The Clippers played their game for the first quarter. The Grizzlies played theirs for the final three.
Remind me, which team played last night? The Grizzlies? Watching most of this game, you would never know it. The visitors looked sluggish to start but found their legs to come up with a crucial road win on the second night of a killer West back-to-back.
Chris Paul did his darnedest. Mike Smith called it early: the Clippers' point guard was magnificent in the first half. 19 points, 4 assists, and 2 steals -- 2 steals that felt like 5. Number 3 was everywhere, which is exactly what he wanted, and the Grizzlies were powerless to stop him. But his omnipresence had its cost, and that cost was energy. And it cost him late, and dearly, when he turned the ball over with seconds remaining. There might be an explanation for his turnover that doesn't begin and end with "he's gassed", but I can't think of one.
Unfortunately, he wasn't the only tired one. The Clipper starters, burdened by heavy minutes, looked flat-footed for much of the second half. The starting unit found one last surge in front of a playoff-ready crowd, but it was too late. Without timeouts, the Clippers final meaningful possession was disorganized and had only the smallest prayer for success.
Despite playing last night in Portland, and on top of that, winning in come-from-behind fashion, the Grizzlies looked like the fresher of the teams. Memphis' Tony Allen-fueled bench held the Clippers at bay for long stretches, allowing Head Coach Dave Joerger to find extra rest for his starters. Only one Grizzly reserve finished the night with a negative plus-minus.
Marc Gasol was a 7-foot maestro in the paint, orchestrating a Memphis attack that rushed the paint relentlessly. Gasol finished with just 14 points, but he was at the center of the action, both literally and figuratively. Mike Conley and Jeff Green also capitalized against their worn-down opponents, tallying 18 and 16 respectively.
Compare these minute totals: 31, 32, and 34 to 37, 39, and 40. In order, that's Gasol, Zach Randolph, and Conley against J.J. Redick, Paul, and DeAndre Jordan.
What has made this series so interesting is the contrast in styles. It's Lob City's free-flowing offense against a Grit 'N Grind defense. Tonight, Memphis made this a smashmouth contest for more minutes than not. They forced more turnovers. They scored more points in the paint. They took away every shot the Clippers wanted. Corner threes? Nope. Crawford isolations? Can't have 'em. Paul-Jordan pick and rolls? Not a chance. Memphis recognized the Clippers' bread and butter and took it completely off the table.
The Clippers battled gamely, especially Jordan, who continues to excel in Blake Griffin's absence. The Clipper center pulled down 17 boards, 14 on the defensive end. Considering the beefy competition, that's impressive. Damn impressive.
There were other impressive moments. The ball movement, despite frequently being undone by ineffective shooting, was crisp. The defense remained taut and cohesive for much of the game. Big Baby did Big Baby things, which is becoming a regularity for games I cover, but impressive wasn't enough. It was gritty that did it.
Some other (mostly serious) things I noticed:
- With two testy playoff series between them, this has famously grown into a physical, if not downright chippy rivalry. But, did anyone notice that this felt less like a Clippers-Grizzlies game and more like your ordinary, run-of-the-mill Western Conference playoff-caliber game? Does this rivalry boil down to just a Blake Griffin-Zach Randolph feud? I couldn't help but think that the game lacked a certain hateful punch without the Clipper star.
- Did Chris Douglas-Roberts leave an indelible mark upon this franchise? I'm not talking about the 19 total points he scored. I'm talking about fashion. On-court fashion. I saw a lot of short shorts in this game. Like sexy Puritans, Paul, Jordan, Barnes, and Hawes all showed a little more kneecap than I'm used to. And no rolled waistbands, either. Just good old mid-thigh length basketball shorts.
- What more must Matt Barnes do to force opposing defenses to respect his presence? He's cooled off lately, but he's still hitting on nearly 37% of his threes. He's an excellent -- like, truly excellent -- cutter. He's capable of driving the lane and finishing when the opportunity presents itself. Barnes is not Kwame Brown; he's far from an offensive zero. Yet, defenders ignore him, leaving him space that can be measured in yards. Does he have the measles? It's a borderline miracle that the Clippers have managed the league's best offense with so little spacing, but it's something to watch when the playoffs come and small margins become infinitesimal.
- With Griffin still out, the Paul-Jordan pick and roll has become a central cog in the Clippers' offensive machine, and rightly so. Jordan has a catch radius like an octopus. He is a predatory weapon on dives to the rim. I know this. You know this. And, guess what? Other teams know this. The Grizzlies threw heaps of bodies at Jordan to keep him from ever setting screens in the first place. Fortunately, there's an answer for this, and if this were Jeopardy, the question would be, "Who is Spencer Hawes?" Having another mountainous man on the floor has its advantages, one major advantage being the ability to screen for the screener. Use Hawes to pick Jordan's man, which frees DeAndre to envelop Paul's man. The Clippers did it sparingly tonight. For Friday night's remix in Memphis, Doc may want to dial it up more often.