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Clippers-Grizzlies preview: It's about to get real

The Clippers begin a stretch of 15 of their next 19 games on the road with a showdown against the Grizzlies in Memphis. Both of these teams would like to be considered the "next" up and coming West power, but they can't both be.

Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE
2012/2013 NBA Regular Season

January 14th, 2013, 5:00 PM
FedEx Forum
Prime Ticket, KFWB 980 AM
Clippers Tickets
Probable Starters
Eric Bledsoe Chris Paul PG Mike Conley
Willie Green SG Tony Allen
Caron Butler SF Wayne Ellington?
Blake Griffin PF Zach Randolph
DeAndre Jordan C Marc Gasol
Advanced Stats (through January 13)
92.0 (10th of 30) Pace 89.3 (28th of 30)
110.3 (4th of 30) ORtg 105.0 (13th of 30)
101.2 (4th of 30) DRtg 99.6 (2nd of 30)
Chris Paul (knee) out
Rudy Gay (funeral) out
Chauncey Billups (ankle) out
Quincy Pondexter (sprained MCL) out
Trey Thompkins (knee) out

The Back Story:

The Big Picture:

Way back in the first game of the season the Clippers met the Grizzlies in the first installment of the rematch of their epic first round playoff series last season. The Clippers won that game, but these teams have taken turns owning the NBA by month since that first game. The Grizzlies, after their October loss to the Clippers, went 12-1 in November to grab the best record in the NBA at the time. The Clippers, not to be outdone, went 16-0 in December. The bottom line is, these are two up and coming teams, with lamentable franchise histories, who would love nothing more than to really break through in the playoffs this season. Unfortunately for the, they have to contend with each other and with the likes of Oklahoma City and San Antonio (not to mention a handful of other really good teams) just to get out of the Western Conference this year. Both teams are coming off bad losses on Saturday -- the Clippers lost at home to the struggling Magic while the Grizzlies were blown out in Dallas -- so both teams could really use this win. If the Clippers can win this one they will take a commanding 2-0 lead in the season series.

The Antagonist:

After ripping through November with 12 wins in 13 games, the Grizzlies then lost half of their 14 games in December. They've since bounced back some, winning five of their seven games in January. This team was scary last year, but they seem to be even better this year. Although they will be missing Rudy Gay in this game as he attends his grandmother's funeral, this is the first time in three seasons that starting forwards Gay and Zach Randolph have been fully healthy at the same time. It gives them perhaps the most imposing front line in the NBA, and one of the best starting lineups. Along with center Marc Gasol and guards Mike Conley and Tony Allen, the Grizzlies starters are as good as any team in the league. They don't get a ton off of their bench (though the return of Darrell Arthur from a second consecutive serious injury gives them a big boost) but with starters this good, you don't have to have a lot off the bench (just ask the Heat). The Grizzlies are winning with smothering defense this season. Their guards pressure the ball and their bigs clog the lane and they're not afraid to rough people up. The loss of Gay is a big blow to their chances in this game though, partly because his backup, Quincy Pondexter, is also out. Without another true small forward on the roster, the Memphis rotation will be a bit scrambled tonight.

