Well, I really don't think anyone saw that coming. Playing without Chris Paul on the road against a team that fancies itself a force to be reckoned with in the Western Conference, the Clippers never trailed after the midpoint of the first quarter and delivered a statement road win, 99-73.
There's not a lot of point going into the narrative of this game. The Clippers were far and away the better team, the Grizzlies looked deeply flawed in this game (though clearly they are not this bad, it was just one of those nights for them), and after a the Clippers opened the second quarter on a 9-0 run, it was never really a game. So let's go straight to the bullet points, shall we?
Here are some things I know without a doubt after this game:
- Depth is a good thing. Shocking, right? How many teams in the league can lose a player the caliber and importance of Chris Paul and replace him in the lineup with the freak of nature that is Eric Bledsoe? Or can slide Grant Hill into the second unit to take Bledsoe's rotation there? Bear in mind, this is all without Chauncey Billups as well. The Clippers, absent their best player and Billups, still played a 10 man rotation and their bench absolutely throttled the Grizzlies second unit. So yeah, depth is a good thing, and the Clippers have a LOT of it.
- Playmakers are a good thing. Prior to tonight's game, Hill had played six minutes this season, but from the moment he signed a free agent contract with the Clippers, the thought of having him on the floor with the likes of Lamar Odom and Jamal Crawford with the reserves (not to mention with Paul and Blake Griffin and the starters) has had Vinny Del Negro salivating. The strange thing about having Paul out was that it set up the Clippers to have a different type of killer second unit. With Crawford (6'6"), Matt Barnes (6'7") and Hill (6'8") playing the 1-2-3 and Odom at the 4, the Clippers were a big, versatile defensive unit. Barnes and Hill are both terrific perimeter defenders, who also have the ability to switch onto a big and hold there own. Basically, defensive units don't get a lot more versatile. And with Crawford, Hill and Odom all capable of initiating the offense on the other end, it's also a formidable scoring team that moves the ball like it's ticking. Hill had four assists in just 17 minutes, Odom had three from the power forward position. And when Crawford and Bledsoe were both resting in garbage time, who was it that ran the team? The 40 year old Hill, in his second game back. What a luxury to have playmakers all over the court.
- Memphis is NOT as good as the Clippers/Thunder/Spurs. OK, so it's not entirely fair to base this conclusion on one game. Teams play badly sometimes, and the Grizzlies clearly aren't really as bad as they were tonight. They shot just 30% from the field, and were missing their leading scorer Rudy Gay. It's safe to conclude that they are not deep enough to withstand an injury to either Gay or Mike Conley, because the choices in reserve are simply not good. (Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph are arguably more valuable, but at least there is some semblance of a fallback plan for those guys, with Marreese Speights and Darrell Arthur, who are both capable NBA bigs.) But this was a HUGE game for Memphis to re-assert themselves with the big boys in the west, and there's really no excuse for them being flat in it. Sure, finding out the Paul wasn't playing probably had an impact, but this was an embarrassing performance, and more or less confirmed what I already suspected -- they're going to have to battle Denver and Golden State for the fourth seed just to get home court advantage in the playoffs; they can forget about a top three seed.
- Eric Bledsoe is going to be a very good starting point guard in the NBA. In his first start since his rookie season, Bledsoe scored 14 points to go with four assists, three rebounds, three steals and a blocked shot. Perhaps most impressive of all, he had zero turnovers against the Memphis' pressure defense. He was able to break down his defender and get to the rim at opportune moments, and when he adds a reliable jump shot (he was scoreless on the perimeter in this game, but he'll get better) he's going to be a force. The freaky athleticism is one thing -- he had an offensive rebound over several Memphis bigs at one point and also game up with another one of his chase down blocks on Tony Allen -- but he also has a nice feel for the game. In the second quarter as Odom slipped a screen on the pick and roll Bledsoe hit him in the lane with a deft pass that went right past Randolph's ear. That's a pass that not many point guards can make, and shows that Bledsoe has been paying attention to the likes of Paul and Billups around him.
- The Clippers are now 4-1 against the Spurs, Grizzlies and Thunder, generally regarded as the best in the west, with two road wins, and the only loss coming in overtime on the road. By contrast the Spurs are 2-4, the Thunder are 2-2 and the Grizzlies are 2-3. The Clippers have lost three home games they shouldn't have lost -- but if they keep winning the big games, it really won't matter that they've been flat a few times.
Overall, while I was hopeful that the Clippers would win, and had an inkling that they could do so convincingly even without Paul, I did not see this coming. No Paul, Griffin limited to 15 first half minutes by foul trouble (and 25 minutes total by garbage) and yet they spanked the fourth best team in the West on the road. After the loss to Orlando, I said that splitting these two games would not be a bad result, and if you had to take a split, you'd rather have the win against the conference rival Grizzlies. Well, that's what they got, putting the Magic loss behind them. Now it's on to Houston, where they'll be playing on the second game of a back to back, but they're a fresh as a team can be after an easy win tonight, and even if they don't have Chris Paul, you have to like their chances against the Rockets.