The Back Story (Clippers won the season series last season 3-1, Grizzlies won first round playoff series 4-2):
The Big Picture:
After 10 games, the Clippers are a more than respectable 7-3, and undefeated in five games at home. And they done that against the most difficult strength of schedule in the NBA this season. Unfortunately, the schedule doesn't get muhc easier -- not for awhile anyway. This coming weeks is absolutely brutal, including a road back to back against Minnesota and Oklahoma City, both seeking to avenge earlier losses. The second 10 starts tonight against the Memphis Grizzlies, the team that eliminated the Clippers from the postseason last year in four straight games. Those four Clipper losses came after the Clippers had won six of the previous seven meetings with Memphis -- so they were more than a little unexpected and disappointing. This is a different Clippers team, with better wing play, and another year of development from their bigs Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, both of who are putting up career best numbers through the first quarter of the season. The Clippers have a few problems, among them their defense and their bench. But their biggest problem might be their tendency to take certain opponents lightly and to play uninspired, unmotivated basketball against those opponents. They lost to the Lakers and Magic in such games, and allowed a Brooklyn team missing four starters to hang around the entire game Saturday night before the Clippers finally won. Memphis has had a poor start at 5-5 -- but this is Memphis. There will be no lack of motivation in this one.
Through eight games, the Grizzlies were 3-5, ranked in the bottom third of the NBA in defensive efficiency (their calling card as a contender the past few seasons) and had just lost at home to the Toronto Raptors by 16. For a team coming off an appearance in the Western Conference Finals, not exactly the start they wanted or expected. Maybe they were getting used to their new coach, Dave Joerger, who had been promoted to the job after Memphis fired Lionel Hollins for doing such a sucky job leading them to their best regular season record ever and their deepest playoff run ever. Maybe Joerger just wasn't up to the job, his first as a head coach. Maybe age was catching up with several key 30-something Grizz. Or maybe it was just a stretch of games where they didn't play well. On their current road trip, they're 2-0, the defense was great in Sacramento yesterday, and the 32-year-old Zach Randolph has been an absolute beast. It was premature to pronounce the Grizzlies dead after eight games, and it's premature to pronounce them completely back after a couple of wins -- but Grizzlies fan no doubt feel a lot better today than they did after that Raptors game. It should be noted however that road wins over the Lakers and Kings are a very different matter than a road win over the Clippers.
- The Questionable Blogger. I sent some questions to Chris Faulkner at SBNation's Grizzlies blog, Grizzly Bear Blues, in advance of the game, so be sure to read his answers.
- Comparison of key metrics. The Grizzlies went from 19th to 14th in defensive efficiency on the strength of a lockdown performance in Sacramento. That's actually been a big part of the Clippers problem from a statistical standpoint -- they've played some really good offensive teams and won, but when they've played the teams they should shut down, which would help their league-wide stats, that's when they've had no shows, as in the game against the depleted Nets on Saturday.
- Familiar foe. In the past 22 months, these two teams have played each other 20 times. The Clippers have won 11 of those 20 meetings -- but the Grizzlies won the last four, the four that mattered.
- False narrative. The narrative of the playoff collapse has always struck me as incorrect. The way the story goes in the media, the rough and tough Memphis bigs dominated the soft as tissue Clipper bigs so Memphis won. Certainly DeAndre Jordan was terrible in the series -- perhaps because Vinny Del Negro had systematically ruined his confidence over the course of the regular season. Griffin was fine until he got hurt before game 5. Besides, you absolutely expect the Memphis bigs to produce, because they're really good and the Grizzlies lean heavily on them. The real story of the series, the unexpected problem that doomed the Clippers, was that they were completely outplayed on the wings. Tayshaun Prince and Tony Allen absolutely dominated their matchups with Caron Butler and Chauncey Billups. It's the reason that the Clippers went out and got J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley.
- Jordan vs. Gasol. The battle of this game will be fought in the middle, with the new and improved DeAndre Jordan trying to contain Marc Gasol. Gasol is clever and will use a series of moves on Jordan, who has done a better job this season staying down. Where Jordan really struggles is against good interior passing and Gasol is one of the best. How Jordan handles Gasol's catches at 15 feet will be especially telling. Does he go for that flat footed shot fake? If he does, Gasol will eat him up.
- Griffin vs. Randolph. The battle of this game will REALLY be fought at the power forward between Blake Griffin and Zach Randolph. Randolph clearly doesn't like Griffin -- doesn't like him at all -- and these guys always play a very physical game with each other. Maybe Randolph doesn't like it that Griffin pushed him out of LA. Maybe he doesn't like it that Griffin jumps so high when Randolph has no ups at all. Whatever it is, it's going to be mean down there. Doc Rivers has Griffin facing up more, using his quickness, not trying to back guys down and overpower them as much. That might be a key adjustment against Randolph.
- Z-Bo waking up. Randolph had a relatively slow start to the season, but he is 20-30 on the trip, totaling 50 points against the Lakers and Kings. Against the Lakers, he looked like 2011 playoffs Z-Bo, scoring every big basket down the stretch in a variety of ways.