The Subplots

  • No Paul. [Note by Steve Perrin, 01/14/13 12:09 PM PST ] The Grizzlies will be without leading scorer Rudy Gay, attending his grandmother's funeral, but more importantly the Clippers will be without their best player, Chris Paul, who is resting a sore knee he suffered in a collision late in the loss to Orlando. Without Paul, Eric Bledsoe will get the start. Bledsoe has had some big games this year, but this is the first time he'll be asked to run the first unit. He'll also likely need to play huge minutes, as Vinny Del Negro is not likely to want to spend much time with either Willie Green or Jamal Crawford running the point. The good news is that the Clippers still go 10 deep even without Paul with the return of Grant Hill. The bad news is that rotations and roles will be more than a little scrambled.
  • Viewing Party. Don't forget that we'll be meeting at the Hooter's in Santa Monica to watch this game. Wear Clippers gear to get 20% off food and merchandise.
  • Comparison of key metrics. Both of these teams have made significant strides from last season (when their numbers indicated they were good teams) to this season (when their numbers clearly put them in the elite category). The Clippers were also efficient on offense, but have made a major jump on defense all the way up to fourth in the league. The Grizzlies are better on both sides of the ball than they were last year, and trail only the Pacers in defensive efficiency so far this season.
  • Good month, bad month. The Grizzlies might be a cautionary tale for the Clippers. After ripping through November at 12-1, they played .500 ball in December, 7-7. Guess what? The Clippers were 16-0 in December and are just 3-3 in January so far. Given the number of road games on the schedule, a .500 record in January might be a real possibility for the Clippers in January. But it would certainly indicate that they don't really belong in the super-elite group with Oklahoma City and San Antonio. What happened to Memphis in December, more than anything, just indicates that NBA teams ebb and flow -- sometimes everything is clicking and really going well, and other times it's more of a struggle. Continuing to win at a steady rate when it gets hard is the mark of the truly great teams.
  • The long and winding road. This three game road trip to Memphis, Houston and Minnesota is just the beginning. Starting tonight the Clippers play 15 of their next 19 games away from home, a stretch that will take them to the All Star break. They also have six back to backs in that stretch, beginning with Houston tomorrow night. So yeah, January and the start of February could be rough. As of today, the Clippers have had the most home friendly schedule in the league, with 22 home games compared to 15 road games. They also have the second best road record in the league, so the road is not an impossible place for this team. But still, the next month will be brutal. The sheer pace of games -- 19 games in 32 days from Jan. 14 to Feb. 14 -- is ridiculous.
  • Bench strength. These are both strong teams, but there's little question that the Clippers enjoy a distinct advantage off the bench. The Clippers are first in the league in minutes played from reserves and second to the Spurs in bench scoring. The Grizzlies on the other hand are 27th in minutes and 28th in scoring. The Grizzlies allowed their top bench scorer from last season, O.J. Mayo, to leave in the summer via free agency and meanwhile their big free agency signings were Jerryd Bayless and Wayne Ellington, two former first round picks who have not yet panned out in the NBA.
  • Aggressive Paul. If Chris Paul has a weakness as an NBA player, it may be that he is too deferential, too interested in getting his teammates involved, when in fact he is often the Clippers best option on offense. In a close loss on Saturday, Paul took only five shots in the second half, with most of those being perimeter jumpers. He didn't look to penetrate into the lane until it was too late. On the road at the start of a road trip against a good team, the Clippers will have to have an aggressive CP3 to win this game.
  • Defending Paul. Heading into last season's playoff series, much was made of the idea that Allen would be able to defend Paul. Allen is a tremendously good defender, but he was not particularly effective against Paul, and I'm not convinced Paul is a good matchup for him. Allen uses a combination of quickness and strength to lockdown scoring wings, but Paul is too clever to allow Allen's strength to be a factor, and is very adept at baiting Allen into committing fouls. Conley on the other hand did a fine job on Paul in the playoffs. Then again, after the disappearing act that Paul pulled on Conley in the first meeting this season, they may not have any answer.
  • Starter minutes. Of course if you don't play your bench much, it follows that you play your starters a lot. Memphis doesn't ride their horses quite as hard as some teams, but their top four scorers are all averaging over 34 minutes per game. The Clippers on the other hand don't have a single player averaging that many minutes, and only two (Chris Paul and Blake Griffin) playing over 30 minutes per game.
