“The No. 1 priority for us right now has to be re-signing our star player, Chris Paul,” Sacks said at Day 2 of the Clippers’ exit interviews. “That's our goal, that's what we want to do.”
While the Clippers’ early playoff exit certainly doesn’t sit well with their free agent superstar, ESPN.com’s Marc Stein has reported that Paul will likely stay in Los Angeles and accept the nearly $30 million extra the Clippers can offer him.
Heading into the offseason, the Clippers only have six players under fully guaranteed contracts: Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Jamal Crawford, Eric Bledsoe, Caron Butler and Grant Hill. Willie Green’s contract is non-guaranteed for the next two seasons, meaning the Clippers can waive him to alleviate cap space.
The collective salaries of the group equal 46.7 million ($45.3 million if Green is waived before July 1). If Paul signs the five-year, $108 million extension the Clippers can offer, his first-year salary would be a little under $18.7 million, bringing the Clippers’ salary total to $66.5 million, including the 25th overall selection in the 2013 NBA draft (the average salary at that slot is about $1.1 million).
ESPN cap guru Larry Coon projects a $71.5 million to $73 million tax line in 2013-14, meaning with only nine players under contract -- the league minimum is 13 -- the Clippers would have $5 to $7 million to spend on at least four players in free agency and still remain under the dreadful luxury tax.
With six free agents -- Paul, Matt Barnes, Chauncey Billups, Lamar Odom, Ronny Turiaf and Ryan Hollins -- and no decision announced yet on the future of their Vinny Del Negro, the Clippers will have a slew of difficult decisions to make in what Sacks calls a “huge” offseason.
Here are three things to look for this offseason:
Deciding on the future of Jordan and Bledsoe
The young duo was nearly packaged alongside Butler to the Boston Celtics at the trade deadline, and it’s looking more and more like one of them, if not both, will eventually be dealt.
Bledsoe is more likely to be traded than Jordan, as the back-up point guard is due for a significant raise next summer as a restricted free agent. Many, including Paul, believe Bledsoe should be starting on his own team.
That being said, it’s unlikely the Clippers move Bledsoe -- the ultimate insurance policy -- until Paul is locked up, which would be July 1 at the earliest. If the right move comes along though, especially around the NBA Draft in late June, Bledsoe could be moved sooner.
While Jordan has yet to play up to the standards of the hefty contract he signed last summer, it’ll be more difficult to replace him because athletic 7-footers are hard to come by and provide unquantifiable value on defense.
Still, the Clippers are in win-now mode and don’t have time to wait for Jordan to blossom an offensive game or become competent at free throw shooting. If he’s unable to play in crunch time, he isn’t worth keeping around.
It’s unlikely the Clippers keep both players, but still possible. Bledsoe has proven he can play shooting guard alongside Paul, and his stout perimeter defense is a game-changer; Jordan has improved every year and may finally breakthrough with a solidified role and consistent playing time.
Nevertheless, these two will be the centerpieces of any trade talks the Clippers have over the offseason.
Big man with shooting range
One of the biggest problems for the Clippers offensively this season was that besides Griffin -- who’s at his best when operating down on the low block -- they didn’t have a big man that could space the floor and stretch opposing defenses out with his shooting.
Odom was supposed to fill that role, but his shooting stroke deserted him for the second straight season. He shot 39.9 percent from the floor and 20.0 percent from the beyond the arc, figures that ranked as the second worst of his career.
Meanwhile, Jordan, Turiaf and Hollins combined to make 9 shots beyond 10 feet all season. Defenses often ignored the latter two and only paid attention to Jordan because of the ever-looming threat of a lob from Paul.
No matter who he played with, Griffin was always paired with an offensive non-factor, forcing him to single-handedly carry the interior-scoring burden. After he sprained his ankle before Game 5 of the 2013 postseason, no one else stepped up -- the remaining big men combined to average just 15 points per game over the final two games of the series.
With the Clippers on a strict budget, and floor-spacing big men a hot commodity, it’s unlikely they find a guy without severe flaws (especially defensively). Regardless, finding a shooting big man who can play with Griffin for 10-15 minutes a night will spruce up the Clippers’ offense.
Potential fits: Earl Clark, Antawn Jamison, Dante Cunningham (Team Option), Anthony Tolliver, Jon Leuer (Restricted Free Agent)
Athletic wing defender with size
The Clippers’ perimeter defenders made the Grizzlies’ wings look like All-Stars this postseason, even though none of the Grizzlies’ perimeter players averaged double-digit scoring numbers during the season.
With Butler, Crawford and Green as the only wings under contract, the Clippers will undoubtedly need to address their perimeter defense, as none of those guys are “stoppers”. To contend for a championship next year, the Clippers will need a couple of players who can feasibly defend the Kobe Bryants and Kevin Durants of the world without being burned.
Barnes did a great job filling this role this year, but due to the constraints of the collective bargaining agreement (the Clippers don’t own his Bird Rights), the Clippers can only offer him up to 120 percent of his current contract, which is a little over $1.6 million. If Barnes wants to stay in L.A., he’ll have to take a significant pay cut compared to his projected market value. Chances are, though, he bolts for more money and a larger role, as he’s already stated he wants a pay increase.
While a lot of the shooting big men in the Clippers’ price range will be defensively challenged, most free agent wing defenders will likewise be offensively challenged. There’s a reason why they’re not getting paid more.
Ideally, the Clippers would sign someone with the size and/or length to play power forward in small ball lineups, while also possessing the ability to shoot corner 3-pointers. If they can sign two such players -- one to start and one to come off the bench -- they should be set on the perimeter.
Potential fits: Barnes, Tony Allen, Corey Brewer, Ronnie Brewer, Brandon Rush (Player Option), Marquis Daniels
Stats used in this piece are from ESPN.com and NBA.com/Stats.
Salary cap information used from ESPN.com, HOOPSWORLD.com, CBAFAQ.com and ClipperBlog.com.
Vinny Del Negro has been on the hot seat since the Clippers picked up the option on the third and final year of his deal last year and did not extend him beyond this season. It was clear that this season was an audition for him and if he would be the coach who would lead the Clippers for the next four to five seasons.
With Chris Paul becoming an unrestricted free agent and able to sign a five-year extension this summer and Blake Griffin inking a five-year extension last summer, the next big question for the Clippers is who will be coaching the cornerstones of the franchise for the foreseeable future.
