspired to limit Randolph's minutes, but he can start to turn this around by getting his rebounding rate back up to regular-season norms. Perhaps the roar of the home crowd can help get him going.

As for Tayshaun Prince, his 20% shooting and general disappearing act has been particularly troubling considering how well he played against this team in the season series. Prince has taken only one three-point attempt after shooting them at a higher rate in the regular season against the Clippers. He could help, in part, by simply spacing the floor more. If Prince doesn't start to come around, I wouldn't be surprised to see Quincy Pondexter cut into his minutes. Pondexter, like most Grizzlies bench players, was invisible in Game 2, but he'll set up all the way in the corner and give Mike Conley and Griz bigs a little more room to operate.

Bounce-Back Mike and Mount Gasol: Even with all of that in mind, the present and probable future of Grizzlies basketball need to lead the way. Conley's bounce-back game was hugely encouraging, and not just in the context of this series. He may not go 28-9 again, but should play with renewed confidence going forward.

We still await a similar eruption from Gasol, who was just okay in Los Angeles. Gasol racked up 7 assists in Game 1, but shot poorly and didn't rebound. He was a little better in Game 2, but the Grizzlies need more than 17-7-2 from Gasol if they want to get back into this series.

Gasol needs to play better, and getting the Defensive Player of the Year Award in front of the home crowd might spur him on. But I also have a couple of usage questions with Gasol I'll be keeping an eye on tonight. On the offensive end, I feel like the Grizzlies have tried too hard at time to use him on the low block against DeAndre Jordan. Gasol can certainly be effective in that spot against that defender. But all season long, I think the Grizzlies' offense has functioned best with Gasol at the high post, and that seems like it would be more true when Jordan's on the floor. Jordan isn't comfortable guarding on the perimeter, freeing Gasol up for his mid-range set shot and a clear view of the floor as a passer. And if Jordan does come out, it either pulls him off the defensive boards or gives Gasol a good chance to drive past him. I like the high-post look with Gasol much more when Jordan is on the floor.

Defensively, I would try to use Gasol on Blake Griffin a little bit more, especially when he's on the floor with Zach Randolph or Ed Davis. Griffin got going early in Game 2 against Randolph. If he gets hot again, a quick switch may be in order.

Have Fun: I don't know what's going to happen tonight — and an 8:30 tip on a weeknight is a little rough for a lot of people — but I hope it's a party regardless. And, so, I leave you all with this:


GIF: Grizzlies Kid Loves Z-Bo And-1 on Twitpic

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