After games 1 and 2 in Los Angeles, the Clippers appeared to be the better team in this series. They imposed their will on Memphis, riding the wave of momentum that carried them to 7 straight wins at the end of the season. But the tide turned in Games 3 and 4 in Memphis (quite possibly starting in the 4th quarter of game 2), and since that point the Clippers have been outworked, out-coached, and quite frankly outclassed. Now down 3-2, the momentum is entirely with the Grizzlies, and with Blake Griffin playing through an injury, the Clippers season is in serious peril.
The game opened with a nervous energy from both sides. A scrappy first quarter saw Blake Griffin playing admirably despite a high ankle sprain, rebounding the ball well and even finishing a dunk in traffic. Chris Paul was clearly on a mission from the outset, scoring 10 points in the quarter, and after 1, the Clippers led 28-26. Perhaps even more encouraging than Paul and Griffin playing well was the sight of Chauncey Billups, Caron Butler, and Deandre Jordan all getting early hoops, something we didn't see in game 4. But things started to turn in the second quarter, and they never really came back the Clippers way.
The Clippers outshot the Grizzlies in the first half, but 9 clipper turnovers, a 20-10 advantage to Memphis in free throw attempts, and the disparity in offensive rebounding gave Memphis a 6 point lead at the half.
From the get go, Zach Randolph was dominant. You can't really downplay how good the Memphis bigs are. Skilled passers, great shooting touch out to 18 feet, and dominant in the low post in one on one situations. They dominated the game tonight throughout, scoring at will against every defender the Clippers threw at them, and things only got worse once Griffin left the game (and before he left the game after picking up his 3rd foul). It's fair to say that serious questions have to be asked about Vinny Del Negro and his staff after this game. Empirical evidence through the first 4 games show that after Blake Griffin, Lamar Odom with his great length (and perhaps more importantly,his tremendous rebounding ability) is the best option on ZBO, yet was still not seeing minutes until he was put in at the 4:30 mark of the 4th quarter, when the game was in serious jeapordy. More importantly though, regardless of who is guarding Gasol/Randolph, the Clippers failed to throw a solid double team at the Memphis bigs at any point in the game. Memphis never had to make any adjustments tonight. The double needs to come from a wing as soon as the ball is put on the floor, and force Gasol/Randolph to pick the ball up and kick it back out. If you notice, any time Griffin got an isolation in the last 2 games, he was met by 2-3 Memphis defenders immediately, despite the fact that the Clippers are a MUCH better jump shooting team than Memphis. Prince and Tony Allen are not knockdown shooters, and in fact Memphis is not a statistically good 3 point shooting team at all, yet the Clippers are playing afraid to give up long 2's or corner 3's, even when seeing that they are getting crushed in the low block and on the offensive glass. As a result, Memphis never looked uncomfortable in their half court set tonight, scoring above 100 for the first time this series. No sign of any zone defense, no commitment to double teaming the post, and Memphis is exploiting it. Offensively, the Clippers dont appear to be adjusting at all, and are frequently dribbling the clock down to 14 seconds, throwing it to Griffin in the high post, then back to a wing with 6 seconds left, followed by a contested shot. It's not working. There is no shame to losing to a 56 win team in the playoffs, but there is no excuse for the way the Clippers are playing in this series.
The Clippers had their chance. At the end of the third quarter, down by 8 points, Chris Paul knocked down 2 free throws to cut it to 6 points with 4 seconds left. The Clippers were set to get the ball to start the fourth quarter, and cut the lead to 4 or three. But Memphis inbounded the ball to Jerryd Bayless, who went coast to coast for a layup to end the quarter. The Clips were able to cut the lead to 5 again in the fourth, but did so with a small lineup that was unable to get stops at the rim. The Griffin-less Clips were unable to get the scores they needed down the stretch.
If the Clippers are able to rebound (metaphorically and literally) and win game 6, they have a great shot at winning the series. The health of Blake Griffin will be a huge factor in determining a winner, but it will take more than just Blake Griffin to win. The Clippers need to mix things up and give Memphis a different look or the Clippers players will be heading on vacation this weekend, the front office scouting draft picks, and Vinny Del Negro looking for a new job.
Check Out Grizzly Bear Blues for the Memphis Perspective on the game.