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Clippers-Grizzlies preview: The dreaded, red-hot Grizz

Third place in the Western Conference is on the line tonight when the Clippers host the red-hot Grizzlies.

Spruce Derden-US PRESSWIRE
2012/2013 NBA Regular Season

March 12th, 2013, 7:30 PM
Prime Ticket, KFWB 980 AM, KWW 1330 AM
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Probable Starters
Chris Paul PG Mike Conley
Chauncey Billups SG Tony Allen
Matt Barnes SF Tayshaun Prince
Blake Griffin PF Zach Randolph
DeAndre Jordan C Marc Gasol
Advanced Stats (through games of March 10)
91.7 (16th of 30) Pace 88.9 (28th of 30)
110.1 (5th of 30) ORtg 104.8 (18th of 30)
102.7 (7th of 30) DRtg 100.0 (2nd of 30)
Caron Butler (elbow) out
Darrell Arthur (back) questionable
Eric Bledsoe (calf) doubtful

Jamal Crawford (ankle) probable

Trey Thompkins (knee) out

The Back Story:

-- October 31, 2012 in Los Angeles | Clippers 101, Grizzlies 92 | Recap | Box Score

-- January 14, 2013 in Memphis | Clippers 99, Grizzlies 73 | Recap | Box Score

    The Big Picture:

    The Clippers have been playing great basketball since Chris Paul returned from a knee injury, except when they have faced the elite teams of the league. They have four losses in the last five weeks, against the Heat, the Spurs, the Thunder and the Nuggets in Denver. So the question for tonight is, do the Grizzlies qualify as elite or do they not? The Clippers are 2-0 against the Grizzlies this season, and neither game has been particularly close. But the Grizzlies are red-hot right now, having won 13 of their last 14 games. The Clippers will likely be playing without two key players, starting small forward Caron Butler (elbow) and backup point guard Eric Bledsoe (calf). In addition to Butler and Bledsoe, Jamal Crawford is recovering from a sore ankle, but he'll likely play. Fortunately the Clippers have the depth to withstand these sorts of injuries, and will simply rely more heavily on Matt Barnes, Grant Hill and Chauncey Billups tonight. The Clippers need to take care of the ball, withstand Memphis' defensive pressure, and play solid interior defense against the Memphis bigs. If they do those things, they should notch their third win over Memphis of the season and stake their claim to third place in the Western Conference.

    The Antagonist:

    The Grizzlies spent the month of January trading away salary in order to avoid paying the luxury tax. First they jettisoned rotation players Marreese Speights and Wayne Ellington for nothing, and then said goodbye to leading scorer Rudy Gay in a three-team deal that landed them Tayshaun Prince and Ed Davis. The team is 14-3 with Prince starting at small forward, so they've certainly weathered the losses. But although they've won 13 out of 14, it may be too early to declare the trades an unmitigated success -- the competition during their hot steak has been less than stellar and they only have two wins against teams with winning records since the big trade. They may yet miss Gay when they need a basket in a close game. The good news about the Gay trade is that it removes any doubt about the team's identity. For the last few seasons, the Grizzlies seemed to play better when either Gay or Randolph was hurt -- when their top two scorers were both healthy, they didn't mesh well and the team seemed unsure what it wanted to do offensively. Now there's no confusion: this team is built around their defense and their bigs, and they have little or no interest in scoring from the perimeter. In a win over the Blazers last night, 37 of 76 field goal attempts came from Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Ed Davis, their big man rotation, who accounted for 53 of their 102 points. The Grizzlies run much of their offense through Gasol, who is an excellent passer at the high post, and they also like to isolate Randolph. But where they win games is on the defensive end, boasting the second best defensive efficiency in the league.

