Well here we are: the Clippers’ first playoff game in six years. I expected to be screaming my lungs out at Staples Center today, but an unfortunate late-season swoon dropped the Clips down to the 5th seed in the West, forcing them to travel to Memphis for the series opener. In what figures to be an unusually evenly-matched series, home-court advantage is critical. The Clippers took two out of three regular season games against the Grizzlies, with each team winning on its home floor. The Clippers will have to steal a game in Memphis to advance to the second round. Do the Clippers, a team starting three playoff virgins (Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Randy Foye), have the poise to win on the road against a team that made a deep run last postseason? Here are the key story lines in this series, as I see them.
-ClipsNation preview: Steve Perrin of ClipsNation wrote an outstanding series preview. Please read it now. It covers many of the points that I wanted to make. Thanks for saving me some work, Steve.
-Low Expectations: The Grizzlies have become a darling of the national media. Bill Simmons picked them to defeat the Clips in five games and advance all the way to the Finals. ESPN had its fifteen NBA experts predict the outcome of the series; only five picked the Clippers (two of those five experts, Arnovitz and Shelburne, are from LA and cover the Clippers). Will the Clippers, who have been under a media microscope from the minute Chris Paul arrived in town, thrive in the underdog role? As a Clippers fan, I’m glad that no one is picking them to win this series. With the exception of Chris Paul and maybe Mo Williams, the Clippers do not seem to handle pressure well. They are a fragile young team, and they are at their best when they play with a “nothing to lose” mentality. Blake Griffin in particular seems to be much more effective when he’s playing his aggressive, free-wheeling style; he has a tendency to become tentative in big moments. I think the low expectations will help the Clippers. Their best sustained stretch of play came after many had written them off. In mid-March, they were coming off a three-game losing streak when ESPN’s Chris Broussard reported that Vinny del Negro had lost control of the locker room and was on the brink of being fired. The Clippers responded by winning six straight games, and twelve of their next fourteen. Coincidentally, their first game after that ESPN report was a 16-point drubbing of the Grizzlies. Let’s hope they respond equally well to being written off this time.
-The “Streaking” Memphis Grizzlies: related to the point immediately above, let’s disabuse ourselves of this notion that the Grizzlies are “hot.” Yes, Memphis ended the season on a six-game winning streak. But those six consecutive wins came against Minnesota, NOLA, Charlotte, Portland, Cleveland, and Orlando. The first five teams on that list are either actively trying to lose (Minn, NOLA, Portland, CLE) or historically awful (CHA). The last team, Orlando, was missing Dwight Howard and resting the remainder of its starters. Despite the horrendous competition, the Grizzlies nearly blew several of those games. In fact, it took a furious fourth-quarter comeback to defeat the Bobcats. So let’s not get too caught up in the cliche that the Grizzlies are peaking at the right time.
-Same Same But Different: the Grizzlies and Clippers play two very different styles of basketball, but their net results are strikingly similar. The Grizzlies went 41-25 this year; the Clippers were 40-26. The Grizzlies outscored their opponents by 2.2 points per 100 possessions (104.0 to 101.8); the Clippers outscored their opponents by 2.8 points per 100 possessions. On a per-game basis, the Grizzlies’ average margin of victory was 2.0; the Clippers’ was 2.5. They reached these results in entirely different ways. The Clippers play at a plodding pace, the fourth-slowest in the league. They rely on half-court execution, boasting the fourth-most efficient offense in the NBA; a truly baffling stat to anyone who has witnessed Vinny del Negro’s offensive “sets.” Defense is, of course, the Clippers’ achilles heel. For most of the year, they languished in the bottom third of the league in defensive efficiency; a late-season surge brought them to a barely respectable 18th place finish in defensive efficiency. The Grizzlies, on the other hand, are a mediocre on offense (19th) and elite on defense (7th). They lead the league in turnovers forced at 17.1 per game. A huge key to this series will be the Clippers’ ability to control the ball. They were very good in the regular season at taking care of the ball (as CP3′s teams always tend to be), with the second-lowest turnover rate in the league.
-Tony Allen on Chris Paul: here’s one place where I disagree with Steven Perrin. Tony Allen absolutely can neutralize Chris Paul and force the other Clippers to make plays. I think Conley will guard Paul for most of the game, but I worry that Allen will draw the assignment in crunchtime. The Spurs effectively deployed this strategy by sticking the bigger Danny Green on Chris Paul in the fourth quarter of their February matchup; the Mavs did the same thing with Shawn Marion. Putting a bigger defender on Paul limits his ability to pull up for the mid-range jumper, and makes it harder for him to finish in the paint. Unfortunately for the Clips, they don’t have a big shooting guard who can make opponents pay for this strategy. If the Grizz switch Allen onto Paul, that will likely leave Conley guarding Randy Foye – not a matchup the Clippers can exploit.
-The Gasol-Jordan Mismatch: this is just about the worst matchup I could imagine for DeAndre. Gasol is everything Jordan isn’t: skilled, savvy, and cerebral. I expect Jordan to average about 0.5 fouls per minute trying to keep up with Gasol’s deft post moves. We’ll be seeing a lot of Kenyon Martin in this series, I suspect.
-Zoning Up? It might not be a bad idea for the Clippers to play a lot of zone defense. Three of the Clippers’ starters have no chance of stopping their man one-on-one: Jordan on Gasol, Griffin on Randolph, and, worst of all, Caron Butler on Rudy Gay. The Clippers can mitigate these mismatches by zoning up and forcing the Grizzlies to beat them from deep. The Grizzlies shot the third-fewest threes in the league this year, and converted just 32.6% of their attempts (25th in NBA). I’d rather take my chances with them bombing threes than watch Gasol carve up our interior defense.
That’s all for now. I expect to post on a near-daily basis throughout the playoffs, so please check back tomorrow for my post-game thoughts.
Game One Prediction: Clippers 103, Grizzlies 97.