As good as the Clippers have been over the past two seasons, it could easily be argued that the turnaround has more to do with the arrival of Paul than Del Negro’s coaching. Del Negro was 32-50 in his first season with the Clippers before Paul arrived, and as Griffin was named Rookie of the Year. He was a .500 coach in his two seasons with Chicago and never made it out of the first round. The Bulls then replaced him with Tom Thibodeau, prompting Chicago to go 62-20 and advance to the Eastern Conference finals the next season. Derrick Rose, who was named the Rookie of the Year under Del Negro, blossomed into the league's MVP under Thibodeau. And look what the injury-riddled Bulls are doing this season in the playoffs without Rose.
Del Negro is a good coach, who surrounded himself with good assistants, but it was no secret that the Clippers needed to advance to the conference finals for him to be in the running for a long-term extension.
Outlook for 2013-14
Del Negro is scheduled to meet with Clippers owner Donald Sterling at the end of this week and it would be considered a major surprise if Sterling offered Del Negro a contract extension after his deal expires in June. The Clippers, according to sources, are expected to make a run at some big name coaches as Sterling for the first time seems willing to open up the checkbook for a respected coach with a solid resume.
The good news for Del Negro is that his last two years with the Clippers were strong enough that he’ll likely land on his feet with another team within a year or two.
C: Del Negro deserved an A for the first half of the season when the Clippers were a league-best 32-9, won 17 straight and looked well on their way to winning 60 games. Del Negro even won Coach of the Month honors in December. The wheels, however, fell off in the second half of the season where the team’s play was probably worthy of a C. The Clippers, however, did rally to win 9 straight to claim the Pacific Division, the four seed and take a 2-0 series lead on Memphis. In the end, though, Del Negro's team stalled out as Memphis made the right adjustments after Game 2 and won four straight and eliminated the Clippers in six games.
There was some uncertainty in the Clippers' front office last offseason after general manager Neil Olshey left to take a similar position with the Portland Trail Blazers. Gary Sacks was then promoted to take over for Olshey as team president Andy Roeser and Del Negro took a more hands-on approach to dealing with off-season acquisitions and moves. Sacks was on a similar one-year audition run like Del Negro but chances are that Sacks will be back. He had the backing of Paul and Griffin when he was promoted to his position and he has been working with Sterling and Roeser for 20 years.
The Clippers front office did a solid job in the offseason in putting together arguably the deepest team in the league. They went out and acquired Jamal Crawford, Lamar Odom, Grant Hill, Matt Barnes, Willie Green, Ryan Hollins and Ronny Turiaf. For all the talk about the Clippers building on the continuity from last season, there were nine players on this year’s playoffs roster that were not on last year’s playoff roster.
Outlook for 2013-14
The Clippers aren’t likely to make any moves in the front office. Sacks and Roeser will likely to continue in their roles unless Sterling suddenly gets the urge to call up Phil Jackson and give him a blank check to come across town and run the Clippers.
B: The Clippers did a fine job assembling a deep roster that won a team-record 56 games. Some might say it wasn’t built for the playoffs after losing Reggie Evans and Kenyon Martin but the Clippers got swept in the second round with those two. The Clippers rolled the dice on making some moves with a nice mixture of young players and veterans and it worked well in the regular season before fizzling out in the playoffs.
"Chris and I have seen each other a few times after the season and that's something we've discussed," Barnes told the Mason & Ireland Show on ESPNLA 710 on Wednesday. "Not to really get into his business too much, but I think the Clippers are one of his of top teams to say the least and if I was betting guy I would say he would be back with the Clippers next year."
Paul helped recruit Barnes to the Clippers before this season, and Barnes was signed to a one-year contract for the veteran's minimum. Barnes, who had a career season, averaging 10.3 points and 4.6 rebounds, hinted during his exit interview that Paul was again recruiting him to come back to the Clippers. Barnes said he was hoping to do that this summer if were to be given a raise.
"I'm going to sit down and talk to my family and see where the market's at," Barnes said. "I've been one of those guys the last three or four years that's always been a great bargain. I've played for the mid-level and have played well but have yet to see a pay day. Not to say that I'm asking for the world, but I'm definitely looking for a salary increase."
Barnes, who scored 30 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in Game 6 of the Clippers first-round series against the Memphis Grizzlies, said he was open to going elsewhere but his preference would be to stay in Los Angeles.
"I had a great season with the Clippers and my family is very comfortable here in L.A.," Barnes said. "So the Clippers are going to be one of my top choices, but we're looking for a pay increase."
Before signing with the Clippers, Barnes, who played collegiately at UCLA, played two seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers. Barnes said he enjoyed his time with the Lakers but did not have the best relationship with former Lakers coach Mike Brown, which is why he believes he wasn't re-signed by the team last year.
It was another stellar season for Paul, who finished fourth in the league in MVP voting and won the NBA All-Star Game MVP. He led the league in steals-per-game and assist-to-turnover ratio and finished second in assists-per-game. But Paul’s contributions to the Clippers go beyond mere stat lines and personal awards. Paul has made the Clippers legitimate contenders and a destination franchise since he came to the team before last season.
It’s no secret that Paul had a major say in what the Clippers did in the off-season as they went out and acquired Jamal Crawford, Lamar Odom, Grant Hill, Matt Barnes and Willie Green. Paul was usually the one doing the recruiting and pushing the front office to make those moves. Now it’s the front office and his teammates that might have to do the recruiting as Paul becomes an unrestricted free agent.
16.9 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 9.7 APG, 2.4 SPG, .481 FG, .328 3FG: Paul’s numbers offensively took a big dip largely because he averaged fewer minutes this season than at any point in his career. That had a lot to do with the Clippers’ second team, which played the majority of the second half during blowout wins.
Outlook for 2013-14
When Paul left the Clippers’ training facility last week after his exit interview, he did not indicate he would definitely be back with the team. Paul passed on a chance to sign a three-year, $60 million extension with the Clippers last year, but can sign a five-year, $108 million deal this summer.
"I'm going to take my time," Paul said. "I haven't even thought about it. I'm trying to figure out what I'm going to do the rest of the day. I might go home and swim with my son or something. This is nuts. I don't know what to do. I purposely didn't put anything on my calendar because we're supposed to still be playing."
While Paul was non-committal, Clippers vice president of basketball operations Gary Sacks said he was "very confident" the All-Star point guard would eventually re-sign with the team, which is the stance sources close to the team and Paul have echoed for some time. If Paul does re-sign on July 1, the focus will shift quickly to building a championship team around him for the next five years.
GradeA: Paul is the face of the franchise and the Clippers know they can’t afford to lose him. Thankfully for them, it doesn’t look like Paul is willing to lose $30 million by leaving the team.
