The Clippers and Grizzlies tip off on Saturday (Getty Images)
After a long regular season full of snaps and strains, travails and terrors and 715,973 canned arena demands that “ev-ry-bo-dy clap yo hands,” the NBA’s postseason is set to tip off this weekend. With that in place, the minds behind Ball Don’t Lie are going to preview each first-round series, with Kelly Dwyer going against character for a more genial take, Dan Devine bringing his inimitable mixture of both order and bedlam, along with Eric Freeman’s legendary look inside the reputations of some of the series’ key fixtures.
Which team do you think will win the series, and in how many games? Vote here to let us know what you think.
Kelly Dwyer’s Guide Vocal
The only way the Memphis Grizzlies are going to have a chance in this series is to reverse the patterns that put them in peril during last year’s postseason, and in the team’s final game against the Los Angeles Clippers last week. Because these two teams are so evenly matched, home-court advantage barely matters in this duel, but that doesn’t mean the coin flip with 50-50 odds won’t land on Los Angeles’ side a disproportionate amount of times.
Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins can’t give his Los Angeles counterpart Vinny Del Negro any advantages, as the teams flip along. This means each of the basketball tipping points behind February’s Rudy Gay trade have to come out in full force. Tayshaun Prince, who played darn well against the Clippers this season as both a Piston and Grizzly, has to shoot corner 3-pointers and be afforded post-up looks. Ed Davis, who has received inconsistent minutes since coming to Memphis from Toronto, has to be trusted as a rim protector and broken-play finisher.
And Marc Gasol, who was completely ignored by his teammates during the most important stretches of his team’s most important game of the year — a loss to the Clippers on Saturday, one that saw Gasol take just one shot in the fourth quarter, with no attempts nor assists coming in the final 10 minutes of a game in which he put up 18 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists — has to be a focal point of his team’s offense. The team lost to the Clippers last year by playing an outside-in style of basketball. It lost the Clippers on Saturday by doing the same. And that cannot continue.
The problem here is that it might.
It’s too much of a reach to say that the Clippers have the Grizzlies’ number, not when the Grizz are just weeks removed from downing Los Angeles on their home floor, and a year removed from taking the Clippers to seven games. And while we have a hard time getting behind Del Negro as anything more than a stepping-stone leader for this franchise, even he can see the massive advantage the Clippers have in reserve guard Eric Bledsoe, who has absolutely dominated both Memphis and their lead guard Mike Conley during the fourth quarters of both playoff and regular-season games over the last year.
(You almost wonder if the Grizzlies could somehow find a way to get Tony Allen to guard Eric Bledsoe from guarding Mike Conley. The Grizzlies already play four-on-five offensively with Allen out there anyway, why not commit to it in full?)
If Hollins keeps leaning on Conley to direct his team’s offense late in games against Bledsoe and Los Angeles, the Grizzlies will continue to put up pitiful fourth-quarter numbers, and they’ll be out in the first round again — wasting yet another year as both Zach Randolph and Prince dive deeper into their 30s.
Going to Gasol isn’t a cure-all. The Grizzlies will still struggle to score, the Los Angeles depth continues to impress, and it’s also possible that Blake Griffin (who is working through back issues and did not look good in his team’s regular-season finale on Wednesday) could bust out of his Grizzlies-hounded shell and put together an All-Star-like stretch against a Memphis team he’s struggled against. Chris Paul is perhaps his conference’s best closer, and DeAndre Jordan has proven to be an effective Randolph stopper if Zach starts to heat up and the Clippers decide to cross-match.
Only the little things can push Memphis toward a victory, though. Like wrapping up Jordan to send him to the line, something to which the Grizzlies strangely seem averse. Or pushing Prince behind the 3-point line. Or countering Bledsoe with actual plays in the fourth quarter, instead of screen-and-roll orthodoxy. Trusting players like Davis and Darrell Arthur off of the bench. Not knocking the ball off your thigh and out of bounds on a layup attempt — we’re looking at you, Tony.
The Grizzlies remain one of our favorite teams and favorite NBA stories, working out of one of our favorite towns. So much has to go right for them, though, as they attempt to take down a Clipper team that just seems to have their number in the fourth quarter. We’re not happy with the call, but we’re making it.
