The Grizzlies saved Saturday.
Needing three victories over the final four games, winning this series against the Los Angeles Clippers is still a heavy lift. But, for now, the Grizzlies have ensured that playoff weekend in Memphis, for a while at least, can be a festive one.
Around water coolers Friday morning. At bars Friday night. At the farmer's market on Saturday and at lunch spots up and down Beale and Main ahead of Saturday's 3:30 tip: Now the mood will be more anticipation than anxiety. The buzz you'll hear for the next day-and-a-half around the city will be one of excitement instead of dread. Whatever else happens in the series, the Grizzlies performed a civic mitzvah Thursday night.
How did it happen, this 94-82 victory? In a classic Grizzlies grind-it-out game. With perimeter defense and offensive rebounding and two hefty All-Stars scoring in the post, high and low.
Zach Randolph had a flashback game. You could see it in the first quarter, when he pinned seven-foot Clippers center DeAndre Jordan early in the shot clock, right under the rim, and finished over him. You could see it in the third quarter, when he rose — was it a foot? — off the ground to corral an offensive rebound with one big mitt and flipped the ball back in. It was 27 points and 11 rebounds on 9-18 shooting, and if Randolph got a couple of attempts swatted, it was still the kind of performance some fans were surely doubting they'd ever see again.
Randolph's back line buddy, Marc Gasol, was there with him. Rather than running so many plays through Gasol on the low block against Jordan, as had been the case in Los Angeles, the Grizzlies reasserted Gasol (16 and 8) in the high post, where he abused Jordan with jumpers — 4-7 from mid-range — and restored the vertical balance to the Grizzlies' post-based offense. (Randolph was 8-14 at the rim.)
They shared the podium afterward, in victory, a moment for fans to savor given the uncertain future. “This is our game,” Randolph said.
From the Clippers' side, coach Vinny Del Negro repeated the word “rebounding” like a mantra in his post-game presser. After destroying the Grizzlies on the boards in Game 1, the pendulum swung here, the Grizzlies besting the Clippers 17-5 on the offensive boards despite both teams shooting 39% from the floor. Randolph, with six, out-rebounded the entire Clippers team on the offensive glass.
Defensively, the Grizzlies locked down the perimeter, throwing different looks at Chris Paul — Quincy Pondexter for much of the third quarter, Tony Allen with an earlier assignment than normal in the fourth — and playing much more effective team defense against the Clippers pick and roll. The Grizzlies team defense forced Paul to his left and denied the easy switch onto big men that Paul had feasted on in the fourth quarter of Game 2.
“We made a big point of emphasis on the pick-and-roll and how our bigs were down low,” Allen said after the game. “They had their antennas on when he was coming off of it. We tried not to let him go to the right as much as he wanted to. That's his strong hand. He does a lot of damage that way.”
With the brew of post offense, perimeter defense, and offensive rebounding forming the three pillars of success, Mike Conley managed the game well despite having a dreadful shooting night (1-9). Conley handled the pressure defense of Paul and Clippers' menace Eric Bledsoe and consistently scooted into the paint on his way to 10 assists and zero turnovers, helping the Grizzlies to a -8 advantage in turnover differential that, along with the heavy advantage on the offensive boards, was the difference in the game.
One play in particular seemed to encapsulate Conley's growth. Late in the fourth, coming out of a timeout, Conley searched with his dribble, got bumped in traffic, lost the ball and instead of being knocked off his stride — so late in the game, shooting so poorly — he got the ball back and drew a foul on Paul, sinking two at the line to push the team to a game-high 16-point advantage.
But Hollins found some help from his bench in this one. Darrell Arthur, building on his strong late play in Game 2, gave the team 17 useful minutes behind Randolph and Gasol, and Pondexter had an important game, for his team and for himself.
With Tayshaun Prince continuing to struggle — two points, one rebound, and zero assists in 30 minutes — Pondexter worked his way into the closing lineup, playing 15 of his 26 minutes in the second half. Pondexter, who has been relatively quiet for weeks, had probably the most important play of the game early in the fourth quarter. After being fouled in transition, Pondexter missed the second of his two free throws, but rebounded his own miss for a hoop-and-harm, resulting a four-point play that pushed the Grizzlies' then-dwindling lead from six back up to 10 and seemingly boosted Pondexter's own confidence. Later in the quarter, Pondexter converted a reverse layup off a Randolph feed that again pushed lead from single to double digits. Pondexter scored 13 on the game and that he shot only 1-4 from three-point range hardly mattered. Playing in place of Prince, who hasn't been hitting anything from inside the arc and or taking anything from beyond it, Pondexter's misses at least gave the Grizzlies some desperately needed spacing.
“That's what we need. We need someone from the bench to step up and do something,” Hollins said.
The Clippers got some help from their splendid bench, but not as much as usual. Matt Barnes exploited mismatches — getting loose for a dunk with the smaller Jerryd Bayless on him, stepping back for a three with the bigger Arthur on him. Lamar Odom pulled Zach Randolph out and hit three of four from long-range. But the Grizzlies contained Jamal Crawford, who went 3-10, though the Grizzlies also know full well that the same difficult shots Crawford missed in this game could easily find net in Game 4. And established Griz killer Bledsoe was not, going scoreless, with a single rebound, in 14 minutes. Bledsoe helped the Grizzlies out by settling for — and missing — long jumpers, while the Grizzlies did a much better job of handling, or avoiding, Bledsoe's defensive pressure.
It was a physical, spirited game — the now-requisite double-foul on Randolph and Blake Griffin, a double tech on Griffin and Gasol after Gasol took issue with Griffin's hard foul on Conley, a flagrant foul from Barnes on Randolph that made the entire building suck air when Randolph turned around quick, only to smile and hug Barnes. (“Were you worried when Zach turned on Barnes?,” Tony Allen was asked after the game. “I was worried for Barnes,” he said, chuckling.) But the game never got sidetracked. Jerry Lawler's now-annual playoff cameo, body-slamming a “Clippers fan” on the court, remained a metaphor.
And now the series moves to Saturday, where Paul is unlikely to again be held to single-digit scoring (8 points on 4-11 shooting) or have more turnovers (five) than assists (four). Where Griffin is unlikely to be so quiet (a barely noticeable 16 points and two rebounds). Where the Clippers are likely to play with a greater sense of urgency. Where Randolph's monster game could look like a fluke. But whatever happens then, the Grizzlies, on behalf of their city, have injected hope back into the series.