Half a decade later, as the Clippers try to embrace a starless identity, they look more and more like the Grizzlies, right down to their 12-6 records atop the Western Conference.
Stylistically, there is still a stark contrast, as Memphis hangs its hat on defense and LA boasts one of the best offenses in the league. But the Clippers have become more resilient and feistier than their Lob City counterparts could have ever imagined, relying on the sum of their parts being greater than the whole to pull out one victory after another against the top teams in the league.
Head coach Doc Rivers has likened his team to a blacktop group throughout the season, the kind of players you’d see playing pickup on a court with chain nets, or the kind of players you saw donning a Grizzlies uniform in recent years. The Clippers specifically targeted toughness, especially when it became clear that they weren’t going to have an All-Stars coming into the season.
“That’s all we talked about is gritty, tough team players,” Rivers said after the team’s win against Golden State last week. “That’s all we talked about in the summertime. And we felt if we could get enough of those guys with talent, we could win some games.”
Montrezl Harrell is the easiest example to point to of that “hard-playing, rugged” approach, but all of the Clippers have started to buy in to their new formula of being consistently on the attack. Like Memphis, this team doesn’t rely on any singular offensive talent, instead focusing on moving the ball and hoping that the ball finds energy. It’s a game plan that has proven successful thus far.
In its 112-107 against the Grizzlies Friday, LA matched up against an opponent that really frustrated its offense, more so than in any other game so far. While Memphis found success in its motion in the first half, the Clippers had difficulty moving the ball, and allowed their scoring struggles to impact their effort and effectiveness on defense.
But as the game wore on, the Clippers started bringing the fight to the Grizzlies. They attacked the paint, in spite of getting blocked six times in the first half, and used their success going downhill to generate offense, both at the rim and at the free-throw line. Memphis only blocked one shot in the second half and overtime and sent LA to the foul line 15 times in that span.
The Clippers tweaked their defense after halftime as well, switching the Mike Conley-Marc Gasol pick and roll in second half. That allowed the team to get stops and run in transition to avoid the Grizzlies’ set defense.
“We were able to get into our defense and control the pace and our physicality,” Tobias Harris said postgame. “I thought we did a really good job of being able to continue fighting and get the win.”
It was during crunch time that LA’s grinding mentality really showed through. Trailing by eight with three minutes to play, four different Clippers (Patrick Beverley, Harrell, Lou Williams, and Danilo Gallinari) scored in a 13-5 run to send the game into overtime. The scoring load was similarly balanced in overtime, as the team found a new way to close out games, without solely relying on Lou or his two-man game with Harrell.
Rivers said pregame that one of the things that made Memphis so formidable was Conley and Gasol’s experience, their ability to navigate every situation on a basketball court because they had seen it all. The Grizzlies having two closers gives them a chance to win every game.
For much of the fourth quarter, it looked like Memphis outnumbered LA 2-0 in closers, with Lou looking under the weather after being ill earlier this week (he didn’t practice with the team Thursday). But Rivers shifted him to point guard late in the game, replacing Shai Gilgeous-Alexander with Bradley to play off the ball, and Williams helped to spearhead a group effort to rally and finish off the Grizzlies. By the time Conley fouled out, it was clear the Clippers were much more in their element, Gasol struggled with the bulk of the defense’s attention while LA could call on a number of players to score.
“We’re a team,” Harris said. “We’re going to fight as a team, and we’re going to play hard as a team.”
In an adverse situation, the Clippers simply found a way to play harder for longer than their opponent. They showed the type of grit that has been synonymous with the Grizzlies for so long, and is starting to become an apt descriptor for this new LA team.