The Back Story:
The Big Picture:
The Clippers opened their seven game road trip with an uninspired effort in Atlanta last night. If road trips are difficult because of the fatigue from extended travel and time spent away from home, then losing the first game of the trip is a very bad omen. There's no team that the Clippers would rather beat right now -- but also none that is more thoroughly inside the team's collective noggin -- than the Grizzlies, and Memphis will be a very difficult place to get their first win of this trip, even without the injured Marc Gasol. The Clippers will certainly have to make some shots from the perimeter -- the team missed 12 of their first 13 three pointers in Atlanta, and by the time they had made their second three, the game was already more or less decided. But they also have to play better defense, and generally play like they care. Sadly, this game has the potential to be very much like the final four playoff games last season, in which the Clipper wings were completely outplayed. J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley were brought in during the off season to shore up that weak spot, but Redick is hurt and Dudley has been underwhelming (presumably at least in part because he too is less than completely healthy). Starting Willie Green and Dudley doesn't feel like a remedy for the team's big issues last May. If Mike Conley outplays Chris Paul at the point again as he did a few weeks back in STAPLES Center, then the battle down low that everyone likes to talk about when these teams play may not even matter.
Memphis opened the season poorly under new coach Dave Joerger, and then just when it appeared that they had righted things on a 4-0 west coast trip (which included an impressive win over the Clippers) they lost Marc Gasol, their defensive anchor and arguably the most important player on the team. Since Gasol went out, they've lost three of five, though they are coming off an decisive win over Phoenix. Zach Randolph has missed the last few games also after surgery to remove an ingrown toenail, but he's expected to be back in time to face his old team and personal nemesis, Blake Griffin. The irony of the Grizzlies' disappointing start to the season is that many of their players have been statistically great -- Mike Conley and Tony Allen are having their best seasons by a pretty wide margin, and Randolph was looking like the monster of old before he got hurt. But the defense, second best in the entire NBA last season, has been far below average, and the Grizzlies have subsequently lost a bit of their edge and identity.
- The Questionable Blogger. For this edition of the Questionable Blogger, we turned to the readerships for questions. Chris Faulkner answered questions from the citizens of Clips Nation, while I answered questions from the readers of Grizzly Bear Blues.
- Comparison of key metrics. For all the talk of how bad the Clippers have been defensively, they are currently allowing 105.3 points per 100 possessions, compared to 105.2 per 100 for the Grizzlies. So these are two teams that really need to get their act together on the defensive end.
- Familiar foe. In the past 22 months, these two teams have played each other 21 times. The Clippers have won 11 of those meetings -- but the Grizzlies won the last five, including the four that mattered.
- No Gasol. Marc Gasol is a major loss for the Grizzlies, on both ends of the floor. He won the Defensive Player of the Year award last season, deservedly so, and he's a good a defensive anchor as their is in the league, shutting off the lane with his perfect positioning and high IQ. But he also helps run the Grizzlies offense, operating out of the high post, hitting that flat footed jumper or hitting Randolph with pinpoint entry passes. Koufos is a good backup, but Gasol's loss will hurt. Especially since DeAndre Jordan had little or no idea how to defend him.
- 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. But with Redick hurt and Dudley unimpressive so far as a Clipper, it doesn't feel like the Clipper wings will make a different in this one.
- Griffin vs. Randolph. The battle of this game will 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. Randolph went for 26 points and 15 rebounds on 10-16 shooting in the first meeting. With Z-Bo having just recovered from a surgery on an ingrown toenail, don't be surprised if Blake "accidentally" steps on his foot at some point.
- Koufos. I was not overly impressed with the Grizzlies trade for Kosta Koufos this summer; not because I don't think Koufos is a good player, but because he seemed redundant with their best player, Gasol, which would limit how much he could play. However, Memphis played Koufos and Gasol together for extended minutes in the first meeting between these teams, and now that Gasol is injured for awhile, having Koufos to step into the starting lineup is huge for Memphis.
- 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.
- 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 ... again dead last. Of course, the Clippers were supposed to have added shooting this summer, and it hasn't really worked out that way so far, though the loss of Redick is a big factor at present.
- 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.
- Tony Allen, Ninja warrior. I expected a technical foul or two, maybe a flagrant in the last game -- there was a flagrant, but not at all the one I expected. Allen made one of the more bizarre plays you'll ever see, and kicked Paul in the face trying to make himself big while defending a Paul drive. There's little doubt that the kick was unintentional -- even Allen's not a big enough jerk to kick a guy in the face on purpose -- but I felt like the Flagrant 2 call and resulting ejection was completely justified simply because it was such a potentially dangerous play. The NBA apparently agreed, as they subsequently suspended Allen for another game.
- 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:
Midsummer's Night Dream, Act II, Scene 1 -- Oberon
Having once this juice,
I'll watch Titania when she is asleep,
And drop the liquor of it in her eyes.
The next thing then she waking looks upon,
Be it on lion, bear, or wolf, or bull,
On meddling monkey, or on busy ape,
She shall pursue it with the soul of love:
And ere I take this charm from off her sight,
As I can take it with another herb,
I'll make her render up her page to me.
But who comes here? I am invisible;
And I will overhear their conference.