Saturday, May 5, 2012

Ten Takes: Grizzlies-Clippers Game 3 Preview

Posted By on Sat, May 5, 2012 at 12:06 AM

Rudy Gay got to his spots in Game 2. Will the Clippers adjust today?
  • Rudy Gay got to his spots in Game 2. Will the Clippers adjust today?
Game 3 between the Grizzlies and Clippers begins at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday in Los Angeles. Before the tip, 10 things on my mind as the series moves West:

1. Grizzlies in Control?: While that whole “giving away Game 1” thing has imperiled the Grizzlies chances of winning the series, they've clearly looked like the better team through two games with the Clippers. The Grizzlies have controlled six of eight quarters so far, only faltering in that disastrously complacent Game 1 fourth quarter and in the Game 2 first quarter, where it took them a little while to adjust to the Clippers' increased physicality. Through 96 minutes of basketball so far in this series, the Grizzlies have led for 80:08.

2. Defending Rudy Gay: With Caron Butler out with a hand injury and journeyman Bobby Simmons and slight scorer Nick Young as his primary defenders, Rudy Gay was very strong in Game 2. He missed his first three shots — a contested 17-footer and a couple of strong drives where lay-up attempts rimmed out — and was then 9-10 from the floor the rest of the game.

That opening shot was the only long two-pointer Gay took the entire game. Gay's lone three-point attempt — his only miss from the mid-first-quarter on — came when Kenyon Martin switched onto him on a pick-and-roll and pushed Gay out with the shot-clock about to expire, forcing a 35-foot prayer. Gay's other 12 shots — including a fastbreak lay-up attempt where he was fouled — all came within 15 feet. All game long, Gay used his size and strength advantage to drive or back down Simmons (against whom Gay was 4-7) and Young (a perfect 5-5) into the paint for a series of short jumpers and hooks.

Young, in particular, can't guard Gay. Whatever happens in that one-on-one match-up is purely up to Gay. And Simmons isn't a much better match-up for the Clippers, whose best options for defending Gay are Martin and Butler. Martin smothered Gay in the two possessions where he's guarded him, but the Clippers probably can't play him at the three beyond the occasional defense-only set-up. As for Butler, he was thought to be out for the series, but he practiced Friday with a brace over his fractured off hand. There's a thought that he might try to play, but how effective he could be is a mystery.

Where Gay has struggled offensively in the series so far is with turnovers, especially a couple of lazy bad-pass turnovers in Game 2. Gay has struggled to handle the ball on the perimeter against pressure, and the Grizzlies will be better if they can limit his non catch-and-shoot touches to within 20 feet or so. I would also expect more double teams in Game 3 for Gay's deeper catches. Passing out of the double is not a strength, but he'll need to be prepared to do this more going forward. Regardless, with these match-ups, Gay is a problem for the Clippers.

3. A Z-Bo They Can Win With: No one is expecting Zach Randolph to be the Playoff Hero he was last spring, but Randolph's 3-13 Game 1 performance was particularly troubling. While 30-15 explosions are probably not forthcoming, the Game 2 Z-Bo — 15-8 on 6-11 shooting — is someone the Grizzlies can win with.

Beyond the numbers, what was encouraging about Randolph's bounce-back in Game 2 was how he got the points. Randolph never scored a contested basket in the paint in the first game — his three makes were two baseline jumpers and an uncontested, assisted dunk. In the second game, four of Randolph's six field goals were contested shots in the paint, two on trademark “Z-Bound” putbacks and two iso post scores, the last of which, of course, was of the finest vintage:

Unsurprising, Randolph seemed much more effective against Blake Griffin than against DeAndre Jordan or Reggie Evans. Jordan stepped out to — gasp — cleanly block one of Randolph's jab-step jumpers. And the same kind of rumbling, spinning drive that garnered the and-one against Griffin met more resistance against Evans, yielding a fadeaway jumper instead. If Randolph is on his game in Los Angeles, the match-up with Griffin is one that could be exploited more than it has so far.

Marc Gasol is scoreless in the second half so far this series.

4. The Never-Ending Zach & Rudy Meme: This seems like it's never going away, but I found myself subjected to it twice on Friday. First, by Sam Smith during his weekly local radio segment on Sportstime on Sports 56. To be fair, Smith's take on the “issue” was far more reasonable than that of that other S.Smith in the national NBA media, but there was one aspect of his argument I found questionable. More on that in a minute.