It was Billups’ goal in the offseason to be back in time for the season opener, after rupturing his Achilles last February. Despite being back on the practice court in time for the opener, Billups was not back in the lineup until Nov. 28. He played three games and was out again until Feb. 8. Billups played in 22 games this season and struggled to gain any kind of continuity with the starting lineup or get into any kind of a groove. He scored just 7 combined points in the Clippers’ last three playoff games and went 0 for 6 for zero points in Game 4.
8.4 PPG, 1.5 RPG, 2.2 APG, 0.5 SPG, .402 FG, .367 3FG: Billups had the worst statistical season of his career, averaging less than 12 points and 4 assists for the first time since 2001.
Outlook for 2013-14
While it would seem to be a good time for Billups to call it a career and maybe move into a coaching position, he says he’s like to play one or two more seasons, preferably with the Clippers and Paul, before retiring and assuming a role in the front office.
"I'm focused on playing a couple more years," he said. "Two more years is my goal and after that my desire is more to be in the front office, not coaching. You never say never but my desire has never been to coach. It looks like I'm doing that now but I can't help myself. I would feel better about being in management and putting a team together."
If Paul re-signs with the Clippers, the odds are good that the Clippers will also lock up Billups for another year or two, which is either good news or bad news, depending on his health.
GradeC: Billups should get an A for coming back from a ruptured Achilles tendon at 36 but his performance this season and inability to stay on the court hurt the Clippers more than it helped them.
For a team that admittedly lacked toughness late in the season and in the postseason, “Tough Juice” was an integral piece of the starting lineup. Butler started all but four games this season and was third on the Clippers in three-point shooting percentage. He wasn’t always consistent offensively but he was a solid starter on the team and a leader in the locker room.
10.4 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 1.0 APG, 0.7 SPG, .424 FG, .388 3FG: Butler had his worst statistical season since his second season in the league and easily his worst season in terms of rebounding.
Outlook for 2013-14
Butler has one year left on his deal and has been mentioned in several trade proposals for the Clippers. As much as the Clippers like what Butler brings to the table on and off the court, if they can package him in a deal with Eric Bledsoe and/or DeAndre Jordan to get an All-Star caliber player there won’t be much hesitation.
GradeB: Butler didn’t have a great season but he played his role effectively and will likely be back in the starting lineup again unless the Clippers get a trade offer they can’t refuse.
When it comes to critics, Griffin is often in a no-win situation. He spent all off-season improving his mid-range game and his free-throw shooting and did just that. He shot a career-best 66 percent from the field and showed an ability to knock down shots outside the paint. But his critics will always label him as a dunker and point to a career-low in points and rebounds this season.
Griffin’s numbers being down had more to do with him playing career-low in minutes. In fact, he played six fewer minutes per game this season than he did during his rookie season. Still, Griffin was named to his third straight NBA All-Star Game, led the team in scoring rebounding and become just the fourth player since 2006 to average at least 18 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.0 steals in a season. And Griffin was the only player to average those numbers this season.
18.0 PPG,8.3 RPG, 1.2 APG, 1.2 SPG, .538 FG, .179 3FG: Griffin’s numbers were down from last season but the biggest improvement he made was at the free-throw line where he went from 52.1 percent last season to 66 percent this season.
Outlook for 2013-14
Griffin signed a five-year, $95 million extension with the Clippers last season and has been the face of the franchise since being the first overall selection in the 2009 NBA draft. His game continues to evolve each season, although those refinements and tweaks will always be overshadowed by his dunks.
Ignore any talks about a trade when it comes to Griffin. He’s untouchable, according to multiple sources within the organization, unless the name on the other end of the deal is LeBron James or Kevin Durant. That’s not only how important Griffin is to the franchise in terms of marketing and ticket sales but also how high they think Griffin’s ceiling is.
GradeA: Another solid season for Griffin, who continues to establish himself as a franchise player just three seasons into his NBA career.
Jordan is athletically one of the more gifted centers in the league but Vinny Del Negro and his staff feel he has a long way to go when it comes to work ethic and maturity. Despite working with a shooting coach this summer, Jordan’s free throw percentage actually fell from 52.5 percent to 38.6 percent. He was a non-factor offensively in the last two months of the season.
While Jordan is a force on defense, the Clippers were often playing four-on-five on the offensive end with Jordan’s limited offensive repertoire and his inability to hit free throws. There were several times when Jordan would actually stand out of bounds during an offensive passion to avoid being intentionally fouled. While Jordan did develop some offensive moves it is still well short of where he should be after signing a four-year, $43 million contract before last season.
8.8 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 0.3 APG, 0.6 SPG, .643 FG, .000 FG: Jordan had a career year in points but his rebounding and block totals took a hit. Still, the most troubling stat about Jordan is his regression at the free-throw line.
Outlook for 2013-14
It’s hard to get a good read on Jordan. On one hand, he looks like he has all the physical tools to be one of the best centers in the league. But on the other hand you look at what he’s done over the past five seasons and he looks like a one-dimensional player who may never realize his full potential.
The Clippers need to decide what camp they are in this season and move forward. However, judging by his performance in the postseason and certainly late in games the past two seasons, the Clippers would be wise to look at ways they could package him in a deal for a big man that will actually contribute offensively late in games and possibly take more of a leadership role on the team. (Yes, I’m talking about Kevin Garnett.)
GradeC: Jordan developed some new moves offensively and was a force on defense but his inability to make free throws and stay on the floor late in games is a big reason why he may not be in the Clippers’ long-term plans.
Fredrick J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images
The Los Angeles Clippers enjoyed their best season in franchise history, winning their first division title, a record 56 games, going on a 17-game winning streak and sweeping the Lakers for the first time. Their postseason, however, wasn’t as memorable, ending in four straight losses after taking a 2-0 series lead on the Memphis Grizzlies. We’ll take a step back and try to grade what each player brought to the table, beginning with the bench. Check back for grades on the starters and the Clippers' coaching staff and front office.
Crawford didn’t come into this season with any grand personal expectations other than winning after signing a four-year, $25 million contract last summer with the Clippers, but it didn’t take him long to change his tune. Crawford expected to be selected as an NBA All-Star for the first time in his career and to win his second NBA Sixth Man of the Year award by season’s end. Neither goal was achieved, but it didn’t take away from the incredible season Crawford had.
“It's more about winning than anything,” Crawford said. “I know a lot of people say go out there and prove why you should win this or that, but I feel I've been proving it all season. So it's not about that. You just want to go out and win.”
When Crawford was on, the Clippers and their bench were at their best. He was second on the team in scoring and ranked third in the NBA this season in fourth-quarter scoring, behind Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant. He led the league in 20-point games off the bench and was second in the league in fourth-quarter plus-minus, finishing just behind LeBron James. He also was atop all NBA reserves in scoring per 26 minutes and in simple plus-minus.
