A grueling seven-game playoff battle proved the Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies possess championship aspirations after spending numerous seasons accumulating extra ping-pong balls for the draft lottery.
Los Angeles hosts Memphis on Wednesday night in the teams’ season opener, 5 1/2 months after the Clippers knocked off the Grizzlies in the first round.
The Clippers (40-26) qualified for the postseason for the first time since 2005-2006 after acquiring Chris Paul from New Orleans in the offseason, teaming him with young star forward Blake Griffin Los Angeles signed Griffin to a five-year, $95 million extension in July.
Shortly after, Griffin had surgery to repair a torn left medial meniscus he suffered while practicing with Team USA for the Olympics. He said he’s fully recovered and ready to help guide the previously floundering franchise to its first consecutive playoff appearances since 1991-92 and 1992-93.
“We’re up there with anybody,” Griffin said. “We can play with anybody. With our talent and depth, we can go toe to toe with whoever it is.”
Los Angeles, though, was swept by San Antonio in the conference semifinals after knocking off Memphis, which also expects to be a contender in a loaded West that features the retooled Lakers and reigning conference champion Oklahoma City.
The Grizzlies (41-25) ended the regular season on a six-game winning streak before battling back from a 3-1 deficit versus the Clippers to force a decisive game. The loss left a feeling of unfinished business for a team that upset the top-seeded Spurs before taking the Thunder to seven games in the 2011 postseason.
“It can make you more dedicated when you’ve gone through something like that,” coach Lionel Hollins said. “It’s definitely a positive, but you still have to go do it. You can talk about it. `I have a sour taste.’ You can talk about, `I’m more dedicated.’ You have to be that, and you have to go do it.”
Former Clipper Zach Randolph had one of the best seasons of his career in 2010-11, but he averaged only 11.6 points while being limited to 28 games and eight starts with a torn MCL in 2011-12. He shot 42.0 percent versus Los Angeles in the playoffs.
“Our expectations are high, too,” Randolph said. “We just want to take one game at a time. We don’t want to talk about doing this, doing that. We want to take it one game at a time. I think we do that and don’t look too far ahead, take steps, let it come to us, we’re going to be all right.”
The Grizzlies have lost 11 straight season openers.
Memphis and Los Angeles both made offseason changes in hopes of making deep playoff runs. Los Angeles added Lamar Odom Grant Hill and Jamal Crawford to help compensate for the absence of point guard Chauncey Billups out until at least mid-November after surgery to repair the torn left Achilles he suffered 20 games into last season.
Paul, who averaged 19.8 points and 9.1 assists in his first season with the Clippers, is happy with the added depth.
“We could bring five guys off of our bench that could be starters,” he said. “That’s what you see with the teams that advance and go deep into the playoffs - their bench is usually deep. Not every night is Blake going to be able to score 29 points. The bench is something that you count on for the long season.”
The Clippers found out early Wednesday they’d have to wait one game to see one of their new additions. The NBA suspended Matt Barnes who had spent the previous two seasons with the Lakers, for the opener after he pleaded no contest last month to a misdemeanor for resisting, delaying or obstructing a police officer.
“We’re going to have (a healthy team to start) this year and hopefully everybody stays healthy and shows everybody what we’re really like when we’re healthy,” Randolph said.