Timing is sometimes as important as results in the NBA during this truncated season. Take, for example, the season series between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Memphis Grizzlies.
On Monday night, the Grizzlies beat the Clippers 94-85 in what could be a preview of a first round playoff series between the Nos. 4 and 5 seeds. As important as Monday night’s result was, the Clippers are still a half game ahead of the Grizzlies in the standings and still hold the all-important tie-breaker with a 2-1 advantage in the season series.
The Grizzlies, however, could have blown up the Clippers’ season 16 days ago if they had beaten them at the Staples Center after the Clippers came limping into the game having lost three road games in three days. There were reports at the time that Clippers owner Donald Sterling was prepared to fire coach Vinny Del Negro after the game if the Clippers had lost. Instead, the Clippers responded with arguably their most complete game of the season, beating the Grizzlies 101-85. They would go on to win six straight, their longest winning streak in 20 years, and won 8 of 9 games to turn around their season.
Whereas a blowout loss two weeks ago could have cost the Clippers their coach and maybe their season, now it simply signals a moment for both teams to step back and reevaluate where they are with ten games left in the season.
Think of it like a boxing match. The Grizzlies could have delivered a knockout punch early; the Clippers withstood it and now it’s basically even on the judges’ cards with ten rounds left.
This much is clear after Monday night’s game in Memphis: The Clippers are not the same uninspired group that lost three games in three days during their last long road trip a couple weeks ago. That team would have folded and gotten blown out after the Grizzlies were up 81-64 with 6:20 left. This team fought back, went on a 19-5 run and were within 86-83 with 55 seconds left before the Grizzlies won.
If the Clippers do end up playing the Grizzlies in the first round (and they would if the season ended today), the favorite would likely come down to which team has homecourt advantage. The Clippers won both of their home games against the Grizzlies this season by an average of 11.5 points and the Grizzlies have won their last two home games against the Clippers and controlled the action for much of Monday’s game.
The Grizzlies already showed what they could do in the postseason last year, upsetting the top seeded San Antonio Spurs in six games and taking the Oklahoma City Thunder to seven games. The Clippers as a franchise meanwhile haven’t been to the playoffs in six years and are filled with a roster full players such as Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Randy Foye and Eric Bledsoe who have never even played in a playoff game.
With the Spurs, Thunder and Lakers separating themselves from the pack in the Western Conference, perhaps the most interesting battle out West now is between the Clippers and Grizzlies for home court advantage against each other in the first round. A Clippers win on Monday would have put them in the driver’s seat, but that distinction might now be held by the Grizzlies. While the Clippers play seven of the last 10 games on the road, the Grizzlies play six of their last 10 games at home and six of their last seven games are against teams below .500. So while the Clippers finish the season with three sets of back-to-back games on the road, the Grizzlies face the likes of the New Orleans Hornets twice, the Charlotte Bobcats and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
If the Clippers are going to survive another brutal stretch on the road to finish the season and have a chance to take down the Grizzlies, with or without homecourt, they will need to develop the same kind of consistency off the bench that Memphis has right now with O.J. Mayo and Zach Randolph. Del Negro only played three players off the bench Monday night and only Eric Bledsoe was remotely effective, scoring 11 points in 21 minutes. That should change once Mo Williams returns from a toe injury this week but the Clippers’ 8-2 record without the shoot-first Williams is probably more than just a coincidence. Nevertheless, the Clippers will need a player like Williams come playoff time to give them some scoring on the perimeter. That was evident Monday night as Foye, Caron Butler and Nick Young combined to shoot just 7-for-29 (24.1 percent) for 16 points.