In a rematch of last year’s first-round thriller that went to seven, the Grizzlies and the Clippers are set to meet in one of the most exciting first round match-ups on the cards. It poses us with a simple, age-old question: What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? This series is set to provide the answer, as the rolling Lob City collides with the stingy Grizzlies Grind. Looking into our trusty crystal ball of playoff wisdom, Saving the Skyhook brings you our preview of what is going to be one of the wildest showdowns out West.
The Memphis Grizzles have carved their niche this season by stopping opposing defenses dead in their tracks. With a league-best 89.3 points allowed per game, the Grizzlies have managed to shut down all comers. However, they may face their stoutest test coming up against Chris Paul and the Los Angeles Clippers. Memphis are by far the best constructive defensive team in the lead, with perennial lockdown perimeter defender Tony Allen expected to deal with Jamal Crawford for the series and the potent combo of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol making the paint a no-fly zone.
During the stretch against the Clippers this season, the Grizzlies went 1-3. However, they’re a much more unique side coming into the playoffs as they work with a rapidly improving Tayshaun Prince and an in-form front line. What has made the Grizzlies such a strong defensive team this season has been the improvement by Marc Gasol. He very quickly went from the lesser Gasol brother, to on par, and now undeniably the better in the span of as season.
Gasol isn’t a maestro at one particular element of basketball. He doesn’t use extraterrestrial leaping abilities to swat basketball into the nosebleeds, nor is he merely ‘a hustle guy’. Marc Gasol is the most complete defensive big man in the NBA, bar none. Gasol’s instinct on the defensive and ability to get the first position is impressive enough, but his effort to stay with his man and then use his length to contest or alter every shot, no matter how far from the rim it’s coming up from, is what sets him apart. He was the clear leader for the Grizzlies in their single, crucial win over the Clippers in March with 21 points and 5 steals, but it was his defensive touch even then that tipped the Grizzlies over the line.
However, Gasol’s brilliance at the defensive end isn’t equated at the offensive end – if he was, he’d be the MVP – and thus, Memphis have a gaping hole at the other end to fill. With Rudy Gay’s departure midseason, the Grizzlies have been left with even bigger problems at the offensive end than they had on opening night. Zach Randolph leads the team’s scoring at a modest 15.4 a game and while the Grizzlies score deep (Conley and Gasol hover around a similar mark), they don’t score a lot – ranked 27th in the league for points per game.
The Clippers will invariably be slowed by Memphis’ grinding pace and lockdown defense but they won’t come to a standstill. As well as being the fastest and most devastating transition team not from South Beach, they do a very serviceable job of the halfcourt game. That means that while Memphis will be effective defensively, they’ll need to something at least average in order to succeed against the Clippers; and being a team three rungs from the bottom in scoring, that is quite a big ask.
One of the keys for Memphis will be the production of Jerryd Bayless. A journeyman of the NBA, Bayless has failed to perform despite the opportunities gifted to him by Coach Hollins this year. While his 9 points in 22 minutes isn’t bad by any means, he’ll need to be more spark and less simmer in his chances against the Clippers. Going further, Zach Randolph is going to need to up his scoring to keep the Grizzlies afloat. Matched up against Blake Griffin, a known enemy of his, Randolph will not need any more motivation to knuckle down and try to put up some special numbers to match his magical run against the Spurs two seasons prior.
Los Angeles Clippers
Do you want to guess what the biggest strength of the Clippers is? Maybe this will jog your memory. Or this. Or this, this or this. The Los Angeles Clippers are like the Harlem Globetrotters, except sharper, more precise and a lot more unforgiving. Taking the most springy power forward in the game, putting in the same frontcourt as DeAndre Jordan and then lining your bench with Eric Bledsoe seems like you’re specifically trying to match the Raptors’ dunking reserves. And then having Chris Paul and Jamal Crawford to dish dimes to them. This just isn’t fair.
The Clippers aren’t just strong at wowing audiences and embarrassing Detroit point guards, their high octane athleticism and transition game is pretty darn effective. While the Clippers would have to be disappointed their crosstown rival Lakers didn’t get their elderly list high enough to face them in the first round, they’ll take a Grizzlies team they went 3-1 against after knocking them out of the first round of the Playoffs.
Chris Paul has captained his squad to a brilliant 2013 that is capped by their top ten offense. Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and Jamal Crawford all averaging more points per game than Zach Randolph, the top scorer for Memphis and the Clippers run even deeper on the bench. Their offensive superiority is clear, but it is merely a question of whether its enough to surmount the Grizzlies defense.
What may get in the way of the Clippers’ march to the second round is the limited transitional opportunities that they’ll have. While they’ve proven to be good enough at the halfcourt game, it’s a shadow of their turnover-forcing, alley-oop throwing transition offense. If Memphis can ensure they remain sharp and clean with their ball handling, they’ll wipe away a lot of the Clippers’ easy scoring options and make life a lot harder for them.
The onus will fall upon the pickpocket guard duo of Eric Bledsoe and Chris Paul to make the most of the four steals they collectively snare on average. As adept passers, their steals will play crucial roles in getting the break started and finished. If the Grizzlies manage to slow the Clippers, it’ll force them to play a much more grinding game which we’ve seen before doesn’t suit L.A. Chris Paul, while a good jump shooter, takes a lot more of his shots off of drives and lay-ups, and the Clippers lack the consistent perimeter threats to make Memphis sweat a halfcourt game.
Players to watch
With Marc Gasol already the set alpha-male at the defensive end, Lionel Hollins is going to have to ask more of Zach Randolph at the offensive end. The veteran may not have another shot at a title, and he will want more than anyone else to win one as a member of the Grizzlies. A member of the notorious Jailblazers, then a part of those troubled Knicks, Randolph came into his own as a Grizzly and now has gone from a locker room disruption to a leader at the club. He thrived with Rudy Gay sidelined in the stirring upset of the top-seeded Spurs in 2011, but then looked out of sorts when his touches were split in 2012. Now, it’s back on his shoulders. Can he do it against Blake Griffin? The two had no issue getting into it during last season’s playoffs series, and then they mixed it up in a regular season encounter this year. If there’s one player sure to pick up a tech in the first round now we know neither Stephen Jackson nor Rasheed Wallace will appear, my money would be one of these two dudes.
For the Clippers, Jamal Crawford will be the key to driving them forward. Chris Paul is going to be elite, regardless of whether or not the Clippers play on their terms or Memphis’. Blake Griffin will catch alley-oops, DeAndre Jordan will be spectacularly unimportant in the scheme of things. But Jamal Crawford could either win or lose the entire series off of his sweet as candy handles. If he turns into the devastating offensive dynamo he started as at the start of season, the Grizzlies may have some issues. However, if Tony Allen can make him an absolute non-factor in the series, Vinny Del Negro would be feeling pretty nervous about his job security and the Clippers’ chances of advancing beyond the first round.
While the Clippers go from great to good when their transition offense is forced into a halfcourt grinder, good still beats average any day of the week. The Grizzlies made a bold move trading away Rudy Gay at the deadline, and it’s going to haunt them more than ever during this series when they look for a scoring option. Zach Randolph could potentially unload upon the Clippers, but the duo of Griffin and Jordan, with Turiaf and Odom providing support from the bench, should be enough to curtail Randolph’s influence. It won’t be easy, but the Clippers will prevail in 6.