16.5 PPG, 1.7 RPG, 2.5 APG, 1.1 SPG, .438 FG, .376 3FG: After a couple of rough seasons in Atlanta and Portland, Crawford returned to the old form he had when he won the Sixth Man of the Year award with the Hawks in 2010 and nearly won the award this season, finishing second.
Outlook for 2013-14
Crawford might be one of three Clippers pieces likely set in stone if Chris Paul ends up re-signing. The Clippers believe they have arguably the best point guard, power forward and sixth man in basketball with Paul, Blake Griffin and Crawford. Everything else is negotiable. Expect to see plenty of names end up in trade rumors this offseason but no serious one will include Crawford, who has three more years on his deal and who could contend for an All-Star appearance or two or a Sixth Man award during that time.
A: He may not have had the best postseason (no one on the Clippers did) but it’s hard to ask for a better regular season from a bench player.
Arguably the best backup point guard in the NBA had another solid season and showed why he should be starting on another team if Paul re-signs with the Clippers. When Paul went down with an injury during the regular season, Bledsoe stepped in and averaged 8.5 points, 3.0 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 1.43 steals in starts.
“Bled is one of the best guards in our league," Paul said last month. “I've said it all season long. I'm enjoying playing with him right now because there's no way he can be here next year because we probably won't have enough money to pay him. He should be a starting point guard in this league next year.”
The Clippers don’t need to deal Bledsoe in the offseason but once Paul re-signs they’d be wise to start looking for suitors. One of the more popular destinations has been Boston in a package that would include DeAndre Jordan for Kevin Garnett. Considering Bledsoe had 23 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds against the Celtics earlier this season, it’s not hard to see why Boston would be interested.
8.5 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 3.1 APG, 1.4 SPG, .445 FG, .397 3FG: Bledsoe’s statistics took a massive jump from his sophomore season when he battled back from knee surgery.
Outlook for 2013-14
Bledsoe’s future with the Clippers really hinges on Paul’s decision this offseason. If he decided to stay, the Clippers would be wise in looking to deal the up-and-coming point guard for pieces that will help the Clippers compete for a championship this season with Paul. If Paul decides to leave, Bledsoe immediately becomes the team’s new starting point guard and they would move forward with Bledsoe and Griffin, while trying to add another big piece in free agency.
The smart money is on Paul saying, and the Clippers shipping Bledsoe in a package that would net the Clippers an experienced player who would help them compete for a championship.
B: Bledsoe’s continued improvement is a big reason the Clippers have been careful not to trade him too soon. He is their safety net if Paul bolts, but he is also their most intriguing bargaining chip when they enter the trade market, looking for pieces to add to the team this summer if Paul stays.
The last player signed before the start of Clippers training camp to a veteran’s minimum deal ended up being one of the most productive players off the bench and the team’s leading scorer and rebounder in their last playoff game. Barnes played in all but two games this season (both due to suspension) and averaged a career-high 10.3 points and 4.6 rebounds. He was one of the most consistent contributors off the bench, along with Crawford and Bledsoe.
10.3 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.4 SPG, .462 FG, .342 3FG: It was a career season for Barnes after two disappointing seasons with the Lakers. He seemed to thrive after doubters said he was finished and many teams passed up on him in the offseason when he was a free agent.
Outlook for 2013-14
Barnes is again a free agent but the chances of him being available a couple of weeks before the start of training camp for the minimum are slim to none. He’ll want a multiyear deal with a hefty raise and the Clippers are likely to give him one after letting him feel out the market. Despite his solid season, Barnes is 33 and has played for eight teams in 11 seasons. He’s not going to get a huge offer elsewhere and would like to stay in Los Angeles to be with his family. Barnes said during his exit interview that Paul has already started to recruit him to return next season.
“Chris and I have already been talking about it,” Barnes said. “We talked about it on the plane last night. He's obviously the franchise player but we also talked about what I was thinking about doing. Without giving anything away, he was doing his job (in recruiting me).”
Barnes would once again be a key in the Clippers’ second team and would likely see an even more prominent role if the Clippers end up dealing Bledsoe and/or Caron Butler in the offseason.
A: If you look at his production in relation to his salary, it’s hard to ask for much more from a guy making the minimum.
The Clippers acquired Odom in an offseason trade for Mo Williams and for much of this season, you had to think there must have been any number of trades that would have given the Clippers a better return for the former All-Star guard. There might even be some who still wonder that today.
Odom came into training camp a good 30 pounds overweight and it wasn’t until about midseason that he returned to his former playing weight. He would turn out to be a solid player for the Clippers off the bench and was one of only two players on the team who played in all 82 games.
They didn't expect to be out of the playoffs just two weeks after they started. Chris Paul didn't have any plans on his calendar until after June. He doesn't know how he's going to spend the rest of his summer now. He's still trying to process how to explain to his son, Little Chris, that the season is over.
But that's the harsh reality after another early playoff exit.
Despite setting a franchise record for wins (56) and securing their first Pacific Division championship, among various other season accolades, the Clippers couldn't manage to get any further in the playoffs this season than they did last season. If anything, they regressed, losing in the first round instead of the semifinals.
Without a doubt, the Clippers' top priority this offseason is re-signing Paul, and rightfully so. He's their franchise player, a superstar and arguably the best point guard in the league. With Blake Griffin already locked up until 2017, the Clippers hope to preserve their All-Star duo for at least the next half-decade.
Yet having Paul and Griffin alone won't get the Clippers to the Western Conference finals and beyond. It didn't even get them out of the first round this season, even after taking a 2-0 series lead against a team they had beaten in last year's playoffs and won the season series against, 3-1.
For the Clippers to take the next step as a franchise and endure longer postseason runs, they need to add younger and better-fitting pieces.
The Memphis Grizzlies exposed L.A.'s lack of big man depth behind Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, and made the Clippers look old and slow on the perimeter. The Clippers also need to get a little tougher, as the Grizzlies pushed them around, controlling the paint, the boards and the series.
When asked at the Clippers' exit interviews if they needed to add toughness over the offseason, Matt Barnes said: "Yeah, definitely. I think that was exploited this series. We have a lot of talent, but we do need to [get tougher]. With our two bigs (Griffin and Jordan), I think people point a lot of fingers at them because they're young. But it's a learning experience. I'm 11 years in this and I'm still learning. We have to do a better job as a team."
"We took too long to come to fight," Chris Paul told reporters following the Memphis Grizzlies' 118-105 win over the Clippers, eliminating them from the playoffs in six games.
Well, that's partially true.
