Which team would be the easier first-round matchup for the Clippers?
This question has two options — there's the right answer, and then there's whatever Larson Ishii is trying to tell you here.
Here's the objective, empirical truth: the Memphis Grizzlies are a much more preferable matchup for the Los Angeles Clippers than the Portland Trail Blazers would be. Sure, there's still a mathematical chance that another team claws its way to the 5th seed, like Utah, Houston, or Dallas, but Memphis and Portland are the only realistic possibilities at this point. And the choice between them is easy.
Some Clippers fans still have an irrational fear of Playoff Memphis, an irascible bogeyman that holds a psychological grip over the Clippers, either gritting and grinding their way to an upset victory (like in 2013), or losing but destroying their foes' body and soul in the process (like in 2012). That narrative is tired and overblown, propaganda spread by Grizzlies fans and writers like Matt Moore.
Clippers v. Grizzlies (regular season)— Adithya (@brownasthenight) March 25, 2016
2012: LAC 2-1
2013: LAC 3-1
2014: MEM 2-1
2015: tie 2-2
2016: tie 1-1
Memphis *so* has their number
And in any case, that Grizzlies team is no more. The current incarnation is something far less, an infirm, crippled squad clawing desperately for dear life rather than one arrogantly snatching victories from the jaws of defeat. Marc Gasol is done for the year, Mike Conley has had a down year and is currently out till at least mid-April, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen are 34 and not quite the fearsome matchups that they once were. They can't play defense anymore (17th in defensive rating on the year, 24th since the All-Star Break), and they still can't shoot worth a lick from the perimeter (29th in 3P%, and 30th — dead last — post-ASB).
Their roster has been in flux the whole year — as of yesterday, they've had TWENTY-EIGHT different players dress for them this season, which would be a record for any team that made the playoffs. Of the ten players they played in their upset win over the Clippers two weeks ago, two of them are no longer on the team — including Ray McCallum, who started at point guard that evening and made critical contributions down the stretch to seal the Memphis win.
They're sinking like a rock too (2-8 in their last ten), and their numbers aren't pretty, as explained by Grizzly Bear Blues' Joe Mullinax. They're not dissimilar to last year's Blazers team, another similarly injury-decimated squad on the downswing come playoff time. That Portland team, who ironically enough faced Memphis in the first round (had this year's new seeding rules been in effect, they would have played the Clippers), was by far the most desirable first-round matchup, and went away easily in five games to a Grizzlies team plagued by injuries of their own.
Here's a look at the Grizzlies roster currently.
|Jordan Farmar||Xavier Munford||Bryce Cotton|
|Tony Allen||Lance Stephenson|
|Matt Barnes||Vince Carter|
|Zach Randolph||JaMychal Green||Jarrell Martin|
|Chris Andersen||Ryan Hollins|
Conley may or may not be healthy by the first round of the playoffs, and trade deadline acquisition P.J. Hairston probably also slots back into the rotation when healthy.
Over a full season, that roster is much closer to a top-5 lottery pick than a top-5 playoff seed. They have very little chance of posing any sort of threat to the Clippers in a playoff series. Sure, they beat the Clippers in mid-March, but that was a tired, dispirited group playing poor basketball at the time. That's not the team they'll be facing in mid-April, one that'll also include a healthy and hopefully playoff-ready Blake Griffin.
The real animosity and hatred of the rivalry disappeared a while back, and neither team is suited to the bruiser-ball slugfests they played in 2012 and 2013. The presence of so many ex-Clippers (Farmar, Stephenson, Barnes, Randolph, and Hollins — a plausible 5-man unit for the team) might raise concern among some, as does the team's new self-described identity as the "Goon Squad," but neither is reason enough to angle for a Blazers series instead.
The history between the two teams might actually be beneficial for the Clippers, who might already be looking ahead towards a semifinal showdown with the historically great Warriors. Against another team, that might lead to complacency and less-than-one-hundred-percent effort, potentially letting a series drag out longer than it has any business going.
In the current era, the Clippers have yet to win a series in fewer than seven games. That has to change this year, and the Clippers have to focus on the team in front of them and take care of business quickly. That won't be as much of a concern against Memphis; the trash talk will definitely be flowing, and there won't be any lack of bulletin board material (Grizzlies coach Dave Joerger has already come out and said that his team wants the five seed and wants the Clippers).
Portland might not be as experienced as Memphis, but they're a much more cohesive team with far more star power and firepower than the Grizzlies possess. More importantly, they're playing far better basketball at the moment. The Blazers are far more explosive offensively (7th in offensive rating on the year, making the 4th-most three-pointers a game on the 5th-highest 3P%). They have the youth and athleticism to keep up with the Clippers, and their shooting has enough variance to let them steal several games if they get hot.
If the Clippers' shots stop falling, and their defense starts falling off trying to keep up with Portland in up-tempo games, that series could get a lot closer than any of us are comfortable with. In the worst-case scenario, that has all the makings of a disastrous first-round upset and the end of the Clippers as we know them.
Bottom line: the Blazers are far better than the Grizzlies right now. The Clippers should definitely hope to face the latter, and they should even consider throwing their April 12th home matchup with Memphis in order to help their rivals secure the 5th seed.
In our wildest fantasies, fever dreams where the Clippers parade through DTLA in mid-June, it'll come after a defining postseason run where they exorcise their playoff demons one by one. That starts with a rubber match against Memphis, where the Clippers can quell the doubters and naysayers by vanquishing the reeling Grizzlies and putting the Grit'n'Grind era to rest for good.