Thursday, May 2, 2013

In-Between Games: Griffin's Ankle, Z-Bo's Flashback, and Really Missing Reggie Evans

Posted By on Thu, May 2, 2013 at 12:09 PM

Zach Randolph vs. Blake Griffin was a match-up advantage for the Grizzlies, even before Griffins recent ankle injury.
  • LARRY KUZNIEWSKI
  • Zach Randolph vs. Blake Griffin was a match-up advantage for the Grizzlies, even before Griffin's recent ankle injury.
The power forward match-up between All-Stars Blake Griffin and Zach Randolph had already shaded into the Grizzlies' favor ahead of Tuesday night's Game 5 in Los Angeles, but that game was something of a tipping point.

Griffin, struggling with a high ankle sprain suffered in practice the day before, scored four points on 2-7 shooting in fewer than 20 minutes of play before finally bowing out for good in the third quarter. Randolph, meanwhile, notched a team-high 25 points and 11 rebounds, including scoring 10 points on 5-6 shooting, with an assist, in the fourth quarter.

Randolph has generally played well — and increasingly so — the whole series, despite subpar rebounding in Game 1 and foul trouble in both early Los Angeles games. But his fourth quarter in Game 5 was something a little different. With Marc Gasol on the bench and the Grizzlies searching for offense to keep a Clippers' comeback attempt at bay, Randolph routinely set up on the right block — but catching and facing pretty far on the right wing — and playing in isolation. He scored three of his five baskets with one-on-one moves from this space — a running hook and then a baseline floater, both over DeAndre Jordan, followed by a stepback jumper over Lamar Odom — and got his assist there too, hitting Tayshaun Prince on a cut down the lane.

It was a flashback to the spring of 2011, when Randolph took over in the fourth quarter of consecutive Game 6s in similar right wing/isolation fashion. Randolph has played well this post-season, but for better or worse, he hadn't really played like that.

We tend to misremember Randolph's spring of 2011. The great games — like those dominant sixth games — were so searing that the rough games (especially when Oklahoma City clamped down, leading to Randolph shooting 22-69, or 32%, in Games 2-5) fade away.

Though five games is a terribly small set of information, Randolph's production, in a lot of ways, has actually been better than in 2011, and certainly more consistent. While Randolph's rebounding (a little bit up offensively, a little bit down defensively) has mostly held steady, as it pretty much has through the ups and downs of the past two seasons, his scoring has been significantly more efficient, with his 53% true-shooting percentage from the 2011 post-season up to 58% through five games so far this spring.

Is this Randolph, who struggled so much in the final months of the regular season, suddenly better than the all-NBA Randolph of two springs ago? No, but the context of his play has changed in helpful ways. Playing with better playmakers against weaker frontcourt defenders has — so far — made Randolph more efficient than two years ago.

In terms of shot distribution, Randolph is taking fewer mid-range jumpers and getting more shots in the paint, which is always a good thing, but especially so given that Randolph has hit a dire 3-17 from mid-range in this series so far. And Randolph is converting shots in and around the paint at a better rate than he did two springs ago. But Randolph isn't getting these closer looks because he's doing a better job of turning those wing isolations into shots in the paint, and not hitting a higher percentage of them because he's become a better finisher.

What's changed most of all isn't Randolph but the context in which he's playing. Mike Conley and Marc Gasol actually have become better players than they were two years ago. Both have significantly boosted their usage rates and assist ratios compared to 2011. Conley's a more confident and dynamic creator now and Gasol is a much more prolific and effective playmaker, especially from the high post. And despite his fourth-quarter heroics in Game 5, Randolph's efficiency has benefited enormously from this shift to an offense run more through Conley and Gasol.

Now, instead of the engine of the Grizzlies' offense, Randolph has been able to morph into its most effective cog. The tip-off here — beyond what's apparent to the eye — is that Randolph's percentage of assisted baskets in and around the paint is way, way up. In the 2011 post-season, 39% of Randolph's baskets at the rim were assisted. That's up to 55% so far in this series. Randolph's made baskets in the paint but outside the restricted area were assisted 36% of the time in 2011. That's up to 60% in this series. (All stats from NBA.com.) Rather than propping up a struggling offense by having to force shots against set defenses and double-teams, Randolph's spending more time now playing off the creation of Conley and Gasol (and Tayshaun Prince, a better ballhandler, passer, and post-entry feeder than any wing the team played in 2011) and getting better shots as a result. His improved efficiency is a product of this shifting team context more than a result of individual play.

The other team has something to do with this too. While the 2011 Spurs certainly had defenders that could not handle Randolph — he ushered Antonio McDyess into retirement that April — they also had Tim Duncan as the backbone of their defense, and this Clippers team can't match that. The Thunder had three frontcourt defenders — Kendrick Perkins, Serge Ibaka, and, especially, Nick Collison — all better than anyone on this Clippers roster.

Has any team ever missed Reggie Evans as much as this Clippers team has missed Reggie Evans in this playoff series? Randolph routinely out-jostles Griffin in the paint and Jordan, while a marvel of an athlete, is prone to being outmaneuvered when he can't find space to block a shot. But, last year, the Clippers had the beastly Evans — and also the tough, defensive-oriented Kenyon Martin — to combat a depleted Randolph.

Evans averaged 22.3 minutes a game in that series with the Grizzlies, including nearly 10 minutes a game in the fourth quarters alone. The Clippers hammered the Grizzlies in the fourth quarter in that series. This time, with lesser defenders such as Ronny Turiaf, Ryan Hollins, and Lamar Odom off the bench, the Clippers have been less fearsome and the Grizzlies have won the fourth quarter in four straight games.

The real question: Why is Randolph playing so much better in this series than he did down the stretch of the regular season? Why didn't this new team-offense dynamic yield better regular-season results? The Clippers' defense is a factor, but it can't be the only one. You can point to Randolph's ankle injury against Miami, which lingered and seemed to impact his play. You can point to Randolph's own late-season suggestion that he was ready for the “real season” to start — that he was holding back some late in the regular season and has now ramped up his effort in the post-season. I think these are all factors. And there may be other reasons that are beyond our ken.

Regardless, Zach is mostly back, and this time re-deployed more as a finisher and less as a creator, to both his and the team's benefit.

With Blake Griffin's availability questionable — more on that in tomorrow's game preview — and the series heading back to Memphis tomorrow night, the Grizzlies advantage at the four should continue to grow.

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