Memphis Grizzlies VS. Los Angeles Clippers
Never in a million years could anyone have predicted this opening round playoff match-up 2 years ago. The Grizzlies and Clippers are contending with a generation’s worth of infamy. The addition of Chris Paul into the Clippers line-up at the corrupted behest of Stern & Co.™ has meant the Clippers are actually contenders. Not practice pretenders either. At certain points this season, they dominated the Thunder at home (I’m pretty sure Simmons wrote some effusive column about this, but I won’t bother you with a link here), and showed everyone why Chris Paul is a legitimate MVP candidate. He’s willed Blake Griffin to even more dunks and highlights (not to mention a solid 20 and 10 every night), but he can’t help Blake shoot free throws. And really, that’s what’s preventing the Clippers from being considered among the top tier teams. A series of chinks in an already shoddy piece of armor. They’re simply not ready—yet. DeAndre Jordan is still a nice shot-blocker, but little else; Reggie Evans has the @HoopIdea crew absolutely livid with flops and dirty play; Chauncey is gone; Caron Butler is a mediocre small forward under the veneer of a borderline all-star; Mo Williams hasn’t met a shot he didn’t like; same goes for Nick Young; Randy Foye is streaky even by streaky standards, able to go off for 8 3’s one night, and be held scoreless the next; Kenyon Martin is old and still takes ill-advised 17-footers; and Blake Griffin is still a liability at the end of games because of his free throw shooting. All of those weaknesses can be covered up by Chris Paul. If Chris Paul has it in him, he can win this series, almost entirely on his own.
The Memphis Grizzlies are a puzzle. They shocked everyone last year by advancing to the Western Semifinals after beating the top regular season team in the league, the San Antonio Spurs (a caveat to that series is Ginobili was hurt). Zach Randolph finally grew up, but still got into some trouble with the law, then went down with a knee injury almost as soon as this season started. Marc Gasol’s solid play and excellent help defense combined with Rudy Gay’s ascendancy to the player everyone wishes he would always be to keep the Grizzlies in the middle ranks of the Western Conference playoff picture throughout Z-Bo’s absence. Mike Conley is a dependable point guard, and OJ Mayo’s game has flourished coming off the bench. Tony Allen is the best perimeter defender not named—well no—he’s the best (sorry Andre Iguodala and ‘Bron). He can match-up well against any opposing scorer (Boston still wishes he were back in town). Plus, now the Grizz have had Z-Bo back long enough to get into the rotation; he’s coming off the bench to add offensive firepower to a second unit and to end games. Add all that up, and they’re going to be a tough out for anyone, even Chris Paul and the Clippers. This series—more than any other 1st round match-up—will be a fight. A fight to escape history; a fight against one another; a fight to finally bring some relief to long-suffering fans; a fight to ascertain who really has rebounded from decades of mismanagement and under-performance. It will be a fight, but Memphis will again advance. Unless Chris Paul does what—almost no one but Chris Paul—can do. I’m not sure his creaky legs are up to it after such a jam-packed regular season schedule.
In Head to Head this season - the Clippers won 2-1 (with Memphis winning their most recent game)
Grizzlies in 7
Game 1 - Sun. April 29, L.A. Clippers at Memphis, 9:30 p.m./6:30 p.m., TNT
Game 2 - Wed. May 2, L.A. Clippers at Memphis, 9:30 p.m./6:30 p.m., TNT
Game 3 - Sat. May 5, Memphis at L.A. Clippers, 4:30 p.m./1:30 p.m., ESPN
Game 4 - Mon. May 7, Memphis at L.A. Clippers, TBD
Game 5 * Wed. May 9, L.A. Clippers at Memphis, TBD
Game 6 * Fri. May 11, Memphis at L.A. Clippers, TBD
Game 7 * Sun. May 13, L.A. Clippers at Memphis, TBD
Would everybody understand me when I say that these two teams are perfect for each other? In a playoff contest, natch, not in some sort of 12-on-12 dating scenario, though Tony Allen would make a hilarious mature lover for Nick Young. No, I mean there’s a natural narrative that leads us to them facing off. Prior to the Chris Paul trade, the Grizzlies were poised to be “that team,” y’know the one that makes the big jump and becomes a serious contender before likely getting bumped by the clearly superior team in the Conference Finals (the Thunder, we agreed). The Clippers looked like the Clippers, a team with a fine bit of potential, some good pieces, and a superstar and possible icon in Blake Griffin.