PREDICTION: Clippers in 7.
Marc Gasol extends the defense (Getty Images)
Contribute to the Chaos with Dan Devine
For as much as we try to study and analyze every aspect of NBA life these days, in every playoff series, there are unpredictable elements — a player, a tendency, a set, a decision, etc. — that can tilt a moment on its ear, change the complexion of a game or even determine the outcome of a series. For each matchup during this postseason, Dan Devine will look for those X-factors most likely to wreak havoc over the next seven games.
(The phrase "Contribute to the chaos" comes from the song "Twin Size Mattress” by the band The Front Bottoms, which Dan likes a lot.)
Los Angeles Clippers: Let the Eric Bledsoe-Chris Paul backcourt work.
Bledsoe’s had kind of a hard time finding minutes under Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro, getting just 20 minutes per game this season despite averaging around 15 points, five rebounds, five assists and 2.5 steals per 36 minutes of floor time and making 40 percent of his 3-pointers. Part of this is due to the fact that he’s a backup point guard playing behind the best point guard in the world, and part of this is due to the fact that his coach seems to have pure and true love in his heart for Willie Green, but part of it is also due to matchup concerns.
As the thinking goes, if you’re going to play Paul big minutes — and you’re going to play Paul big minutes — you need to be able to put him on the opposing point guard and pair him with someone who can handle larger two-guards. And while Bledsoe is an athletic marvel and defensive specimen, he’s also just 6-foot-1, making him a bit too small to handle larger two-guards who can score for Del Negro’s tastes. Luckily, the Grizzlies’ backcourt — point guard Mike Conley, defensive-minded shooting guard Tony Allen, hybrid backup Jerryd Bayless and late-season pickup Keyon Dooling — doesn’t include one of those big guards.
That opens the door to the prospect of pairing Paul with Bledsoe for stretches, which should upset Grizzlies fans almost as much as it excites Clippers fans and The Internet At Large, long the most vocal supporters of All Things Eric Bledsoe. After an awesome 82-minute cameo in last year’s playoffs that saw them outscore opponents by nearly 25 points per 100 possessions, Paul and Bledsoe got just 185 minutes together this season ... and those lineups outscored opponents by more than 11 points-per-100, roughly the margin by which the Oklahoma City Thunder have been beating opponents this year. The two-point-guard lineups turned the ball over as infrequently as the league-best New York Knicks while still generating quite a few turnovers, mixing Paul’s ability to orchestrate offensively with Bledsoe’s penchant for devastating defensively and increasing the pace of the game, essentially putting most of L.A.’s most attractive assets in one tidy package.
Given how well Bledsoe defended Conley during last year’s first round, how successful this tandem’s been at scoring every time it’s been used and how Paul’s likely-to-be-increased minutes will offer more opportunities to play with it, it would seem like a really good idea for Del Negro to trot this lineup out and see what comes of it. Especially since, as we look around the rest of the Western Conference landscape — with the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors rightly listed as underdogs in their respective series — we don’t see a whole lot of big two guards worth scheming around, meaning that finding out if the Paul-Bledsoe backcourt’s a game-changing move now could pay major dividends in the very near future.
Memphis Grizzlies: Quit turning the ball over, silly.
Throughout the regular season, the Grizzlies were one of the more possession-valuing teams in the league. They turned the ball over 15.2 percent of the time, putting them just outside the top-10 most careful clubs in the NBA, according to NBA.com’s stat tool. They were also one of the league’s best teams at preventing opponents from scoring off their infrequent miscues, giving up 14.9 points off turnovers per game, third-fewest in the NBA; on a related note, Memphis also ranked third in the league in preventing transition scores, giving up 1.03 points per possession, according to Synergy Sports Technology’s game-charting data.
And yet, when they faced the Clippers this year, L.A.’s ball-hawking defense got the better of them. Behind the active hands of starters like Paul and Blake Griffin, and the and pipe-bursting pressure applied by reserves Bledsoe and Matt Barnes, Del Negro’s team created turnovers on 16.8 percent of Memphis possessions (which would give Memphis the worst mark in the NBA over the course of the season) and scored 21 points per game off those turnovers (ditto) in their four meetings, outperforming that 1.03-points-per-transition-possession mark in three out of the four games. (Weirdly, they won the only one in which they didn’t, the last meeting of the season on April 13, and lost the March 13 high-water mark, in which they averaged 1.57 points per transition possession.)