Next there was the print column from Chris Mannix in the current issue of Sports Illustrated, which a co-worker had at the office.

Before I — reluctantly — get into this again, a few points to establish I'm not pollyannaish on this subject:

1. I don't think Gay and Randolph have a problem playing together, but I also don't think they have especially good on-court chemistry. However, I think this is mostly a function of the kind of players they are. If you're drawing up an ideal team from scratch, you probably wouldn't make the team's two best scorers both iso-oriented forwards. That's not a great recipe for a lot of fluid two-man-game interaction.

2. I certainly don't get the sense that Randolph and Gay are good buddies off the floor. They're very different people, culturally. But I'm also not convinced this is at all important. And, again, I've never seen any indication there's a problem here.

3. I also believe — as Mannix suggests at the end of his column and I've said on The Chris Vernon Show — that there's a decent chance the Grizzlies will try to deal Gay or Randolph — for tax/financial reasons — at some point before their current contracts expire.

All that said, the fixation on the not-irrelevant Gay/Randolph chemistry question usually seems to be more about (easy) narrative than evidence.

And the most frustrating aspect of this faux controversy is how most of the actual on-court history of Gay and Randolph playing together — which would seem to be, you know, pretty important to the question of whether they can play together — is totally ignored.

Mannix's column is the latest but far from the first to indulge this oversight. Early on, in a column that wonders whether Gay and Randolph can “learn to coexist,” he reports that the Grizzlies finished last season on a 15-10 run after Gay was injured, presumably to suggest how well the team played when Randolph didn't have to share the court with Gay. But how'd they do in the 25 games before Gay was injured? Try 17-8.

More egregious is the column's close: “A full season together would help Gay and Randolph jell — but an early exit means they might not get it.”

If only we could see what it looks like when Randolph and Gay play a full season together. But to do that you have to flash back two whole years, before the Grizzlies returned to the playoffs, a period during which the franchise apparently didn't exist.

That was 2009-2010, Randolph's first season with the Grizzlies, when he and Gay missed a combined three games. Playing together all season — This really happened. You can look it up. — Randolph made his first All-Star team and Gay averaged 20 points on 47% shooting. The team was in the playoff hunt despite having possibly one of the worst benches in NBA history — second-round rookie Sam Young was the sixth man and the only bench player who had any business even playing regular NBA minutes that season. The team had a winning record until Marc Gasol missed the final month with a season-ending injury. The starting lineup of Mike Conley-O.J. Mayo-Gay-Randolph-Gasol was one of the most effective primary lineups in the league that season.

This season, per, that lineup has again been terrific, even with a diminished Randolph: +17.7 per 48 minutes. The current starting lineup, with Tony Allen substituting for Mayo, was +15.5 pr 48. All lineups pairing Randolph and Gay are +6.4. Last season, Gay/Randolph lineups were +4.1. Their first, full season together: +2.0, but that season — as I detailed here — the Grizzlies suffered significantly whenever pretty much any of the starters went to the bench.

Combinations of either Randolph or Gay with either Conley or Gasol fair better. But again, I'm not making the case that Gay and Randolph are an ideal or easy fit. But the evidence is clear that the Grizzlies can — in fact, have — thrived with Gay and Randolph playing together.

Which brings us back to Sam Smith's one questionable assertion from his local radio appearance: That the Grizzlies would be better off in this series if they limited the minutes Gay and Randolph are on the floor together.

The sample size is pretty small after two games — especially with one of those two feeling like a wild anomaly — but here's how it's actually gone for the Grizzlies relative to Randolph and Gay lineups:

With Randolph and Gay — +8 in 44:25
With Gay, not Randolph — +1 in 29:17
With Randolph, not Gay — -5 in 16:18
With neither — +2 in 5:44

(There are a few seconds missing in there, I know. But that's close enough.)

Nothing conclusive there, but certainly nothing to suggest — and nothing in the season or career numbers either — that the Grizzlies would benefit from playing Randolph and Gay together less.

O.J. Mayo was effective at the point — at both ends — in Game 2.
  • O.J. Mayo was effective at the point — at both ends — in Game 2.

5. Game 2 Rotation Shift/Mayo on the Ball: The biggest strategic change for the Grizzlies in Game 2 was a shorter rotation that gave O.J. Mayo the point guard minutes when Mike Conley went to the bench and gave Quincy Pondexter more minutes at shooting guard. This made the Grizzlies bigger and more athletic in the backcourt overall and seemed to be effective, particularly on the defensive end.