- Grizzlies offseason. Replacing Hollins with Joerger was weird, but not necessarily unexpected. Hollins is old-school and had clashed with the analytics-leaning new front office; Joerger was the up-and-coming assistant and architect of the vaunted defense. The Grizzlies then made a couple of personnel moves, notably signing Mike Miller to return to Memphis after he was amnestied in Miami. Memphis was one of the worst three point shooting teams in the league last season, so Miller's deep range is an important addition. They also traded Darrel Arthur to Denver for Kosta Koufos. Koufos is an advanced stats darling, so it's not overly surprising that Hollinger et al coveted him, and most people viewed it as a good trade for Memphis. I tended to like Arthur pretty well, and wonder how effective Koufos will be when he plays the same position as MEM's best player, Marc Gasol. They can't play Gasol and Koufos together -- not for long anyway -- so Koufos will be limited to back up minutes. They also picked up EuroLeague star Nick Calathes to back up Mike Conley at the point. It wasn't a spectacular off-season -- but they clearly set out to address specific needs (back ups at the 1 and 5, three point shooting) and we'll see how they did.
- Defending Paul. The Grizzlies have two excellent perimeter defenders in Mike Conley and Tony Allen. They will probably start the game with Conley on Paul, but will switch to Allen at some point. Sometimes I actually think that assigning those stopper types to Paul can backfire -- when he's aggressive and challenged is when he's at his best.
- Prince, Clipper Killer. In March 2009, after Billups had left Detroit and the Pistons were fully in decline, Tayshaun Prince led a starting lineup of himself, Will Bynum, Arron Afflalo, Antonio McDyess and Kwame Brown into STAPLES Center and beat the Clippers by 18. Prince had 23 points and a career high 12 assists. In fact, Tayshaun has exactly two games of 10 or more assists in his career, both coming against the Clippers. In March in his only meeting with the Clippers in a Grizzlies uniform, he scored 12 points in the first quarter, turning back the clock and looking like a go to scorer. He finished with 18, tying his Memphis high. In the playoffs, he scored 15, 15 and 11 in the last three Memphis wins, thoroughly outplaying Caron Butler; Prince failed to reach double figures in nine more playoff games. I see his numbers against other teams and wonder, what does he have against the Clippers? Is it an L.A. thing, straight outta Compton?
- Bad benches. The Clippers bench has been bad this season -- but the Memphis bench has been bad as well. Calathes, Pondexter and Bayless are all missing two thirds of their shots, and Ed Davis, who was supposed to be the prize of the Rudy Gay trade last season, is shooting 42% -- terrible for a power forward. This game may come down to which team can hold off a collapse when the starters go to the bench.
- Conley and Allen. The strange thing about Memphis' slow start is that several individuals on the roster are off to great starts. It's a bit misleading of course, because Memphis has always won on their defense, and defensively is where they've had their issues this season, while these are offensive numbers, but still, it's interesting. The backcourt of Mike Conley and Tony Allen in particular has been producing at career high levels. Conley is averaging over 19 points per game -- he's never averaged as many as 15 for a season. Allen's season is an even greater outlier -- a career .477 shooter from the field, he's at .569 so far this season. Weird.
- Back-to-back. Memphis is playing their second game in two days, but it's not your typical back-to-back. The Sunday game in Sacramento tipped at 3 PM, meaning the Grizz were able to get into LA at a reasonable hour and get a good night's sleep. Unless they went out partying all night, because it's LA. But that would be on them.
- Three point shooting. In a league that is continually placing more emphasis on the three point shot, the Grizzlies are a throwback to a team that pounds the ball into the post. Last season they were 30th in three point attempts per game, and in fact two teams (the record breaking Knicks and Rockets) each shot double the number of three pointers taken by the Grizz. So they went out and added Mike Miller in the off-season, and this year they are ... 29th. They are averaging one more three pointer a game, for what it's worth. The irony here is that three-point shooting is the first tenet of advanced stats types -- simple math tells you that the payoff on a three is higher, and lots of data has shown that more threes equate to more wins. There's a reason the league has been shooting more and more threes.
- No love lost. These teams don't like each other. Hard fought playoff series two years in a row will do that to teams, not to mention regular season games laden with playoff implications. 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, we can expect a couple of technical fouls and one flagrant, at least.
- Connections. Zach Randolph is a former Clipper who they traded to Memphis to make room for Blake Griffin after winning the lottery and drafting Griffin with the first overall pick in 2009. Tony Allen played for Doc Rivers in Boston, and was part of the 2008 championship team.
- Get the Memphis perspective at Grizzly Bear Blues.
- Shakespearean reference:
From fairest creatures we desire increase,
That thereby beauty's rose might never die,
But as the riper should by time decease,
His tender heir might bear his memory:
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed'st thy light'st flame with self-substantial fuel,
Making a famine where abundance lies,
Thyself thy foe, to thy sweet self too cruel.
Thou that art now the world's fresh ornament
And only herald to the gaudy spring,
Within thine own bud buriest thy content
And, tender churl, makest waste in niggarding.
. Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
. To eat the world's due, by the grave and thee.
No grizzlies appear in Shakespeare. The word 'bear' appears hundreds of times, though almost always as a verb. In fact, it appears in the very first sonnet.