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Clippers-Grizzlies preview: Game of the year

Regular season games don't get bigger than this. These two teams are likely to meet in the first round of the playoffs beginning in a week, and the winner of this game will more than likely have home court advantage for that series.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
2012/2013 NBA Regular Season

April 13th, 2013, 5:00 PM
FedEx Forum
Prime Ticket, NBA-TV, KFWB 980 AM, KWW 1330 AM
Buy Clippers Tickets
Probable Starters
Chris Paul PG Mike Conley
Willie Green SG Tony Allen
Caron Butler SF Tayshaun Prince
Blake Griffin PF Zach Randolph
DeAndre Jordan C Marc Gasol
Advanced Stats (through games of April 11)
91.2 (19th of 30) Pace 88.5 (29th of 30)
110.7 (4th of 30) ORtg 105.0 (17th of 30)
103.6 (8th of 30) DRtg 100.5 (2nd of 30)
Chauncey Billups (groin) questionable

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

-- March 13, 2013 in Los Angeles | Grizzlies 96, Clippers 85 | Recap | Box Score

    The Big Picture:

    In the course of an 82 game season, a few games qualify as really big. This one is the biggest. With just three games remaining, the Grizzlies lead the Clippers by a game in the standings. While both teams harbor hopes of catching Denver for the third seed, in all likelihood the Clippers and Grizzlies will meet in the 4-5 matchup in the first round of the playoffs next week -- and the winner of this game will probably have home court advantage for that series. Unfortunately for the Clippers, they have come up short in almost every big game they've played lately. They have lost six straight games against the top four teams in the Western Conference, and haven't beaten a top tier West foe since the walloped these same Grizzlies in Memphis back on January 14th. That's three months without a big win in the conference -- and it's a big problem. The best way to dispel any concerns about the Clippers ability to win big games would be to win this one; lose it, and we'll be seeing that "seven straight losses against the West's top four" stat for however long the playoffs last -- which might not be too long. Let's hope that the Clippers got there cold-shooting night out of their system last night in New Orleans. The team shot 7-26 from beyond the three point arc, which is among their worst three point shooting nights of the season. As it happens, the shot 6-26 from deep against the Grizzlies when they lost last month. Chris Paul and Blake Griffin need to both have big games in this one -- they're the stars, they need to play like it tonight.

    The Antagonist:

    The Grizzlies, like the Clippers, are in the midst of their best season in franchise history. They have 54 wins on the season so far, while their previous best was 50 wins. The amazing thing is, if you were to look at the Memphis team from three seasons ago, you'd see Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo as two of their three leading scorers and their supposed building blocks. The Grizzlies let Mayo leave via free agency this summer, and traded Gay to Toronto in a cost-saving move at the end of January -- and yet the Grizzlies have still had their most successful season ever. The team is 25-9 since Tayshaun Prince and Ed Davis arrived in the Gay trade -- with Prince fitting seamlessly into the defense-first, defense-second and defense-third approach. Their starting lineup features two defensive player of the year candidates in Marc Gasol and Tony Allen, along with two other defenders who are among the best at their position in Mike Conley and Prince. It's no secret how the Grizzlies win -- they lock you up, disrupt the offensive flow, force you to take bad shots, and turn you over. The Grizzlies are mediocre (or worse) on offense -- but boy howdy do they defend.