The Clippers fought hard in Games 1 and 2, winning both the rebounding margins and the games, even if Game 2's nail-biter instilled confidence in the Grizzlies. The three games that followed were disasters, though, as the Grizzlies comfortably controlled each from start to finish, leaving no doubt which team was better and more prepared.
In Game 6, the Clippers finally found a way to somewhat flummox the Grizzlies' frontcourt, with aggressive double-teams whenever Zach Randolph or Marc Gasol touched the ball near the post. This caused the Grizzlies to swing the ball around the perimeter to find the open man, often resulting in an outside shot -- a victory for the Clippers' defense.
But the success didn't last long, as the Clippers were limited in their options down low. With Blake Griffin's high right ankle sprain limiting him to just 14 minutes and Lamar Odom and DeAndre Jordan not performing to his liking, head coach Vinny Del Negro decided to roll the dice with small ball lineups -- featuring Matt Barnes, Grant Hill and even Caron Butler as big men -- to try to disrupt the Grizzlies' recently efficient offense.
A season in which the Clippers won a club-record 56 games, 17 straight, their first division title and swept the Los Angeles Lakers ended with a far too familiar early vacation it seemed this team was destined to avoid.
After jumping out to the best record in the NBA through the first half of the season, the Clippers' season wasn't supposed to be over just six games into the playoffs.
It wasn't supposed to end with a first-round exit after taking a 2-0 series lead on the Memphis Grizzlies.
It wasn't supposed to end with four straight losses to a Grizzlies team they had beaten six of seven times and three straight in Memphis.
It wasn't supposed to end with a battered Blake Griffin sitting on the bench and an ejected Chris Paul sitting in the locker room watching their season slip away earlier than it did a season ago.
But that's exactly what happened as the Grizzlies beat the Clippers 118-105 Friday night to eliminate L.A. in six games and advance to play the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference semifinals. The loss not only eliminated the Clippers from the playoffs but likely set in motion a series of changes the team will undergo in the offseason.
How it happened: The Clippers were already having a hard time defending Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph when Griffin and DeAndre Jordan were at full strength. With Griffin limited because of a high ankle sprain that limited him to just 14 minutes off the bench, it was hard to contain the Grizzlies' big-man duo. They combined for 33 points, 12 rebounds and five assists. It wasn't their best game together, but it also didn't have to be as Tony Allen stepped up and scored 19 points and Mike Conley had 23 points.
What it means: Not even the greatest season in Clippers history was enough to get them into the conference finals for the first time. In fact, it wasn't even enough to get them out of the first round. The Clippers looked destined to face an Oklahoma City team playing without Russell Westbrook for a chance to play in the conference finals. Instead, they are forced to go back to the drawing board after taking a step back.
Hits: One of the biggest surprises for the Clippers this season has been Matt Barnes, who was signed for the veteran's minimum before the start of training camp at the urging of Paul, who played with him during a few pickup games. Barnes responded with a career season and one of the best games of his career Friday night. He had 30 points and 10 rebounds in 37 minutes off the bench for the Clippers and kept them in the game until the fourth quarter, when the Grizzlies pulled away.
Misses: When the Clippers entered the playoffs, many pointed to the health of Chauncey Billups, who was lost midway through last season because of a ruptured Achilles tendon. Billups, however, was a nonfactor in the Clippers' final four losses and picked up three fouls in about three minutes. He had four points on 1-of-3 shooting Friday. He had three points in Game 5 and had zero points in Game 4. Not exactly the kind of performances the Clippers were waiting for all season from "Mr. Big Shot."
Stat of the game: There are plenty of stats that stand out, but the ones that will be talked about for days are the whopping 59 personal fouls, seven technical fouls and two ejections (Paul and Randolph). Referees are supposed to let the players decide games in the playoffs, but official Joey Crawford made this one about himself and looked well on his way to ejecting everyone on the court by the end of the game.
Up next: Friday's game was the biggest in Clippers history because of what the fallout would be if they lost. Now that they have lost, the Clippers begin an offseason in which their coach (Vinny Del Negro), general manager (Gary Sacks) and franchise player (Paul) are all free agents. Now, who stays and who goes will depend largely on what Paul wants to do and if he thinks the Clippers can eventually become a championship team.
Jordan’s basket cut the Grizzlies’ lead to four points, 77-73, and with 9:26 remaining in the game, it seemed the Clippers had plenty of time to overcome the minor deficit.
Except, like their Game 3 and 4 victories in Memphis, the Grizzlies had an emphatic answer for every Clippers run, ultimately prevailing for a 103-93 win to take a 3-2 lead in the series.
On the next possession, Mike Conley ran a pick-and-roll on the left side of the floor with Zach Randolph and broke free of Eric Bledsoe, slashing his way to the rim. Jordan, Randolph’s defender, rotated over to Conley and contested his shot, forcing him to arc his layup too high and to the right.
Yet as a few Clippers stood under the basket, waiting for what seemed like an uncontested defensive rebound, Tony Allen came along the right baseline and soared into the paint for one of his five offensive boards, gently laying the ball in.
Paul, who was responsible for defending Allen on the play, stared as the shot went up and didn’t box him or anyone else out.
It was symbolic of the difference between the two teams during these last three games: the Clippers waiting for opportunities as the Grizzlies actively sought them out.
“I am disappointed with myself,” Paul said. “I have to contain the ball. … During the fourth quarter, I lost track of Tony [Allen] and he got a big offensive rebound. It starts with me.”
Scoring was often a chore for the Clippers. Only Paul (35 points) and Jamal Crawford (15 points) scored in double figures, and no one else had more than seven points. The Grizzlies made the offensive end look effortless, merely entering the ball into one of their big men on the block and watching them toy with the Clippers’ helpless post defenders.
As a result of Griffin’s high right ankle sprain, the Clippers elected to switch him onto Marc Gasol and Jordan onto Randolph for most of the game -- theoretically allowing Jordan to use his length to bother Randolph and preventing Griffin’s lack of mobility from being exposed inside -- but the defensive adjustment didn’t affect the production of either player.
Randolph had 25 points and 11 rebounds, bulldozing any defender within arm’s reach, and Gasol had 21 points and eight rebounds to go with his always superb defense. Their output (46 points, 19 rebounds) far exceeded that of all five Clippers big men combined (22 points, 19 rebounds).
In a sense, the Grizzlies’ offensive schemes are simple and somewhat predictable, yet they’ve executed them beautifully in this series, patiently finding ways to score even when the Clippers know the exact set they’re running.
“They really execute their plays,” Chauncey Billups said. “We pretty much know where they’re going. After the play is over, they dump it down. They’re a really disciplined team.”