When you’re a middling offensive team — and the Grizzlies are that, ranking 17th in the league in offensive efficiency since the Rudy Gay trade — giving up possessions is a sin in and of itself, and allowing easy buckets the other way only compounds it, especially since Memphis is so good at shutting opponents down in the half court. With primary scoring weapon Zach Randolph struggling down the stretch this season and so much being asked of Marc Gasol on the defensive end, Memphis has to value the rock against the Clippers, keeping the pace measured and minimizing the impact L.A.’s deep, athletic and frenetic bench can have on proceedings in order to be able to punish the Clips with their high-low game on offense and with their ability to snuff out L.A.’s at-times stagnant half-court actions. If they fail to do that, they’re going to have a hard time stealing home-court advantage from a Clips squad that went 32-9 at Staples this year.
PREDICTION: Clippers in 7.
Mike Conley and Lionel Hollins (Getty Images)
Eric Freeman’s Reputations Index
An NBA athlete can make great strides in the offseason, improve over the course of the 82-game schedule, and see his fortunes change due to a freak injury. Yet, even in a league where granular analysis reveals untold nuances in a single player’s game, the postseason still determines his legacy. A star can become a legend or be seen as lacking some necessary quality to win; a role player can lock down a lucrative local endorsement contract or search for a new home; a youngster can ascend to a new level of fame or fall into irrelevance. The Reputations Index is your guide to what’s at stake in each postseason series.
Blake Griffin: Popularity is not always a mark of a player’s reputation. Based simply on national ad campaigns and All-Star voting, Griffin is among the most marketable, well-liked players in the NBA. Yet basketball diehards have questioned his true skill level for several years. The stats say Griffin is a star — and he is — but there’s a sense that he’s not yet the sort of player an offense can depend on for an entire quarter. The Clippers have Chris Paul and therefore don’t have to count on Griffin quite so much, but that doesn’t mean the opinion is inconsequential as it applies to the team’s viability as a contender.
Griffin is in the process of developing post moves, but he’s still best known as a dunker. If he’s able to present the new aspects of his game on a big stage, and especially against one of the NBA’s best defenses, the conversation surrounding his abilities and limits could change.
DeAndre Jordan: If nothing else, Jordan will be remembered for years for his monstrous dunk on Detroit Pistons guard Brandon Knight earlier this season. The problem for Jordan is that his highlights tend to overshadow his more substantive contributions (or lack thereof). Jordan is a frustrating player: his horrendous free-throw shooting makes him a liability late in games, he blocks shots but sometimes struggles defensively, he finishes alley-oops extremely well but isn’t much of an offensive player, etc. In other words, it’s hard to know exactly what he gives the Clippers — he’s defined mostly in terms of explosive dunks and the potential to become one of the NBA’s best interior defenders.
Jordan has a contract that will pay him eight figures each for two more full seasons, and he’s getting closer to the point where that deal will be seen as either a hopeful mistake or a case of a team accurately predicting a player’s value before he manifested all his talent. Jordan didn’t contribute much in last year’s postseason, and a second straight listless performance could cause more people to ask if the optimism about his career has been misplaced.
Rudy Gay: For a few weeks after his trade to the Toronto Raptors, Gay was considered a very valuable player whose absence would remove the Grizzlies from contention in the West. This line of thinking was flawed for many reasons, chiefly that the Grizzlies had cooled considerably after a hot start and were not getting the offensive production that Gay was theoretically there to provide. That opinion dropped from the popular discourse when the Grizzlies thrived without him, and very few people are arguing that the team will desperately miss him in the postseason.
It might make more sense to conceive of the argument as dormant, not gone entirely. If the case was always that the Grizzlies would miss Gay because they need his scoring to stay relevant in the postseason, then it’s reasonable to expect these opinions to return if they lose to the Clippers due to late-game offensive struggles. That result could bring Gay more positive attention (and also help some Raptors employees keep their jobs). If the Grizzlies are fine without him and handle the Clippers with their elite defense, the immediate negative response to the trade will likely be forgotten in short order.
PREDICTION: Grizzlies in 6.
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