    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, who play at the second slowest pace in the league and therefore don't have as many opportunities to get turnovers, are second in defensive turnover percentage.
    • Get used to these guys. Win or lose, the Clippers will almost certainly face the Grizzlies in the playoffs beginning next week. Where that series opens is very much up in the air, but Denver will have to lose for the Clippers to somehow avoid the Grizzlies in the first round, and that doesn't seem likely. The Clippers have of course won two straight in Memphis going back to game seven of last year's playoffs, but they'd still rather have home court advantage in the first round.
    • Close games. Grizzlies are 7-5 in games decided by three or fewer points or in overtime. The Clippers, including their win last night in New Orleans, are now 3-7 in such games. Their terrible record in close games is a big reason why the Clippers have the fourth best point differential in the league, but only the sixth best record. In the entire league, only Minnesota and Orlando are worse than the Clippers in close ones this season. This is all quite counter-intuitive of course, since having Chris Paul should give the Clippers a theoretical advantage in close games.
    • Tie-breaker. Under most circumstances, this game might seem even bigger, as it will also decide the season series winner. However, as we pointed out last month, Division winners get the first tie-breaker in all ties, so the Clippers don't actually have to worry about the season series with Memphis, they just have to worry about catching them. As it happens, winning tonight will be crucial in catching them, and winning tonight will also give the Clippers the season series. But the Clippers have the trump tie-breaker regardless.
    • How big is this game? The Grizzlies magic number to clinch home court against the Clippers is three. The Clippers magic number to clinch home court against the Grizzlies is four. The winner of this game gets two steps closer to their goal, notching a win while handing their rival a defeat. The Clippers aren't mathematically locked out of home court with a loss tonight, but they will be with one more Memphis win and one more Denver win.
    • Bayless. The Grizzlies allowed Mayo to walk in the off-season, and then signed Jerryd Bayless and Wayne Ellington to provide backcourt depth. They then dumped Ellington's salary in January, basically making Bayless their only guard off the bench. Bayless, a lottery pick in the guard-heavy draft of 2008 that saw Rose, Westbrook, Gordon and Mayo storm the league, has responded with some of the best play of his career. He averaged 13.5 points per game in March, making 45% of his threes, and single-handedly carried the Grizzlies to victory in a couple of games. Since March 1, he's playing more minutes than Tony Allen. Heading into the season, Memphis' guard depth looked extremely questionable -- Bayless has answered that question.
    • Last meeting. The Clippers gave up a 9-0 run early in the second half of the last meeting and never really got back in the game. But it should be noted that their second unit backcourt, so important to the team all season, was far from 10% in that game. Eric Bledsoe didn't play at all with a sore calf, while Jamal Crawford was returning from sore ankle shot 1-10 and scored a season low two points. The Clippers have relied on those two to propel the second unit all season, and they almost literally can't be less productive than they were last time.
    • Since last meeting. I think the general impression is that the Clippers have been terrible for the past month while the Grizzlies have been great. The truth is that following their win in L.A. the Grizzlies were a half game ahead of the Clippers, and now a month later they are a game ahead of the Clippers. The Grizzlies are 10-6 (.625) since that game, while the Clippers are 8-5 (.615). Of course, it's Denver that has been tearing up the league in that time.
    • Turnovers and offensive rebounds. Wednesday night against the Timberwolves the Clippers turned the ball over 20 times. Last night against the Hornets the Clippers gave up 19 offensive rebounds. The Grizzlies are the second best offensive rebounding team in the league and second at forcing turnovers. Their halfcourt offense can be brutally bad at times, but if they generate easy scores off putbacks and turnovers then it doesn't matter how bad they are in the halfcourt. The Clippers must -- MUST -- clean up these two areas where they were incredibly sloppy against lesser opponents recently. I can't stress this enough -- take care of the ball and BOX OUT!
    • Banged up Grizzlies. The Grizzlies announced on March 23rd that Gasol was out with an abdominal tear. He missed all of two games, and scored 21 back-to-back less than a week later. He has averaged almost 35 minutes per game in eight games since returning, so either the injury wasn't as bad as they implied, or Gasol is a total BAMF (or both). Key reserves Darrell Arthur (back) and Bayless (knee) have been nursing injuries, but both played last night.
    • 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. 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?
    • More Prince. It's worth recalling that in the 2011 off-season, the Clippers had cap space and were shopping for a small forward. Butler and Prince were the leading candidates, and Prince decided to stay in Detroit while the Clippers opted for Butler. Butler has been terrific as a Clipper, scoring consistently, playing defense, filling his role well. But one can't help but wonder if Prince might not have been a better fit, especially as a wing defender.
    • Bench strength. These are both strong teams, but there's little question that the Clippers enjoy a distinct advantage off the bench (at least with Bledsoe and a productive Crawford). The Clippers are first in the league in minutes played from reserves and third in bench scoring. The Grizzlies on the other hand are 27th in both minutes and scoring.
    • Mike Conley. Mike Conley is quietly putting together an outstanding season in Memphis. When the Grizzlies gave him a $40M contract extension a few years back it was raised quite a few eyebrows, but he's looking like a bargain at this point. He's a terrific defender and is third in the league in steals per game, but has really improved on offense. He is averaging a career high in scoring, while also putting up career-best shooting numbers. He has also proven to be clutch, hitting big baskets in close games several times this season.
    • Back-to-back. Both teams are on the second night of a back to back, with the Clippers coming in from a win in New Orleans and the Grizzlies coming back from a win in Houston. So while the NBA schedule-makers did the Clippers no favors, handing them a pair of back to backs to close the season, at least they didn't give them a rested opponent in this one.
    • 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, 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 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 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. Prince and Billups were teammates for over six seasons in Detroit and won an NBA title together. 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:

      Truckdrivin' Neighbors Downstairs -- Beck (Parental Advisory)

      Acid casualty with a repossessed car
      Vietnam vet playing' air guitar

      It's just the sh*t-kickin', speed-takin'
      Truck-drivin' neighbors downstairs

      Whiskey-stained buck-toothed
      Backwoods creep
      Grizzly bear motherf****r
      Never goes to sleep

      It's just the sh*t-kickin', speed-takin'
      Truck-drivin' neighbors downstairs
      Oh, yeah...yeah

      I've learned so much in this little lyrics project of mine. Like for instance, who knew that Beck was so fascinated with grizzly bears? Two of my four grizzly lyrics this season have come from everyone's favorite anti-folk mutil-instrumentalist song-writer. I knew there was a reason I loved Beck so much.