And even if the Grizzlies missed a shot, they usually got a second chance. They grabbed 14 offensive rebounds, their second most of the series, and have had double-digit efforts on the offensive glass in all three wins.
Allen, in particular, has used his size advantage and athleticism against Paul, Crawford and Billups to attack the offensive glass. After not grabbing any rebounds in Game 1, Allen has had eight or more rebounds in three of the four contests.
His offensive rebound putback was just one of a few backbreaking plays from the Grizzlies.
Whenever their sense of control over the game dwindled, the Grizzlies responded convincingly -- Jerryd Bayless’ coast-to-coast buzzer-beating layup at the end of the third quarter, Tayshaun Prince’s 3-pointer with 1:29 remaining and Gasol’s hook shot with 48 seconds left to all but seal the game.
Since the trip to Memphis, the Clippers simply haven’t been able to stymie Gasol and Randolph, and it has affected their entire defensive system, creating leaks and holes where there shouldn’t be any. They’ve tried playing the big men one-on-one, doubling them, fronting them and even aggressively helping off spot-up shooters, among other tactics, but nothing has worked for more than a few possessions.
The result has been three straight losses, all by double digits, and an uphill fight in Friday’s Game 6 in Memphis.
Stats used are from ESPN.com and MySynergySports.com.
The Clippers lost to the Memphis Grizzlies 103-93 Tuesday night at Staples Center and face the daunting task of having to go on the road to win a playoff game to keep their season alive. Not only that, the Clippers are looking at playing with a less-than-100 percent Blake Griffin, who sprained his ankle Monday in practice and couldn’t finish Tuesday’s game.
The loss Tuesday was the third consecutive in the series for L.A., which is trying to avoid becoming only the 16th team in NBA playoff history to lose a series after taking a 2-0 lead.
“We’ve got to be desperate,” said Chris Paul, who scored 35 points Tuesday. “They say the playoffs don’t start 'til somebody loses at home, so I guess ours started.”
A loss would be a serious blow to a franchise that is trying to turn a corner and become a respected team after years as an NBA also-ran. The Clippers seemed to be headed in that direction this season when they set a franchise record for wins, won a division title for the first time, and swept the season series from the Lakers for the first time since moving to L.A.
A first-round playoff exit would almost certainly rekindle whispers of “the same old Clippers” and would put the Clippers in the same first-round loser’s boat as the Lakers. A win Friday and another one Sunday to take the series would help the franchise edge out of mediocrity and offer some hope that the recent renaissance is for real.
“None of that means anything,” Paul said. “The division, who we beat during the season -- none of that means anything. … For me, all I’m focused on is Game 6.”
Winning at Memphis will be difficult. The Clippers have lost the last two games there by 12 and 21 points. The Grizzlies are rolling now, having won the last three games by an average of 14.3 points. But the Clippers have won in Memphis in must-win situations before.
Last year, the Clippers won Game 7 of their first-round series at FedEx Forum. Just a couple of weeks ago, L.A. defeated the Grizzlies in Memphis with home-court advantage in this series on the line. Even in the two lopsided losses last week, the Clippers were within single digits at the end of three quarters.
“We know we have to play better, regroup and see how healthy we can get between now and then,” coach Vinny Del Negro said. “We’re not going to lay down. We're going to never give up, we’re going to play hard, play together and do what we can to make it work.”
It stands a better chance of working well if Griffin can play. The All-Star forward was the team’s leading scorer and rebounder in the regular season. He landed on teammate Lamar Odom’s foot during practice Monday and tried to play through the pain Tuesday, but had to come out near the end of the third quarter.
“When I feel like I can’t really do what I need to do to help our team, I don’t want to put our team at risk and make it worse,” Griffin said.
It’s still too early to determine Griffin’s status for Friday’s game. And even with a healthy Griffin, it won’t be easy for the Clippers to keep this series alive.
“It’s a challenge,” Griffin said. “They’re tough at home, but we’ve gotten tough wins at their place before so you can’t really rule anything out. Obviously, this is it. Our backs are against the wall. We have to play with a sense of urgency or obviously everybody knows what happens.”
LOS ANGELES -- The Memphis Grizzlies defeated the Los Angeles Clippers 103-93 Tuesday night at Staples Center to take a 3-2 lead in their first-round series of the Western Conference playoffs. It was the third consecutive victory for the Grizzlies and the first road win in the series for either team.
Here's a quick breakdown.
How it happened: The Grizzlies played a tough, physical game and outshined a virtuoso performance by Clippers guard Chris Paul, who had 35 points, six rebounds and four assists.
The Clippers, who played much of the second half without injured All-Star forward Blake Griffin (sprained ankle) had no answer for the inside-outside combination of Memphis forward Zach Randolph and guard Mike Conley. Those two combined for 45 points, while center Marc Gasol was unstoppable for stretches at a time and added 21 points and eight rebounds.
Gasol scored six points during an 11-0 Memphis run in the third quarter and routinely got past a wounded Griffin. A few minutes later, Griffin left the game with the Clippers trailing 71-60. He did not return.
Paul and Jamal Crawford made back-to-back 3-pointers to give the Clippers a 40-38 lead with 5:34 left in the first half, but the Clippers went through a bad stretch that turned momentum in favor of the Grizzlies. Memphis went on a 16-5 run over the next 4:46 -- a stretch that included three L.A. turnovers and fouls Nos. 2 and 3 on Griffin -- and took a 54-45 lead.
Paul, however, kept the game from getting out of reach with a pair of layups and a late 3-pointer that cut the Memphis lead to 54-48 at halftime.
Turning point: The Clippers were within two points with 9:55 to play in the third quarter, but Memphis went on an 11-0 run to take a 65-52 lead with 6:28 left in the third. It was the first double-digit lead for either team, and the Grizzlies did not trail again after that.
Player of the game: Randolph scored 10 of his 25 points in the final 10 minutes, 5 seconds of the game, seemingly singlehandedly stemming any chance the Clippers could make a run. The Clippers had cut the Memphis lead to 75-71 with 10:23 to play, but Randolph scored four points during a 6-2 Grizzlies run that kept the Clippers at arm’s length. He scored six more points during a three-minute stretch later in the fourth that helped the Grizzlies maintain a comfortable lead at 89-80. He also had 11 rebounds -- five on the offensive glass.
What it means: Memphis, which left L.A. last week down 2-0 in the series, is one win away from advancing to the second round. Only 15 teams have come back from a 2-0 deficit to win a series in NBA playoff history. The Clippers will need to regroup and find some of the magic that helped them win last season’s series against Memphis.
What’s next: The series will resume Friday in Memphis. Game 7, if necessary, will be Sunday at Staples Center.
