The Los Angeles Clippers will play the Memphis Grizzlies in STAPLES Center Wednesday night with a whole lot riding on the game. We've said it before: in a season or 82 games, most are pretty interchangeable. If you lose no big deal, you can win the next one and move on. But a handful of regular season games each season rise above the din and actually mean something. This is one of those games.
First and most obviously, it will be for third place in the Western Conference standings. The Grizzlies play tonight in Portland, but even if they lose that game, they can retake third place by a few percentage points with a win over the Clippers. If they beat the Blazers tonight they can take the lead away from the Clippers outright.
Of course, being in third place in the standings in mid-March doesn't guarantee anyone the third seed in the postseason, but whoever wins this game will clearly have the inside track. The Clippers have a 2-0 lead in the season series at present, and a win tomorrow night would clinch the series and secure the tie-breaker for L.A. A Memphis win on the other hand would put the tie-breaker back in play, with the fourth and final game to be played in Memphis during the final week of the season. In that sense this game is a little like game six of seven game playoff series with the home team leading the series 3-2. Win and it's all over -- lose and you face the daunting task of winning on the road to achieve your goal.
(Note that the second tie-breaker is conference record, and the Clippers currently hold an edge there as well, 27-12 to 22-13. But if Memphis were to win both of the remaining games against the Clippers, it would tie the season series as well as handing L.A. two more conference defeats. At that point Memphis would have fewer conference losses and it would be out of the Clippers' hands -- they'd have to count on help from other Western Conference teams to win the tie-breaker against the Grizzlies. The Clippers by no means lose the tie-breaker if they lose the game Wednesday night -- but they'd be playing with fire. Remember that the tie-breaker is as good as an extra win in the final standings -- if the Clippers, then Memphis will have to pass them in the standings instead of just catching them.)
Memphis has won 12 of their last 13 games making them the second hottest team in the NBA right now behind the Miami Heat. This run has all happened since trading away Rudy Gay at the end of January and acquiring Tayshaun Prince. Memphis is 13-3 with Prince in the lineup. So that trade really helped them right? How can the Clippers ever hope to compete against the mighty Grizzlies?
What if I were to tell you that during the Grizzlies 12-1 run, the Clippers have actually been the better team?
You'll certainly recall that during the Clippers 17 game winning streak it was frequently noted that the level of competition was not the highest. Of those 17 wins, only seven came against teams over .500. Well, compared to Memphis' last 13 games, L.A.'s December schedule was a friggin' gauntlet. Of the Grizzlies' last 12 wins, only two have come against teams with winning records -- and one of those was against the slumping Warriors.
Of course, it's not their fault that the NBA happened to schedule a bunch of patsies for Memphis in February and early March. And confidence and momentum are real things, so winning 12 out of 13 can be huge boost to a team, regardless of the quality of competition. But the quality of competition has NOT been good. Ironically, the Grizzlies most impressive performance during their last 13 games may have been in their only loss, when they played the Heat close in Miami.
In their last 13 games the Grizzlies are 12-1. They have played three teams with winning records and are 2-1 in those games. Their opponents cumulative record is 348-476, a dreadful winning percentage of .422. Of the seven NBA teams other than themselves currently above .600, the Grizzlies have played one of them (and they lost). They have outscored their opponents by 113 points during that time, an average margin of victory of 8.69 points.
In their last 13 games, the Clippers are 10-3. They have played nine teams with winning records and are 6-3 in those games. Their opponents cumulative record is 429-396, a winning percentage of .520. Of the seven NBA teams other than themselves currently above .600, the Clippers have played five of them (they are 2-3). They have outscored their opponents by 127 points during that time, an average margin of victory of 9.77 points.
So the Grizzlies have a better record than the Clippers over each team's last 13 games; but they've done so against decidedly weaker competition, with a lower margin of victory. So which team is actually hotter?
Memphis is certainly not to be taken lightly. They are a formidable opponent, particularly on the defensive end. But nor should the Clippers be the least bit intimidated by their recent success. Memphis has just done what they were supposed to do, racking up nondescript wins against a series of teams more concerned with lottery odds than with winning games. The couple of times recently when they played a team that actually cared (Dallas, Portland) they dug big early holes for themselves and had to mount furious comebacks in order to win. As I said before, I'm more impressed with their loss in Miami than with any of their dozen wins.
The bad news for the Grizzlies is that all of those recent easy games are in their review mirror and the road ahead is much tougher. Of their remaining 21 games, 13 are on the road and 12 are against teams with winning records. The Clippers on the other hand have 17 games left, with eight on the road and and eight against winning teams.
Memphis has taken care of business against an easy schedule for the past six weeks. For the coming five weeks they'll have to earn it if they want to displace the Clippers from the third seed.