The arrival of Chris Paul in 2011 immediately turned the Clippers into a perennial playoff team, and the beauty of being a perennial playoff team is that it creates the opportunity to have perennial playoff foes. L.A.’s first such enemy was Memphis.
The story of the Lob City Clippers isn’t complete without the Grit and Grind Grizzlies. The two teams were diametrically opposed to each other in style, and their back-to-back playoff battles cemented a highly-entertaining feud.
Beef History did a tremendous job of detailing the clash between Blake Griffin and Zach Randolph, the primary actors in this rivalry, and that’s a good place to start.
Randolph was a Clipper in 2008-09, at the peak of what I fondly remember as the Dumb-leavy era, but L.A. shipped him out when the team drafted Griffin. That was reason enough to have distaste for Griffin and the Clippers, and it certainly helped that the two forwards’ games were wildly different. Randolph was ground-bound, with a vertical leap comparable to mine or yours, while Griffin was aerial and flashy.
The dichotomies existed up and down the roster, and throughout the organizations. Mike Conley is arguably the most well-liked point guard in the league (he’s never been whistled for a technical foul!), and Paul — well, let’s just say he isn’t. L.A. made highlights in the open court on offense, while Memphis got after it on the other end. In 2011-12, the first year of Lob City, the Clippers had the fourth-best offense and the 18th-ranked defense; the Grizzlies were 20th and seventh, respectively. Los Angeles was and is a huge market, and Memphis is one of the five smallest markets in the NBA. The team’s nicknames epitomized their differences. Lob City was Hollywood with lots of sizzle, and Grit and Grind was decidedly not.
The rivalry got going during the 2012 playoffs when the two teams matched up in the first round. The Clippers were back in the postseason for the first time since 2006; the Grizzlies had won a series the year before but were still trying to prove they weren’t a fluke. Early on, it looked like Memphis had L.A.’s number, but the Clippers pulled off an epic 24-point comeback to steal Game 1 and eventually win the series in seven.
The Grizzlies tried to paint the Clippers as showboaters and floppers that year, but Griffin wasn’t just falling to the ground, Randolph was dragging him there. There was growing animosity between the two teams, enough for the league to schedule them against each other on opening night the following season. That game featured 52 fouls and some more wrestling moves from Randolph (check out the 6:20 mark of the video above). It set the stage for another contentious playoff matchup, one where Clippers staffers were advised to not wear any team gear while walking around Memphis.
The Clippers couldn’t overcome their injuries this time around, falling to Memphis in six, but not before ejections to both Paul and Randolph in the final game of the series. The Grizzlies had taken one back from the the Clippers, settling the score and evening the terms of the rivalry.
Unfortunately, the two teams never had their rubber match. Memphis lost in the first round of the 2014 postseason to Oklahoma City so the Clippers faced the Thunder instead in the conference semifinals. The following year, the teams could have met in the conference finals but each team lost one round early.
The regular season games still had some fire. Tony Allen kicked Chris Paul in the face, though Paul says he has come to respect how hard Allen played; the Grizzlies gave out flip-flops to fans in honor of the Clippers coming to town in 2015; and Gasol went full wrestling heel when he hit a game-winner at Staples Center in 2016.
In hindsight, it seems like Memphis was always the aggressor, forcing L.A. to keep its cool or fight back. The Clippers kept their composure well enough in 2012, but that was a struggle throughout the rest of the Lob City era, and not just against the Grizzlies.
Now that all the principals are gone from the Grizzlies and the Clippers, the rivalry is dead. In this new chapter of Clippers basketball, the team aspires to have rivals from conference finals and NBA Finals series, not just first-round matchups. But during the 2010s, the Grizzlies were the perfect foe, a matchup to always look forward to, and a team to always root against.