  • Gay out. At first glance it may seem like a huge break for the Clippers that Memphis' leading scorer Rudy Gay is out for this game, and in light of Pondexter's injury and Memphis' current lack of depth on the wing, it may indeed be true. However, don't forget that the Grizzlies had an incredible run at the end of the 2011 season and into the playoffs while Gay was hurt. With less confusion over the focus of the offense, Memphis ran everything through Randolph and upset the Spurs in the first round of the playoffs in 2011. They know how to play without Rudy, and in some ways may be more dangerous.
  • Healthy Hill. Grant Hill played six minutes for the Clippers in the loss to Orlando on Saturday and will presumably be worked into the lineup more and more as the season progresses. It presents a challenge though for a team that had established an identity for their second unit and was having lots of success. Presumably the preferred second unit will eventually be Bledsoe and Crawford in the backcourt, Barnes on the wing, Hill at power forward and Odom at center, replacing the traditional big Ronny Turiaf with the smaller but much more versatile Hill. In theory it's a killer lineup, with Barnes, Hill and Odom switching onto anyone on the floor, including point guards, and trapping the ball at every opportunity. In practice, the team looked out of sort in the fourth quarter Saturday with this lineup on the floor, as they began to adjust to a different dynamic. The smaller lineup may not work against every opponent either -- for instance, as much as Memphis plays their starters, you certainly wouldn't want that lineup to have to try to match up with Gasol and Randolph.
  • Conley and Bledsoe. In the first round playoff series last year, Eric Bledsoe gave absolute fits to Mike Conley. Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro has been very hesitant to play Bledsoe with Chris Paul this season (much to my chagrin given that it means Willie Green gets about as much burn as the far more productive Bledsoe) but this might be a game to deviate from the norm. Bledsoe was a difference maker defending Conley last May and I'd like to see it in this game.
  • Three point shooting. The Clippers have at times had difficulty defending the three point line this season, and 11 threes played a major role in their loss to Orlando Saturday. The Grizzlies though are 29th in the NBA in three pointers attempted and made, so it likely won't be a major concern tonight. With Gay and Pondexter out, Conley, Ellington and Bayless are the only players even likely to attempt a three. Assuming Ellington gets the start for Gay, that does change things a bit, as almost half of his field goal attempts this season have come from beyond the arc and he's made 41 percent from there, so he's someone the Clippers should stay up on.
  • Home court advantage? The advantage is certainly more pronounced in the regular season, when travel schedules are tighter, but the Clippers have plenty of justification to be confident playing in Memphis. During the playoffs last year, with the Grizzlies holding home court advantage, the Clippers won games 1 and 7 in Memphis to take the series. Game 1 of course featured the epic comeback that is among the most amazing games in NBA playoff history. The Clippers also have the second best road record in the NBA this season at 10-5.
  • No love lost. These teams don't like each other. Hard fought seven game playoff series will do that to teams, but they do NOT like each other. Randolph in particular seems to have a real beef with Blake Griffin and will take every opportunity to rough him up. How the Clippers handle the Grizzlies physical nature -- and perhaps more importantly, how the refs call the game -- will be a big factor tonight. If the refs allow a lot of pushing and shoving, then advantage Memphis. Either way, expect a couple of technical fouls and one flagrant, at least.
  • Out-grizzling the Grizzlies. The Grizzlies made their defensive reputation last season by coming up with steals and forcing turnovers, leading the league in both of those categories. However it is the Clippers who lead the league in both steals and forced turnovers this league. The Grizzlies, who play at one of the slowest paces in the league and are therefor at a disadvantage in raw numbers, remain second to the Clippers in turnover percentage. The team that does a better job of protecting the ball tonight will be at a major advantage.
  • Get the Grizzlies perspective at Straight Outta Vancouver.
  • Lyrical reference:

    Don't Sit Down 'Cause I've Moved Your Chair -- Arctic Monkeys

    Break a mirror
    Role the dice
    Run with scissors
    through a chip pan fire fight

    Go into business
    with a grizzly bear
    But just don't sit down
    cause I've moved your chair

    The age old complaint with any band is that all of their songs sound the same. I think that's a valid complaint about Arctic Monkeys. They have a very distinctive sound that can start to feel a big monotonous. But it's still a cool sound, even if you can only take it in small doses.