    The Subplots

    • Comparison of key metrics. The Grizzlies trail only the Pacers in defensive efficiency so far this season. However, they no longer lead the league in steals and turnovers forced as they did last year. That honor now belongs to the Clippers. The Grizzlies are second in defensive turnover percentage.
    • Which team is hotter? While the Grizzlies have now won 13 out of 14, they've done so against very weak competition, and there's evidence to suggest that the Clippers have been just as hot if not hotter over the last month or so.
    • Standings. The Clippers and Grizzlies could scarcely be closer in the standings without being tied. The Clippers have played three more games than Memphis, and have two extra wins and one extra loss. Memphis has the ever-so-slightly better winning percentage, .694 to .692 -- two tenths of a percent. But Memphis has 13 road games on their remaining schedule while the Clippers have just nine, so the Clippers have the advantage there heading down the stretch. The winner of tonight's game of course takes over sole possession of third place in the conference, at least for the time being.
    • Z-Bo. Grizzlies leading scorer Zach Randolph turned his ankle against Miami at the beginning of March. He missed four games (all Memphis wins) and returned last night in Portland, scoring 19 points on 8-13 shooting.
    • Depth. We've discussed on several occasions the "first world problem" the Clippers have of having too much depth. Since Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill have gotten healthy, Vinny Del Negro has had to juggle minutes among 13 players who have all been a regular part of the rotation at some point this season. Well, it may be a minor inconvenience when everyone is healthy, but we see clearly that it is a good problem to have when people miss games. The Clippers were missing arguably their two most important bench players on Sunday and it didn't matter a bit, as Billups and Willie Green stepped in for Crawford and Bledsoe. Butler and Bledsoe will be out tonight, but Barnes is more than capable of stepping in as the starter for Butler, and Hill is ready to back him up. Meanwhile, Billups will get another chance to play point guard, and with his minutes restrictions being gradually loosened, Del Negro could go with a three guard rotation assuming Crawford is ready to return. Bottom line: the Clippers played some of their best basketball with Billups and Hill hurt, so they are certainly compete at a top level with those two stepping in for Bledsoe and Butler.
    • 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 Mavericks in bench scoring. The Grizzlies on the other hand are 27th in minutes and 26th in scoring. The Grizzlies allowed their top bench scorer from last season, O.J. Mayo, then turned around and traded away Speights and Ellington, two key reserves on this season's team. Davis, the young power forward they got from Toronto in the Rudy Gay trade, is a nice piece as is Darrell Arthur, but Jerryd Bayless and rookie Tony Wroten are big question marks as the second string backcourt.
    • More on benches. The Grizzlies leading scorer off the bench is Bayless at 7.1 points per game. The Clippers have Crawford (17.2), Barnes (10.7) and Bledsoe (9.0) all averaging more than that. Barnes will be in the starting lineup tonight and Bledsoe is unlikely to play, but the Clippers will still enjoy a significant edge in firepower from the second unit.
    • 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 three scorers are all averaging over 33 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.
    • Back-to-back. The Grizzlies played last night in Portland, a 7 PM tip off on the West Coast. The trip to L.A. from the northwest is one of the tougher B2B turnarounds in the NBA. Furthermore, the Grizzlies lead in Portland was cut to four points in the final minute, so Memphis had to work hard for their win. Marc Gasol played 37 minutes and Mike Conley played 35. Randolph played just 28 in his first game back from a tweaked ankle.
    • 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.
    • Tiebreaker. The Clippers lead the season series against the Grizzlies 2-0, with two relatively comfortable wins so far. The two teams face each other one final time during the last week of the season in Memphis. A win tonight would clinch the season series, but a loss would open the door for Memphis to tie the series 2-2, which would throw the head-to-head tiebreaker into doubt. But it turns out it doesn't matter. The sharp eyes of Citizen whiteshadow picked up a tiebreaker rule of which I was unaware which was added prior to the 2008-2009 season. In all tiebreakers, Division winners get preference. Since the Clippers will win the Pacific Division, while the Grizzlies will not win the Northwest, the Clippers win the tiebreaker regardless of head-to-head record or any other considerations. The same is true for the Nuggets -- although the Clippers lost the season series to Denver, the Clippers will receive the higher seed even if the two teams finish tied at the end of the season. It's a loophole that favors the Clippers! Yay, loopholes!
    • Even so.... So, the Clippers have already clinched the tiebreaker -- they still need to win this game. The tiebreaker only matters if the teams finished tied -- a Memphis win tonight will put them ahead of the Clippers. The tiebreaker loophole gives the Clippers the equivalent of one extra win in the standings -- but this game is worth more than one win, since the outcome affects both teams.
    • Three point shooting. The Clippers have of course had difficulty defending the three point line this season. The Grizzlies though are dead last in the NBA in three pointers attempted and made, so it likely won't be a major concern tonight. Since the trades, they take even fewer threes since Gay and Ellington were two of their only three point threats. Prince will take a corner three, and reserve wings Quincy Pondexter and Austin Daye are both hitting better than 40%. But this is a team that simply doesn't use the three point line as a weapon, which is probably good news for the Clippers since their strength tends to be defending the interior.
    • 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 season. 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.
    • Turnovers. This season's Clippers have flip-flopped on turnovers on both sides of the ball. Last year they had the second lowest turnover percentage on offense, but were middle of the pack at forcing turnovers. This season, the lead the league at forcing turnovers on defense, but are below average at protecting the ball. Playing at a faster pace and resting Paul more (in favor of the turnover prone Bledsoe) are definitely factors in turning the ball over, but the Clippers would be wise to do a better job protecting the ball, both against the Grizzlies and in the playoffs if they want to win. Memphis thrives on turnovers, and one way the Clippers beat them in the playoffs last season was by taking care of the ball and depriving the Grizzlies of easy baskets.
    • Connections. Zach Randolph is a former Clipper who they traded to Memphis to make room for Blake Griffin after winning the lottery and making Griffin the first overall pick in the 2009 draft. Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins and assistant coach Henry Bibby each played for the San Diego Clippers in the early 80s.
    • Get the Memphis perspective at Grizzly Bear Blues.
    • Lyrical reference:

      See My Vest -- The Simpsons

      See this hat, 'twas my cat
      my evening wear vampire bat
      these white slippers are albino African endangered rhino
      grizzly bear underwear
      turtle's necks I've got my share
      beret of poodle on my noodle it shall rest!
      try my red robin suit
      it comes one breast or two
      see my vest see my vest see my vest!

      In a bit of a departure from our usual lyrical routine, I'm going with a spoof showtune today from The Simpsons. In a send up of 101 Dalmatians, the evil Mr. Burns adopts Bart and Lisa's greyhound puppies with the intent of turning them into a new puppy-skin tuxedo, a la Cruella DeVille. In this song, reminiscent of Be Our Guest from Beauty and the Beast (making this a Disney double-spoof) Mr. Burns describes his wardrobe of bizarre animal-based clothing items such as his prized gorilla chest vest.