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2013 NBA Playoffs First Round -- Clippers-Grizzlies Series Preview

The Clippers and Grizzlies played the most entertaining series of the 2012 NBA Playoffs and it's time to do it again.

Gary A. Vasquez-US PRESSWIRE
2013 NBA Playoffs
First Round

Series Schedule
Game 1 - Sat April 20, 7:30 p.m., Los Angeles, STAPLES Center
Game 2 - Mon April 22, 7:30 p.m., Los Angeles, STAPLES Center
Game 3 - Thu April 25, 6:30 p.m., Memphis, FedEx Forum
Game 4 - Sat April 27, 1:30 p.m., Memphis, FedEx Forum
Game 5 Tue April 30, Time 7:30 p.m., Los Angeles, STAPLES Center
Game 6 Fri May 3, Time TBD, Memphis, FedEx Forum
Game 7 * Sun May 5, Time TBD, Los Angeles, STAPLES Center
* if necessary
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Probable Starters
Chris Paul PG Mike Conley
Chauncey Billups SG Tony Allen
Caron Butler SF Tayshaun Prince
Blake Griffin PF Zach Randolph
DeAndre Jordan C Marc Gasol
Key Reserves
Eric Bledsoe PG Keyon Dooling
Jamal Crawford SG Jerryd Bayless
Matt Barnes SF Quincy Pondexter
Lamar Odom PF Darrell Arthur
Ryan Hollins C Ed Davis
Advanced Stats 2012-2013 Regular Season
91.1 (19th of 30) Pace 88.4 (30th of 30)
110.6 (4th of 30) ORtg 104.9 (17th of 30)
103.6 (8th of 30) DRtg 100.3 (2nd of 30)

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

-- April 13, 2013 in Memphis | Clippers 91, Grizzlies 87 | Recap | Box Score

The Big Picture:

For the first time in franchise history, the Clippers earned a top four seed in the NBA playoffs. Their reward is a team that won just as many as they did, the 56 win Memphis Grizzlies. The Clippers and Grizzlies met in the most competitive and entertaining series of the 2012 NBA playoffs -- so good news everybody, here we go again. The Clippers beat the Grizzlies in seven games last season, winning Game 1 with a massive comeback from 27 points down and winning Game 7 in Memphis. The Clippers also won the season series this year three games to one. So you have to like the Clippers chances in the series this year, especially with home court advantage.

The Antagonist:

The Grizzlies have the second highest rated defense in the NBA, and they may be even better defensively now than they were over the course of the season with the addition of Tayshaun Prince to the roster. Memphis may have the best starting bigs in the NBA in Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, and they also have four potential All Defense team candidates in Gasol, Tony Allen, Mike Conley and Prince. They're a great defensive team with a great starting lineup, but they are not without their flaws. They can struggle to score in their half court offense, and have the lowest offensive efficiency of any Western Conference playoff team. Nor are they the deepest team in the league. But that defense is capable of winning games almost on its own, and they'll give the Clippers everything they can handle.