Here are three ways the Clippers can bounce back in Game 5:
Lean on their stars more
It’s not uncommon to see superstars play 40-plus minutes a night in the playoffs, as most teams don’t have enough depth to remain viable with their bench players on the floor.
The Clippers clearly don’t have that problem, as they have arguably the best bench in the league, but their depth has actually worked against them this postseason: It has prevented them from playing their stars, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, as much as they probably should play them.
Currently, 13 players are averaging 40 or more minutes per game (MPG) this postseason. In the regular season, no one averaged more than 38.7 MPG, implying a considerable uptick for more than a dozen players.
On that list you’ll find Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol, who has averaged 40.8 minutes per game despite the fact that the Grizzlies have backup big men Darrell Arthur and Ed Davis, who would start on a lot of teams. Mike Conley, Paul’s counterpart, isn’t far behind Gasol, having already logged 37-plus minutes in three of the four games.
Meanwhile, Paul and Blake Griffin are averaging 35 and 31 minutes per game, respectively. Paul has yet to play more than 36 minutes, and Griffin has yet to log more than 34.
While foul trouble has certainly hampered Griffin’s minutes, he actually played more in Game 3 (33 minutes), when he had five fouls, than in Game 4 (32 minutes), when he had only three. In comparison, Zach Randolph, who also battled foul trouble in Games 1 and 2, played 37 minutes in both Games 3 and 4.
There are unforeseen issues, such as injuries or foul trouble, which can inhibit a star from playing 40 minutes. But those factors notwithstanding, the Clippers can afford to lean on Paul and Griffin more and reap the benefits.
Help off non-shooters more aggressively
In Games 1 and 2, the Clippers thwarted the Grizzlies’ post-ups and high-low action by largely ignoring Memphis’ wings spotting up. Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince aren’t 3-point-shooting threats, so the Clippers were able to help off of them and either hedge or double-team down low.
Not only did their aggressive approach halt the Grizzlies’ big men from gaining extra ground on the block -- by making them pick their dribble up or stop short at times -- but it also put them in better rebounding position.
In Games 3 and 4, however, the Clipper wings were more conservative in their defensive approach, rarely helping off their man and often leaving Griffin and DeAndre Jordan to try to defend Gasol and Randolph one-on-one. As the rebounding margin and points in the paint show, the results were disastrous.
Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins elected to play Quincy Pondexter, a 39.5 percent 3-point shooter this season, more minutes in Memphis, resulting in a slight increase in the Grizzlies’ 3-point attempts from 11.5 on the road to 14.0 at home (although the shots still weren’t falling). This adjustment stretched out the Clippers’ defense and allowed the Grizzlies to put a larger, longer defender on Paul.
Regardless of the lineups they deploy, the Grizzlies have yet to make more than five 3-pointers in a game this series and are shooting a paltry 29.4 percent beyond the arc. During the regular season, the Grizzlies weren’t much better, making 4.2 3-pointers per game on 32.6 percent shooting; both figures ranked in the bottom five of the league.
By any measure, the Grizzlies are subpar 3-shooting team. Until they win a game by burning the Clippers from deep, L.A. needs to regain its focus on limiting Randolph and Gasol in the paint.
Stagger the starting lineups’ minutes
Throughout these playoffs, the Clippers have constantly shuffled their lineups, with only three five-man units logging 15 or more minutes. As such, it’s difficult to glean much from the lineup data. However, this much is clear: The starting lineup has struggled immensely against the Grizzlies.
In 59 minutes (the most by any lineup), the group has mustered a 96.8 offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions), which would rank lower than the Washington Wizards’ 97.8 last-place rating, and a defensive rating of 117.3 (points allowed per 100 possessions), significantly lower than the Charlotte Bobcat’s 108.9 last-place mark.
Overall, the lineup has a net rating of minus-20.5 (net differential per 100 possessions).
Conversely, the Grizzlies’ starting lineup, which has played 66 minutes, has a 110.5 offensive rating and a 90.8 defensive rating (both figures would lead the league) and an impressive +19.7 net rating.
Since Paul and Griffin should already be playing more, the changes will have to come from the three players around them.
Billups appears to be the weakest link, as he’s been a nonfactor offensively in two games already (30 percent shooting overall) and hasn’t been able to defend Allen in the open court -- he’s shooting 52.2 percent with Billups on the floor and 44.4 percent with Billups on the bench.
Whether it’s tweaking the starting lineup by inserting the energy of Matt Barnes or Eric Bledsoe, or just playing those two a little earlier in the game, the Clippers have to figure out a way to have more success in the beginning of games.
Stats used in this post are from ESPN Stats & Information and NBA.com/Stats.
Combining for 48 points and 22 rebounds in a 21-point victory is impressive enough, but the Memphis duo's impact against the Los Angeles Clippers isn't fully captured by those numbers since the series shifted to Memphis for Games 3 and 4.
The pushing and shoving under the basket, hard screens, constant battling for position, high-low passes and effective use of their massive frames are just some of the things that make them arguably the best big-man tandem in the NBA.
While Randolph rode the momentum from his breakout performance in Game 3 to another monster outing in Game 4, Gasol showed his first glimpses of offensive dominance all series, asserting himself in the second half after a halftime speech from head coach Lionel Hollins.
A focal point of the Grizzlies’ offensive attack is the high-low play between Gasol and Randolph. With Gasol stationed at the high post, capable of shooting or passing over his defender, and Randolph down low, outmuscling his opponent for position, it’s almost impossible to stop.
The Grizzlies often initiate the movement by running a decoy action to set up either Gasol or Randolph in scoring position later in the possession.
In one instance midway through the second quarter, Mike Conley and Gasol ran a basic pick-and-roll on the left wing. As Conley drove left and evaded the Clippers’ ensuing trap, he got into the paint and kicked the ball back out to Randolph at the top of the key.
Randolph surveyed the floor, and then made an entry pass to Gasol at the left elbow. As Randolph’s defender, Ronny Turiaf, started recovering back to him after helping in the lane to stop Conley’s penetration, Randolph made a nimble backdoor cut and was fed by Gasol for a layup to extend the Grizzlies’ lead to 40-35.
The give-and-go was beautiful, the type of play you’d see from two quick guards, not a pair of lumbering big men.
"Their synergy is pretty amazing,” Clippers point guard Chris Paul told reporters after Game 4. "Z-Bo on the inside and big fella Marc -- that's another guard the way he passes the ball and shoots the ball.”
Whether it’s big-to-big screens along the baseline to create mismatches inside or tag-teaming the offensive boards, Gasol and Randolph have had their way with the Clippers’ big men. Almost no one can guard Randolph one-on-one in the paint, and Gasol’s 7-foot-1 frame allows him to release his grounded jumper whenever he chooses.
