- Arash Markazi, ESPN Staff Writer
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For all the talk about teams not caring whom they play or where they play in the postseason, there is little question that nobody in the West wanted to play the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the playoffs. Just ask the San Antonio Spurs how well that went for them last season after they finished with the best regular-season record in the league and were bounced by Memphis in six games.
The Clippers have known for some time that their first-round opponent would likely be Memphis. The only question was which team would have home-court advantage. All the Clippers had to do was win two of their last four games to secure the No. 4 seed and home court in the first round. They ended up losing three of their last four games while Memphis reeled off six straight wins to steal home court on the final night of the season.
Considering how close these two teams are on paper, home court could very well decide the series. The Clippers won their first two meetings against the Grizzlies in Los Angeles but lost their most recent meeting in Memphis 94-85 on April 9. The Grizzlies haven’t lost at home since March 18 and have won 10 straight at the FedEx Forum. Meanwhile, the Clippers closed out the season losing three straight road games and have never finished with a record at or above .500 on the road in franchise history.
Here’s a position-by-position breakdown of the Clippers-Grizzlies first-round matchup and a prediction for the series:
Point guard: This is one of the more intriguing matchups in the playoffs. Since arriving in Los Angeles in December, Chris Paul has completely changed the face of the Clippers, a team making only its fifth playoff appearance since 1976 and first since 2006. Paul is an MVP candidate this year after finishing with one of the better seasons for a point guard in recent history. He is one of two players in NBA history to have a season averaging at least 19.0 points, 9.0 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 2.5 steals per game. He ranks first in the NBA in steals per game, second in assist-to-turnover ratio and third in assists per game. Paul is the kind of player who can will his team to unlikely wins in the postseason as he single-handedly led the undermanned New Orleans Hornets to two wins over the Lakers last year, including stealing home court in the first game of the series. Meanwhile Mike Conley has continued to develop into one of the best point guards in the league. He is second only to Paul in steals and ranks in the top 10 in the league in assists. Conley finished the season by going scoreless (0-for-5 from the field) against Orlando in the regular-season finale but averaged 14.6 points and 5.2 assists on 52.9 percent shooting in 31.8 minutes in the previous five games as Memphis won six straight games to finish the season.
Shooting guard: Statistics don’t tell the whole story with Tony Allen, who is the heart and soul of the Grizzlies and the lynchpin of their stingy defense. Allen, who was a key player on Bostons’ 2008 championship team, recorded a franchise-record and career-high eight steals this week against Cleveland. It was tied for the most steals by an NBA player in a single game this season. What makes Allen so good is that he progressively gets better later in the game on both sides of the ball. Allen is shooting 70.0 percent from the field (14-of-20) with under three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, which is tied for the second-highest percentage in the NBA. The Clippers counter with Randy Foye, who has played admirably since Chauncey Billups was lost for the season in February with a ruptured Achilles tendon. Foye has developed into a threat from downtown late in the season, hitting a 3-pointer in 21 straight games before failing to make a shot against Atlanta this week. It was the second-longest current streak in the NBA with at least one 3-pointer made. In the last 15 games of the regular season, Foye’s 42 3-pointers leads the NBA.
Small forward: This is probably the X factor matchup of the series. Memphis is 23-9 when Rudy Gay scores 20 or more points while the Clippers are 21-10 when Caron Butler scores 13 or more points. So basically whoever is feeling it on any particular night will give his team the best chance to win. Gay is averaging a team-high 18.9 points (18th in the NBA), a career-high 6.4 rebounds and 1.45 steals in a team-high 37.3 minutes per game (seventh in the NBA) after returning from last season’s season-ending shoulder injury. Last week he scored a season-high 32 points against Phoenix. Gay has been solid this season in the paint and from behind the arc as he’s the only player in the league with at least 100 dunks and 40 3-pointers. Butler has been streaky this season and had his worst statistical season since his second campaign in the league in 2003-04. He averaged 12.0 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1.2 assists per game this season but his numbers fell off after Billups was lost for the season and he failed to record a single field goal in three games he started over last six weeks of the season.