In Mayo's 10 minutes at point guard, his individual numbers weren't overwhelming — 8 points on 2-6 shooting (4-4 from the line) 1 assist, 1 steal, 1 turnover — but the team was +4 and Clippers point guards — Chris Paul and Eric Bledsoe roughly five minutes each — scored only 4 points without a single assist.

And despite the interest by everyone except Lionel Hollins (everyone including his own assistants and Mike Conley himself) in seeing Tony Allen get the defensive assignment against Paul at times this series, Mayo actually looked better against Paul. Mayo is able to roughly duplicate Allen's size and strength but with a little less (over-)aggressiveness. Mayo's bottling up Paul's penetration and forcing a pass at the end of the third quarter is what led to the double technicals between Mayo and Kenyon Martin — who stepped in when Mayo and Paul began jawing at each other. And that wasn't the only time Mayo seemed to frustrate Paul. One assumes this match-up wrinkle will be getting a replay.

6. Marc Gasol's Second-Half Fades: Through two games, there's been a stark difference in Marc Gasol's first- and second-half performances:

First half: 22 points (9-16 shooting), 6 rebounds, and 5 assists in 37:01
Second half: 0 points (0-3 shooting), 5 rebounds, and 4 assists in 37:31

I'm not really sure what to make of this, though I will point out that Gasol also shot more often and with better success in the first half during the regular season, though the splits were not nearly this extreme.

I can think of a few different explanations: That Gasol wears down some as the game goes on. That the team loses focus in running their offensive sets. That the opposition adjusts to take away Gasol at the half. Maybe it's a confluence of these factors and others. Regardless, this is a trend that bears watching.

7. Three-Point Shooting: The Grizzlies' 11-16 three-point shooting in Game 1 was widely dismissed as “fool's gold” and is almost certainly an outlier. But I also think Game 2's 2-12 is going to end up being an outlier. I wrote about this in my series preview: The Grizzlies may have been a weak three-point shooting team over the course of the regular season, but there were several reasons to believe three-point shooting would be more of a factor for the Grizzlies in this series:

1. The Grizzlies — and particularly Mike Conley and O.J. Mayo — were a much better three-point shooting team in April than they'd been earlier in the season.

2. The Clippers have struggled to defend three-point shooting.

3. Perhaps as a combination of these factors, the Grizzlies were better from three than the Clippers in the regular-season series.

I agree that the Grizzlies should play inside-out — not only with Gasol, Randolph, and Speights, but also with Rudy Gay — but they also shouldn't short-change the “out” part of that dynamic.

8. The Turnover Battle: Another topic from the series preview has, so far, gone the Grizzlies way. The Clippers' 13.3 turnovers per game average was the second lowest in the league last season, while the Grizzlies' 17.1 opponent turnover average was the league highest. Rather than meet in the middle, it's gotten more extreme in the Grizzlies favor in an arena where turnovers are supposed to be harder to come by. The Clippers have averaged 18.5 turnovers through two games. In Game 1, most the theses did not land directly into the hands of a Grizzlies defender. With the Grizzlies registering only three steals, many of the turnovers were traveling violations, offensive fouls, and the like. But in Game 2, the Grizzlies really got after it, with 13 steals. Odds are turnovers decline as the series heads to Los Angeles. At least the Clippers had better hope so.

9. Born Chippy: Chris Paul is a tough, aggressive little SOB. In the fourth quarter of Game 2, Marc Gasol laid a hard pick on Paul and the pair got tangled up afterward, with Paul getting called for a foul. Paul reportedly told his bench, “I'm gonna knock him out,” referring to Gasol. Friday, Reggie Evans vowed that the Clippers were going to get more physical in Game 3. I'd say the Clippers were pretty physical in Game 2, but you can bet this series is going to get even more intense going forward.

10. Clipper Homecourt: The Clippers were 24-9 on their homecourt this season, a couple of games worse than the Grizzlies 26-7 home record. They'll be favored in both their home games, and should be. But I'll believe the suddenly trendy Clippers boast an intimating home playoff atmosphere when I see it. This is, but many accounts, the fifth or sixth biggest sports story in Los Angeles right now. And the Clippers are, without question, the second most popular NBA team in their own building. I'm sure it'll be live inside Staples Center, but it's not like going to Oklahoma City last year.


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