The Subplots

  • Comparison of key metrics. The Grizzlies have the best defensive efficiency in the West, second best in the league. They also have the third worst offensive efficiency in the Western Conference and by far the worst among the eight West teams in the postseason. They are the only West team with an offensive efficiency below the league average. By contrast the Clippers are fourth in the league in offensive efficiency and eighth in defensive efficiency, a much better balance of offense and defense.
  • The Questionable Blogger. Be sure to check out the Q&A's between myself and Kevin Lipe of SBNation's Memphis blog, Grizzly Bear Blues.
  • Linked franchises. The Clippers and Grizzlies seem somehow linked. For one thing, they are two of the least successful franchises in NBA history -- who are trying to change their fortunes in recent seasons of relative success. Both set franchise records for wins this season with identical 56-26 records. Not only that, they were both 32-9 at home and 24-17 on the road. The Clippers previous best season was 49 wins; for the Grizzlies it was 50 wins. The Grizzlies have only won one playoff series in franchise history; the Clippers have won two series since moving to California, the second one being last season over the Grizzlies. The last two times the Clippers' made the playoffs the Grizzlies played a significant role -- in 2006, the Clippers had to tank in order to finish behind the Grizzlies so that they could host a first round series against the Nuggets in a playoff seeding loophole. Last year the teams met in the 4-5 matchup.
  • Injury watch. Ostensibly both teams enter the post season completely healthy. They each had all their players available in their final games this season. But that doesn't mean there are no injury concerns. Although Marc Gasol is showing no ill affects of the injury, it wasn't that long ago that he was out of the lineup with a torn abdominal muscle. It's hard to imagine that injury isn't still at least painful. Chauncey Billups has missed most of his season with the Clippers with various issues. He began the season still rehabbing his ruptured Achilles tendon and after he returned had trouble staying on the court, suffering other minor injuries. Those injuries were not directly related to the Achilles, but may have resulted from Billups compensating while the Achilles continued to heal. Finally, there's Blake Griffin, who was playing with back spasms Wednesday night. It's great to be 24, because there's no way I could play with back spasms, not to mention that I'd be out of action for a month. Griffin played through it and may well be fine by the start of the series on Saturday, but it's a situation to watch.
  • Sequel to a blockbuster. Clippers-Grizzlies in the first round last year was the best series of the entire 2012 NBA playoffs -- and it's not just Clippers fans who think that. The series went seven games with the Clippers winning the decisive game on the road. Six of the seven games were within single digits, with the first two games decided by a single point and the third going to overtime. And of course there was that incredible come back from 27 points down by the Clippers in game 1, one of the great comebacks in NBA history. NBA fans should be thrilled with the prospect of another series between these two teams -- if it's half the series it was last year, it will still be the best series of the first round.
  • CP3 injury free. If you'll recall, Chris Paul missed the final two games of the regular season last year with a groin injury. He went into the postseason clearly less than 100% and proceeded to get dinged up further by the physical Grizzlies defense. In contrast, Paul is as healthy this season as anyone can expect to be at the conclusion of the regular season. Paul's PER in last season's playoffs was 20 -- fine, but not great. In the two postseasons of his career where he was fully healthy, his PER has been around 30. That's a big difference.
  • Close games. Grizzlies are 7-5 in games decided by three or fewer points or in overtime. The Clippers are 3-7 in such games. This is a good news/bad news thing for the Clippers. All those close losses explain why the Clippers have a much better point differential than the Grizzlies (+6.5 to +4.1), but finished with same record. Scoring margin has historically proven to be a reliable predictor of post season success, which is why computer models like those of Kevin Pelton and John Hollinger prefer the Clippers pretty decidedly. However, if we expect close games in the series, does that favor the Grizzlies, who have been much better in those games this season than the Clippers? The good news is that in a close game in Memphis late in the season, the Clippers prevailed, winning by four.
  • The eight game series. When these teams met in Memphis in the 80th game of the season, everyone knew headed into the game that it was likely for home court advantage. Indeed, the Clippers won that game, and with it secured the home court for this series. That game, which was essentially the first game in an eight game series, featured playoff intensity with a lot on the line -- the fact that the Clippers won that game in Memphis bodes well for them now.
  • Battle of attrition. In Game 2 of their series last year, the Clippers played most of the last quarter with Caron Butler, Mo Williams, Eric Bledsoe and Nick Young on the bench nursing injuries they sustained in the series. Paul and Griffin were both injured during the series as well. The Grizzlies are arguably the most physical team in the league, and it took a toll last year. Paul, Griffin, Butler and Williams were all still less than 100% when the Clippers went into the second round against San Antonio. The challenge for the Clippers this year is therefore two fold -- win the series, and also avoid injury.
  • The new Grizzlies. The Grizzlies have a new starter and a new sixth man this year as opposed to last year. Prior to the trade deadline, Memphis pulled off a blockbuster trade that sent Rudy Gay, their second leading scorer and best perimeter scorer, to Toronto while bringing in Tayshaun Prince and Ed Davis. Prince stepped into Gay's starting small forward spot and Davis is a key front court reserve. The Grizzlies also allowed sixth man O.J. Mayo to leave and replaced him with free agent Jerryd Bayless over the summer. Bayless scored less than Mayo during the regular season, but has picked it up in the last couple of months. Coincidentally, Bayless' true shooting percentage this year (.513) is almost identical to Mayo's last year (.514). Are the Grizzlies better or worse for these changes? Losing Gay makes their identity even more clear -- Prince is a better defender, and he leaves more shots for Randolph and Gasol inside. Bayless for Mayo may be a wash -- though it seems pretty clear that Mayo had a higher ceiling.
  • Playoff experience. When the Clippers and Grizzlies met last year, the Clippers featured three starters (Griffin, Jordan and Randy Foye) and a key reserve (Eric Bledsoe) who had never played in a playoff game. This season, not only do Griffin and Jordan and Bledsoe have 11 playoff games from last season under their belt, but they've also got a healthy Chauncey Billups and new additions Lamar Odom, Matt Barnes, Grant Hill and Ronny Turiaf all have significant postseason experience. On the other hand, Billups old Pistons pal Tayshaun Prince brings vast additional playoff experience to the Grizzlies as well.
  • Turnovers and 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 matters less how bad they are in the halfcourt. The Clippers must -- MUST -- keep their turnovers low and keep the Grizzlies off the O-glass. I can't stress this enough -- take care of the ball and BOX OUT!
  • Tayshaun and Caron. 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 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.
  • 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, Bayless isn't afraid to shoot the long ball and Pondexter is hitting better than .395, mostly from the corner. 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 series -- will be a big factor. If the refs allow a lot of pushing and shoving, then advantage Memphis. Either way, expect plenty of physical play and some tempers. Flagrants, technicals, hard fouls, double fouls -- last year's series had them all, and expect nothing less this season.
  • 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. So the team that does a better job of protecting the ball in the series 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.
  • Predictions. Most publications have the Clippers winning the series. A compendium of various previews can be found here. Myself, I'm going with the Clippers in six games.
  • 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. Keyon Dooling, who came out of retirement to sign with the Grizzlies a couple weeks ago and immediately became their backup point guard, began his 13 year NBA career as a Clipper. 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.