Behind the play of their bigs, the Grizzlies dominated the glass (90-61), points in the paint (86-64), and second-chance points (44-6) in Memphis, en route to two double-digit wins and a 2-2 series tie.
To have even remotely a chance of gaining back the edge in the series, the Clippers will need to double-team down low early and often, rotate decisively, and match the Grizzlies’ physicality and intensity.
The Clippers entered Memphis hoping to steal a game and then wrap up the series in L.A. in Game 5. Now, they’re guaranteed a return to FedEx Forum -- their personal house of horrors this postseason -- with their season potentially on the line.
With the history these two teams have, there are no surprises. Each team knows what the other wants to do. The Clippers are well are of the adjustments they need to make, and the type of energy and attention to detail required to handle Memphis’ frontline. Now it’s just a matter of doing it for 48 minutes.
As the Los Angeles Clippers celebrated their blowout win in Game 1 of their first-round series against the Memphis Grizzlies, there was a simple message written on the dry-erase board in the locker room:
"9 min. left 77-76. End game on 35-15 run!"
It was the kind of closeout effort that championship teams need in the playoffs. Since that game, however, the Clippers have not done a good job of closing out games at all.
The Grizzlies have outscored the Clippers in the fourth quarter of every game since then, and Saturday’s 104-83 loss was the worst performance yet. The game was tied 62-62 with 3:20 left in the third quarter before the Grizzlies outscored the Clippers 42-21 the rest of the way. The Grizzlies outscored the Clippers 33-16 in the fourth quarter and over the past three games have outscored the Clippers 77-54 in the final period.
How it happened: Much like in Game 3, the Grizzlies' big man tandem of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol was just too much for the Clippers. Randolph had 24 points and nine rebounds while Gasol, the defensive player of the year, had 24 points and 13 rebounds. The tandem’s combined 48 points and 22 rebounds were greater than the Clippers’ starters combined (40 points, 17 rebounds). In fact, Randolph and Gasol almost had as many rebounds as the entire Clippers team (28).
What it means: Despite playing a close game through three quarters, the final box score ended up looking as lopsided as the final score. The Grizzlies outrebounded the Clippers (45 to 28), had more points in the paint (46 to 38), had more second-chance points (22 to 2) and shot more free throws (29 to 17). The lopsided numbers were almost identical to the Game 3 numbers, which has to be cause for concern for L.A. after the team spent the past two days working to reverse these trends. The most glaring similarities were rebounding (45 to 33 in Game 3) and second-chance points (22 to 2 in Game 3). If the Clippers can’t change this in Los Angeles, it’s going to be hard to change the final score.
Hits: If the Clippers can hang their hat on one thing, it’s that Chris Paul responded to one of his worst playoff games ever with a solid performance. He had 19 points, six assists and just one turnover after having just eight points and five turnovers in Game 3. The problem is Paul had 14 points and five assists in the first half, which means he didn’t do much in the second half. Paul had just one point, one assist and one turnover in the fourth quarter before being taken out with the game out of hand.
Misses: Every one of the Grizzlies’ starters scored double-digit points, with two having 15 points and two more having 24 points. On the flip side, two of the Clippers’ starters went scoreless (Chauncey Billups and Caron Butler), while another (DeAndre Jordan) had only two points. It’s going to be hard for the Clippers to win many games -- on the road no less -- when three of their five starters are combing for two points, five rebounds and one assist.
Stat of the game: There are plenty of stats that Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro will circle on his final box score with a red pen, but the two big ones will be the discrepancies in rebounding and second-chance points. The Clippers don’t have a chance if those two numbers continue to be that lopsided.
Up next: The goal for the Clippers coming into these two games in Memphis was stealing one game and putting themselves in position to close the series out in Game 5 in Los Angeles. After losing back-to-back games for the first time since March, the Clippers now need to win Game 5 at Staples Center to avoid giving the Grizzlies an opportunity to close the series out in Memphis in Game 6.
They lost the rebounding battle (45 to 33), turned the ball over 18 times, were outscored in the paint (40-26), and had their worst shooting performance -- 38.8 percent -- since Feb. 1 in Toronto.
The most telling stat, however, was this: Chris Paul had more turnovers (5) than assists (4) or made field goals (4).
After failing to properly execute their pick-and-roll defense against Paul in Games 1 and 2, the Grizzlies made a concerted effort to restrict his space and force him to the left sideline in Game 3, instead of letting him to go to the middle of the floor.
The main adjustment came from the Grizzlies’ big men, who dropped back and station themselves at the free-throw line, preventing Paul from penetrating but also not giving him enough room to get a clean shot off.
With 5:40 remaining in the game, and the Clippers trailing 81-71, Paul dribbled up the left sideline while being hounded by defensive ace Tony Allen, and stopped at the left wing to initiate a side pick-and-roll with Blake Griffin.
As Zach Randolph came up to trap him, Paul split the two defenders and darted towards the paint. He then crossed over from left to right, but didn’t get far, as Allen quickly swiped the ball away from behind. Marc Gasol recovered the loose ball, and the Grizzlies went on an 8-2 run, effectively putting the game out of reach at 89-73.
The sight of Paul being stripped in a crucial juncture, as uncommon as it is, was typical of his performance on the night. He simply had no answer for the Grizzlies’ defense down the stretch. His next two pick-and-roll possessions resulted in an airball 3-pointer and an offensive foul. Four of Paul’s five turnovers came out of pick-and-roll plays.
“We made a big point of emphasis on the pick-and-roll and how our bigs were down low,” Allen told the Memphis Flyer after the game. “They had their antennas on when he was coming off of it. We tried not to let him go to the right as much as he wanted to. That's his strong hand. He does a lot of damage that way.”
In Game 3, the Clippers averaged .53 points per play (PPP) when they ran a pick-and-roll in which the ball-handler scored, got fouled or turned the ball over. For comparison, they scored 1.45 PPP in Game 1 and 1.13 PPP in Game 2 on the same possessions. During the regular season they averaged .83 PPP in those situations, which ranked third in the NBA.
Paul has had off shooting nights before, but he rarely fails to approach double-digit assists, and his four assists tied the fewest he’s had all season when playing at least 30 minutes in a game.
“It's uncharacteristic of us, especially me,” Paul told reporters after the game.
The Grizzlies found a defensive strategy that worked against Paul in Game 3. But seven-game series are all about game-to-game adjustments, so now it’s up to the Clippers to figure out with ways to free up Paul so he can become effective again.
Statistics used in this post are from ESPN.com, NBA.com/Stats and MySynergySports.com.