Power forward: Mark this matchup as "subject to change" after Zach Randolph started the Grizzlies’ regular-season finale against Orlando and scored 13 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in 26 minutes. Memphis hasn’t committed to Randolph as the starter in the playoffs after compiling a 37-17 record with Marreese Speights as the starter. Speights is recording career highs this season in points and rebounds per game and free throw percentage. He scored a season-high 25 points and had a career-high 5 assists last month against the Lakers. Randolph has scored 10-plus points 19 times and 20-plus points three times, including a season-high 25 points in 25 minutes on March 16 against Toronto, which was his first game back after sustaining a torn right MCL on Jan. 1 at Chicago. Although Blake Griffin has been getting grief this season for his poor free throw shooting and his diminished numbers in the fourth quarter, he still had an outstanding sophomore season. Griffin was the only player this season to average over 20.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game. He is also one of only two players (Dwight Howard) averaging at least 20.0 points, 10.5 rebounds and shooting 54.0 percent from the field. Griffin led the league with 190 dunks this season and was fourth with 41 double-doubles.
Center: He may have been known as Pau’s little brother in the past but Marc Gasol broke out from the shadow of his older brother this season after being named to his first All-Star team and having a career season. Gasol averaged 14.5 points, 9.0 rebounds (15th in the NBA), a career-high 3.2 assists and a career-best 1.84 blocks (seventh in the NBA) this season. Gasol is one of only three NBA players this season (Kevin Love and Marcin Gortat) who have put together a streak of at least 10 games with 10-plus rebounds. He also won his first career NBA player of the week award by averaging 19.5 points, 9.8 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 2.50 blocks on 67.3 percent shooting in 36.3 minutes while leading Memphis to a perfect 4-0 record during the week of Jan. 16. DeAndre Jordan has slowly come into his own as well in his first season as a full-time starting center in the NBA. Jordan finished fourth in the league with 2.06 blocks per game and was one of only three players with at least 7.5 points, 8.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game this season. He is also one of only two players (Tyson Chandler) with at least 320 field goal attempts and shooting 63.0 percent from the field. He finished third in the NBA in dunks with 141, just nine dunks behind second-place finsher JaVale McGee.
Bench: Depending on Randolph’s status as a starter, this will be an interesting matchup. Outside of Randolph or Speights, Memphis will rely on O.J. Mayo, Quincy Pondexter, Gilbert Arenas and Dante Cunningham. Mayo leads Memphis in 3-pointers made (100) and 3-point field goal percentage (.364) and is the only Grizzlies player to appear in every game this season. Mayo scored 10-plus points 46 times and 20-plus points six times, including a season-high 24 points on March 31 at Milwaukee. The Clippers will rely heavily on Mo Williams off the bench. Williams, who is a candidate for the Sixth Man of the Year award, averaged 13.4 points and 3.1 assists this season. The Clippers' bench has scored a total of 1,622 points this season, with Williams accounting for 41.7 percent of them. Nick Young, Kenyon Martin, Eric Bledsoe and Reggie Evans will also be a part of the Clippers’ rotation
Coach: Last month, Vinny Del Negro seemed to be reeling, after his team dropped three games in three days. Last week, he was being mentioned as a dark-horse pick for NBA Coach of the Year after the Clippers won 13 of 15 games. Now, after they lost three of four games to finish the season, Del Negro might have to advance past this series to keep his job next season. Such is the life of an NBA coach, it seems. Lionel Hollins’ job security is far less in doubt after leading Memphis to back-to-back playoff appearances. Since he was tabbed as head coach in January 2009, Hollins has improved Memphis’ regular-season record each season and became the franchise’s all-time winningest coach this season. Under Hollins, Memphis has become one of the best defensive teams in the league. The Grizzlies topped the NBA in steals (9.6) and forced turnovers (17.2) this season after leading each category last season. The last NBA team to lead the league in both steals per game and forced turnovers per game for consecutive seasons was the 1995-96 and 1996-97 Seattle SuperSonics.
Series prediction: Grizzlies in seven games.