Flash forward to after the trade. The Clippers suddenly look like the team to win it all. They have a proven field general in the form of Chris Paul. Chauncey Billups is no longer burdened with having to run plays, instead getting to be the shoot-first guard he’s wanted to be for some time. DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin just have to catch some alley-oops, and Caron Butler fills in the blanks, one of the best high-end utility guys in the game. Shortly after starting the season started, Zach Randolph went down. The Grizzlies seem poised through another season of “if they were only healthy” and a 7 or 8 seed.
But something funny happened. Not haha funny, just “oh what a crazy world” funny. The Clippers, instead of being helmed by Blake Griffin, became Chris Paul’s team. Griffin became a bullet for Paul’s gun, while Billups bit the dust in seconds flat. DeAndre didn’t totally live up to the hype, and Randy Foye got 25 minutes a game. Throw in the wacky Nick Young and “Random Veteran X” Kenyon Martin, and the Clippers made for a still-impressive 4-seed, with a bright future if they dump Vinny Del Negro and convince Chris Paul to stick around.
Meanwhile in Memphis, Rudy Gay stopped being just a rich man’s Danny Granger, Marc Gasol kept getting big minutes, and handled them nicely. Randolph returned from injury to become a bench savant, Tony Allen remains the emotional core, and Marreese Speights became a basketball player. They now seem to be that “team to watch out for” in the playoffs, but with the shaky state of the Western Conference, there’s now title talk for the Grizz.
There’s two match ups to watch out for with three supplying X-factors. First, the battles between the big men on this team will be DIRTY. Lots of scrapping for rebounds, and even more scrapping for paint control offensively. It’ll be a real test for for DeAndre and Blake to see if they can handle themselves against the bruising up court in Memphis. The other matchup will be between Michael Conley and Chris Paul. A level of domination is expected from Paul, but Conley has looked DAMN good at times this season, and if he can even hold his own against Paul, maybe even win a few battles, then his stock is gonna rise in a big way, and the Grizz will benefit. From this battle though is one of the X-Facors, and that’s Chris Paul’s health. Yes, I know, he’s been healthy so far, but knowing how he’s gonna kick it up for the playoffs, there’s a genuine risk for implosion, and to be honest, if Paul’s gone, the Clips definitely lose this series.
The second X-Factor is coaching. For all the Grizz success, Hollins has only gotten a couple kudos here and there. I was originally surprised he wasn’t heard about more for Coach of the Year, but then I remembered that if you have a team with OJ Mayo, Gay, Randolph, and a Gasol, you better have a nice spot in the playoffs, or you got problems. But Hollins is a smart coach and knows how to manage his guys. The same cannot be said for
Chris from The Sopranos Vinny Del Negro. Look, Vinny has no business being a head coach. He just doesn’t. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. I remember Twitter blowing up with jokes when ESPN showed him drawing up a play. Can you name a coach so obviously incompetent to the naked eye? Shit, that award might go to a former Clippers coach, the infamous Freddy Kruger Mike Dunleavy. If this series is going to seven games, and I think it will, then clutch play AND clutch coaching will be a factor, and I think the Grizz have the advantage in the latter.
The third X-Factor is going to be Rudy Gay’s consistency. Rudy’s absence from the playoffs last year may have been the reason the Grizzlies didn’t get further, but he was also cited as the reason they got so much better in the first place, and his presence would disturb the hot streak the Grizz were on. This season, it’s been a different tune. Rudy’s been on point all year, finally learning to take advantage of his size and grab some boards in Randolph’s absence while maintaining his bucket output. This is Rudy’s first postseason, and if he can turn it on, then the Grizz will be moving on.
Grizzlies in 7