Prior to the beginning of the first round NBA playoff series between the Memphis Grizzlies and the Los Angeles Clippers there were plenty of pundits who predicted the Grizzlies would win. This despite a lot of evidence suggesting the opposite, such as the fact that the Clippers won the playoff series between the two teams a year ago, won the season series three games to one this season and held home court advantage in the series.
There was plenty of rationale given for why the Grizzlies might win. As it happens most of it was too simplistic and failed to explain why the Clippers had consistently beaten the Grizzlies. Arguments such as "Defense wins in the playoffs" ignore the fact that the Grizzlies were the better defensive team last season yet failed to win. By that logic in fact, the Clippers should beat the Grizzlies worse this season since it is L.A., not Memphis, that has improved significantly on the defensive end as compared to last season.
But Grizzlies fans had a different argument that, if true, would address why this year the playoff series would be different: Zach Randolph. The reasoning goes that last season Zach was only a few months removed from surgery to repair a partially torn MCL and was far from fully healthy. With Randolph back to full strength, he would dominate the postseason the way he had in the 2011 playoffs, and the Grizzlies would overcome the Clippers.
Heading into the playoffs, that argument had a basic flaw: Randolph had given little indication through the course of the regular season that he was in fact back to his 2011 form.
While 2012 Playoffs Zach was indeed a shadow of 2011 Playoffs Zach, a fact that clearly helped the Clippers win the series last year, over a year removed from his knee surgery Randolph was still a far less productive player than he had been before the injury.
|2011 Season||2011 Playoffs||2012 Season||2012 Playoffs||2013 Season|
As you can see in the table above, measured by PER, Randolph's 2011 playoff performance was essentially the same as his 2011 season. That is to say, Randolph was third team All NBA that season and deservedly so -- he was a beast all season and then he beasted against San Antonio and Oklahoma City in the playoffs.
Randolph injured his knee in the fourth game last season. He missed two and a half months and returned to play 24 games at the end of the season. His PER for the season dipped below 18, and went down to 15 in the playoffs.
However, the idea that he'd be back to beast-mode for this year's playoffs didn't seem to square with his regular season production, which was identical to last season when measured by PER. (Note that while PER is far from a perfect measure when comparing two different players, it is very useful when comparing a player to himself, since the metric doesn't change and the player's style of play presumably doesn't change significantly.) The logical conclusion, looking at a 17.9 PER from his 28 games of the 11-12 season and a 17.9 PER from his 76 games of the 12-13 season was that this was the new normal for Z-Bo. He was 31, he had suffered a significant injury, he just wasn't going to be that All NBA player anymore. Sure he made the All Star team this season, but that seemed to be a team selection more than anything else, the voters feeling that a Grizzlies player deserved a spot -- a spot that frankly should have gone to Marc Gasol if we're honest.
Two games into this year's playoffs seemed to confirm the conclusion that Randolph just wasn't the same player he once was. Battling foul trouble, he averaged 13 points and six rebounds in the first two and his team was in an oh-two hole against their nemesis. Tom Ziller of SBNation and Kevin Lipe of Grizzly Bear Blues were openly asking the question of how the Grizzlies should proceed in the offseason, saddled with a non-superstar player being paid a superstar salary. Beast Z-Bo wasn't walking through that door.
And then he walked through the door.
Over the next three games, all won by Memphis not by accident, Randolph suddenly transformed back into the monster that carried Memphis to a shocking win over the Spurs in the first round two years ago. The man should pay property taxes on the right block because he owns it. He's averaged better than 25 points and 10 rebounds over the three Memphis wins while shooting over 55 percent from the field. His per 36 minute scoring has gone from 16.1 during the regular season to 21.9 during the playoffs, a 36 percent increase. His PER through five playoff games is 23.2, better than the 2011 playoffs, even including the first two games.
The Clippers are supposed to be a decent defensive team -- not elite by any means, but they did rank eighth in defensive efficiency on the season. But they have absolutely no answer for Randolph. Five different Clipper bigs have taken a turn on Randolph this series, and none of them can handle him. During the fourth quarter of the crucial Game 5, DeAndre Jordan, Ronny Turiaf and Lamar Odom all tried their best to stop the beast -- and he made five out of six shots to lead the Grizzlies to victory.
The Memphis defense is going to show up every night, but heading into the playoffs their glaring weakness was an unreliable offense. Without a go-to scorer on the court, the Grizzlies might struggle to score enough points to win regardless of how great their defense played. Well, that hasn't been a problem lately. In fact, Memphis has scored over 100 points in back-to-back playoff games -- they were 27th in the league in points per game at just over 93 during the regular season. With Chris Paul playing spectacularly, the Clippers offense was probably good enough to win Game 5 even with Blake Griffin hobbled -- but they never came close to getting a key stop, mainly because they couldn't handle Randolph.
For me, Randolph is the answer to most of the important questions about this series. What changed between Game 2 and Game 3 to turn the series? Zach Randolph. Why were the Clippers able to beat the Grizzlies in last year's playoffs but appear headed to defeat this year? Zach Randolph. Why does the Memphis offense suddenly look unstoppable? Zach Randolph.
The series isn't over. Maybe the Clippers can figure out a defensive scheme that can slow Z-Bo down. Maybe he's just had three hot games and he'll go cold in the last two. Maybe he's still post-knee-surgery Zach who just happened to have a string of good games that he can't sustain.
But if this is the return of Z-Bo and he's once again the guy we saw in the 2011 playoffs? Then the Clippers are toast, and the rest of the Western Conference is in big trouble as well.