I was dreading last night's game against the Grizzlies. Given the teams Memphis has been beating lately, I was afraid they might dominate the Clippers from wire-to-wire. As one of the two most likely playoff opponents for the Clippers, with the other being the Lakers, the thought of walking into a seven game series against a talented team peaking at the perfect time is not pleasant. The thought of losing home court advantage to that team in the last couple of weeks of the season is downright disturbing. The thought of getting embarrassed by them less than three weeks before the playoffs start is worst of all.
But you know what? Even though the Clippers lost the game, I came away from it arguably more confident that the Clippers could do fine in a playoff series against Memphis. They could certainly lose too, don't get me wrong. This is a good team and they play terrific defense. But watching the game last night, I felt that the loss was very much about the Clippers not playing well, having an off night for the first time in over two weeks essentially, as opposed to the Grizzlies being somehow unbeatable. Sure, Memphis' defense forced the Clippers into tough shots late in possessions on multiple occasions -- but even that was partly about some lackluster execution on offense. The Clippers just weren't sharp. Then, when they did get open looks, they missed them. Chris Paul was 7-17 in the game, and he had to make his last three shots to get to there. He opened the game 4-14, and the vast majority of the misses were very makeable shots. He missed an uncontested layup in the third for FSM's sake.
We've said all along that the perimeter shooters for the Clippers have to hit shots for the team to be effective. Randy Foye (5-17), Caron Butler (2-7) and Nick Young (0-5) combined to shoot 7 for 29 for the game. Those three made just 2 of 11 three pointers, while the Clippers as a team were 4 for 18. Again, the defense had some influence on these numbers -- but the biggest part was that these guys were ice cold.
When you consider that the Clippers shot just 40% for the game, that they were slower to the ball for whatever reason, that they simply didn't have their A-game last night, it's really pretty amazing that they were able to close to within three points in the final minute. It's entirely possible that this was not Memphis' best effort either -- I didn't watch their wins over Miami or Oklahoma City, but one presumes they must have played better in those games -- but my overall impression from last night's game is that the Clippers could certainly win a playoff series against that team. They'll have to hit perimeter shots, that much is certain, but that's pretty much true regardless of the first round opponent.
The key numbers I was looking for going into last night's game -- Clippers turnovers and Memphis three pointers -- were both very much in the range that would favor the Clippers. If you'd told me in advance that the Clippers would commit just 10 turnovers and that the Grizzlies would make just 4 threes, I would have said that the Clippers would win that game. So it's disappointing that they didn't get the W, given that they played well enough to win in those areas. But it's hard to win against anyone while shooting 40% from the field, regardless of what else you might do well.
The rebounding was probably the single biggest problem. The Clippers were outrebounded 48-36 overall. But the biggest problem was the number of offensive rebounds they allowed. Memphis shot 50% from the field -- AND grabbed 15 offensive rebounds. The Clippers only managed to get 22 defensive rebounds on Memphis misses. In other words, for the 50% of shots Memphis missed, they got another chance to score from an offensive rebound better than 40% of the time. More than anything, it was in the rebounding that you could see that the Clippers were simply not sharp. How many rebounds did Memphis steal from a better-positioned Clipper? How many did LA lose by simply being slow to react? How many from failing to box out? Obviously they would need to do a better job on the glass in another meeting with Memphis, but I see no reason to think that they wouldn't.
There's still lots of time left in the season. The Clippers, depending on how they play down the stretch, could easily finish third, fourth or fifth in the West. According to playoffstatus.com, they have 79% chance of finishing in one of those three spots. A lower finish is not out of the question, but not likely. The bad news is that given Memphis' favorable remaining schedule, they should probably be favored to overtake the Clippers in the standings. But L.A. controls their own destiny, and after tomorrow night's game in Oklahoma City, their remaining eight games include some tough ones (at Denver, at Atlanta, home to the Thunder, etc.) but nothing crazy. The first order of business for the Clippers is to return to the form of the last two weeks, and leave last night's lackluster performance in Memphis. Playoff matchups will be known soon enough.