The Los Angeles Clippers roared out of the gate tonight, using first quarter runs of 9-0 and 11-0 to build a 16 point lead at 29-13 over the Memphis Grizzlies. But when Rudy Gay banked in a half court shot at the end of the quarter (the Clippers really need to work on their half court shot defense, this is happening too much) it seemed to shift the momentum to Memphis, as they went on a 15-0 across the quarter break to cut the lead all the way down to a single point just three minutes into the second quarter. And the game was close the rest of the way.
Give the Clippers credit. They took a body blow from Memphis when they lost that lead, but they never panicked. Memphis was able to grab the lead a few times, but the Clippers always responded, and eventually LA took control down the stretch for a 98-91 win.
Memphis did what they do to get back into the game. They played pressure defense and forced turnover after turnover. The Clippers, who've been one of the most reliable teams with the ball this season, committed 13 first half turnovers which is way too many. A helter skelter first quarter masked the issue a bit. Memphis matched the Clippers turnover for turnover (each team had seven). But the Clippers were making 63% of their shots to 33% for the Grizzlies, so no it was easy to ignore the turnover problem. When Memphis started making some shots while continuing to force multiple turnovers, the game got close. As I pointed out in the preview, that's what they do; that's how they win. The Clippers took a one point lead into the locker room at halftime.
The big issue, the thing they needed to straighten out, was to take care of the ball. Guess what? The Clippers turned the ball over just three times in the second half (and one of those was a bad call, as Blake Griffin was called for rebounding an airball, when the ball clearly hit the backboard). Limit the turnovers against Memphis, win the game - it's as simple as that.
Blake Griffin had a big night with 20 points, 9 rebounds and 8 assists, but it was Mo Williams off the bench who carried the Clippers late. Mo scored half of his 18 points in the fourth quarter, and also gave Memphis a taste of their own medicine with four steals. He was the closer tonight, and frankly it's a good role for him.
Chris Paul finished with 18 points, 7 assists and 7 rebounds, and was big in the fourth as well. In the preview I focused some on Tony Allen, whom I consider to be the best perimeter defender in the NBA. The Grizzlies had an issue down the stretch -- do you put Allen on Paul, or do you put him on Mo? He started out on Mo, but when Mike Conley picked up his fifth foul, he switched to Paul. Unfortunately for Allen, even he was really no match for Paul, who struggled from the field again (just 3 for 11), but time and again kept his dribble alive in tight spots, made plays and drew fouls (he was 10 for 11 from the line in the game). In the final five minutes, when the Grizzlies dialed up the defense and points were at a premium, Paul made three free throws, found DeAndre Jordan on a lob and hit a floater in the lane. He's clearly still rusty from the layoff, but he's still awfully good.
This was a good solid win against a dangerous team. The Clippers never trailed by more than two points the entire night, and invariably regained the lead immediately when they did fall behind. By my count Memphis only had the lead and the ball twice after the first minute of play. That's how you beat teams. You keep them down. You respond to their advances.
The Clippers need to work on a few things, that much is clear.
- They need to stop giving away leads. Clearly this is a difficult thing to do in the NBA, as opponents are almost always going to make a run at you. But the Clippers have jumped out to big first quarter leads in seven of their last eight games. In six of those games, they allowed the opponent to climb back into the game, and they actually lost two of them, and almost lost a third. Obviously, some of this comes from having a very sub-par second unit, but it needs to get better. If that means acquiring more depth, then it needs to happen, but a 16 point lead in the first quarter needs to result in more easy wins, rather than these nail biters.
- They need to start winning on the road. Now, let's caveat that with the disclaimer that the Clippers have lost to some of the strongest home teams in the NBA this season. The Spurs (10-1 at home), Blazers (8-1), Jazz (8-3), and Lakers (10-2) are all among the top 10 home records in the league, and it doesn't get any easier in the short term with the next to road games in Denver (6-2 at home) and back in Utah again. It's more than likely that the road record will start looking better when they start playing in Washington and Cleveland and Charlotte, but they need to find the energy to play well on the road as well. The 9-2 home record is terrific, but they've got a lot of road games looming.
- They need to be more consistent on defense. The defense was very good in stretches tonight, and has been better lately than at the start of the season. But there's plenty of room for improvement. For the most part, it seems like a question of effort -- when the Clippers work hard on the defensive end, they do fine. But they seem to lose focus and lose interest far too frequently.
A few more random thoughts:
We suspected that Griffin might have a big game against Marreese Speights, but we were wrong. Speights picked up three fouls in 8 first half minutes and didn't get off the bench in the second half. Memphis coach Lionel Hollins decided to go small and defend Griffin with Rudy Gay, a strategy we haven't seen before. When I watch Griffin face the length of Pau Gasol one night, and the the quickness of Rudy Gay the next, I just think about how much better he's going to be in a couple of seasons. He's great now, don't get me wrong. But 98 games into his professional career, it takes him awhile to recalibrate for a new defender, to realize where his advantage lies and how to attack. It won't be much longer before that's just second nature to him.
Hollins kind of played into Vinny Del Negro's hand by going small. The Clippers' bench depth is almost exclusively on the perimeter, and with Allen playing small forward, VDN was able to give most of his bench minutes to Williams (30 minutes) and Randy Foye (17), who represented all of LA's bench scoring. Reggie Evans was relegated to just 8 minutes tonight, as both Caron Butler and Ryan Gomes played some power forward.
Announcers really make me laugh sometimes. At one point while talking about Josh Selby, Dick Stockton said that Selby had only recently moved up in the point guard rotation. "Jeremy Pargo got the call early in the year mostly because of his experience." That makes a lot of sense, except that Pargo, like Selby, is an NBA rookie. Pargo is older, but I hardly think that's what he meant. Stockton was no doubt thinking about Jeremy's older brother, Jannero Pargo currently of the Hawks, who does have quite a bit of NBA experience. But the only NBA experience Jeremy had before this season started was in the summer league.
You ever play pickup basketball with that guy who's all elbows and knees? He'd a little gawky, and he's a good player, but for some reason he's always catching someone with an elbow, or getting a finger in someone's eye. He doesn't mean to, but that's just how he is. Marc Gasol is that guy. On two key plays in the fourth quarter, first he caught Blake with a forearm to the chin, then he slapped DeAndre in the face. In neither case was a foul called, and I'd be more upset about it had the Clippers not scored on both of those possessions.
I've got a new pet peeve in the NBA -- when teams want to run off a made basket, players often don't actually get out of bounds before passing the ball in, and that's just not legal. After a Blake Griffin dunk, Gasol took the ball out of the net and inbounded as he was moving towards the baseline. But he didn't get there, and didn't really even get very close. I've seen this a lot this season. Most of the time a player is jumping over the base line and passes the ball before they land, which is illegal, but less egregious and easier to miss. On this play, Gasol was clearly still standing in bounds when he made the pass, only getting out of bounds long after the ball had left his hands. It was a big play too, as the refs called a flagrant foul on Caron Butler and the Grizz got two free throws and the ball.
I was digging the LA Stars unis. The Memphis Tams? Not so much. Unfortunately the AP database doesn't have any photos for me yet, so I can't feature them here.