When the Memphis Grizzlies stormed back from two straight losses at Staples Center to even their first-round playoff series with the Los Angels Clippers at FedEx Forum last week, the lion's share of national attention focused on the return to form of Memphis big men Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, and deservedly so — after combining to average 29.5 points and 10.5 rebounds per game in losses in Games 1 and 2, the Grizzlies frontline duo dominated the proceedings in Memphis, kicking in 45.5 points and 20.5 rebounds in wins in Games 3 and 4. As has been the case throughout this season, and especially since the trade-deadline jettisoning of Rudy Gay, as Randolph and Gasol go, so go the Grizzlies.
But Randolph and Gasol weren't playing against air in Memphis (although it sometimes seemed like they were). They were playing against a Clippers front line manned by All-Star power forward Blake Griffin and starting center DeAndre Jordan, who largely won the interior battle in L.A. but were overwhelmed by the Grizzlies' physicality in Memphis. That was especially true of Jordan, who was whisper-quiet in Games 3 and 4 — just four total points on 2 for 6 shooting, 10 rebounds and four blocks — with the 6-foot-11 jumping jack managing just two rebounds in 17 minutes in the series-evening loss.
With the exception of general big-man rules like "get a body on him on the offensive glass" and "be aware of his shot-blocking," Jordan's not typically considered the kind of player opposing coaches have to scheme around. But when Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins was asked how Memphis had stymied Jordan heading into Tuesday's Game 5, his reply laid bare just how invisible Jordan's become:
When asked what the key has been for taking DeAndre Jordan out of his game in Memphis, Lionel Hollins responded, "What is his game?" #zing
— Jovan Buha (@jovanbuha) May 1, 2013
Lionel Hollins on holding DeAndre Jordan to two rebounds: "Nobody holds anybody to two rebounds. You either get them or you don’t get them."
— Ben Bolch (@latbbolch) May 1, 2013
That downgrading might've stung Jordan, but probably not as much as hearing similar criticisms coming from his own coach. And yet, Vinny Del Negro seemed to basically agree with Hollins' assessment of Jordan before Game 5, according to Phil Collin of the Los Angeles Daily News:
"I don't know if crossroads is the right [word] but there's definitely a level you have to play at right now that is much different," Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. "He has a much different responsibility now. He understands it.
"I haven't seen the consistency that I like. He hasn't seen the consistency he would like."
That's why, Del Negro explained, he limited Jordan to just 17 minutes in the leveler, leaning more heavily on backup big man Lamar Odom and larger doses of small-ball lineups featuring reserve wings Jamal Crawford, Matt Barnes and Eric Bledsoe. More from Collin:
"I didn't see him controlling the game the way I thought he needed to, and at that stage you have to go with someone you feel can," Del Negro said. "Maybe Ryan Hollins could have played a few more minutes after looking at the tape.
"But those are decisions that are made during the heat of the battle, and you go with your rotation as best you can. At this stage of the game you want to stay with your rotation, but if they're not being productive, you have to look at other guys you have confidence in, that have produced throughout the series." [...]
"Defensively, offensively, being a threat out there on the glass, using his length, athleticism," Del Negro said. "But it's up to him to get out there and earn his minutes and work through anything that's thrown at him during the game."
Jordan bounced back on the boards a bit on Tuesday, snaring eight caroms (including four on the offensive glass) to go with six points and two blocks in 31 minutes of floor time. But the Clippers still dropped Game 5, giving Memphis a 3-2 series lead and an opportunity to close L.A. out at the Grindhouse on Friday.
And with star frontcourt partner Griffin hobbled (and eventually sidelined) by a high ankle sprain, Jordan's continued ineffectiveness was all the more glaring, according to Daily News columnist Vincent Bonsignore:
[...] the Clippers 6-11 center was nowhere to be found again Tuesday, his uncanny ability to vanish into thin air when his team needs him most as predictable as Lindsay Lohan ending up on the wrong side of the law.
Jordan played 16:38 in the first half, but based on his line in the box score it might as well have been a third of that considering the two points and three rebounds he managed.
As invisible as Jordan is, maybe if the Clippers could get any sort of production out of Caron Butler and Chauncey Billups they could compensate for a hobbling Griffin.
That last point is the real key for Del Negro, because the frontcourt crew of Jordan, Odom, Hollins and Ronny Turiaf just won't provide Griffin-replacing levels of productivity. None of them can command the same type of attention on either block, none of them (with the occasional exception of Odom) has anywhere near the same court vision and passing touch to activate perimeter shooters when Memphis swarms, and none of them can reasonably be expected to provide 20 or more points in a win-or-go-home Game 6 in one of the most hostile environments in the NBA. That's not to denigrate those guys as individual players or a collective, per se — there's just a massive, massive difference in talent and skill level, especially on the offensive end, between them and their All-NBA-caliber teammate.
The answers, then, will have to come from those small-ball lineups, in the form of improved punch from the likes of Billups (25 percent from the floor, 3 for 8 from 3-point range over the past three games), Crawford (37.1 percent from the floor, 4 for 11 from distance), Butler (33.3 percent from the floor, 3 for 8 from long range) and Barnes (36.8 percent from the floor, 1 for 7 from deep). The brilliant Chris Paul showed Tuesday he can carry L.A.'s scoring burden, popping for a season-high 35 points on 11 for 24 shooting, and I wouldn't bet against the best point guard in the world imposing his will on the proceedings at the Grindhouse. Still, if the high ankle sprain renders Griffin unavailable for Friday's Game 6, a Clippers offense without one of its two best offensive players and without vastly improved output from its vaunted litany of wing talent figures to once again have a miserable time scratching out half-court points against a Grizzlies defense that, for large swaths of the last three games, has looked as dialed-in, united and suffocating as it's been all season.
If Paul can coax a bit more production out of his crop of small forwards and shooting guards, the onus will be on Jordan to take a quantum leap forward in doing battle with a Grizzlies frontcourt that's eaten him alive over the past week and smells the second round just ahead. Neither his coach nor his opponents' coach seems particularly confident he can take that leap; Clippers fans had better hope they're both wrong.