All season long, Chris Paul has been slow to dispense praise to himself and his teammates. Give him the opportunity to bask in the afterglow of a comeback win, and he’ll tick off all the reasons the Los Angeles Clippers should never have been in the position to have to scrap back.
Even last Sunday night, after one of the most storied rallies in NBA playoff history, Paul added disclaimers to the heroics.
“Unfortunately, that’s how we play,” Paul said at the podium in Memphis. “We get killed the first three quarters and in the fourth quarter we like to stand up for ourselves.”
Unfortunately -- but that’s Paul, the Clippers’ fussy parent, the one who, if you bring home five A’s and an A-minus, will demand to know why you couldn’t do better and, above all, will insist on no excuses.
That’s why his comments after Game 2 were so curious.
“I turned the ball over way too much,” Paul said. “I’ve got to figure out how to get them off of me. Some of [the turnovers] were just bad passes and stuff like that, but when you’re getting in the lane and it’s the playoffs, [the officials] are going to let you play, and they’re going to let them grab and hold and stuff like that.”
As much as Paul may express his annoyance to the refs during the heat of the game, you’ll rarely hear Paul allude to officiating as an explanation for a subpar performance.
But Paul is correct. The Memphis Grizzlies grabbed and held and bodied up against Paul in Game 2. That’s what the Grizzlies privately pledged to do after they coughed up Game 1 in unceremonious fashion. By getting up into Paul, by fighting him on every screen, by knocking the Clippers' leader every chance they got as he moved off the ball, by wrestling with Blake Griffin -- difficult as that is -- the Grizzlies won Game 2 in their signature manner.
Great satisfaction always accompanies a playoff victory, but there’s something particularly gratifying about harnessing your strengths and riding them to a win. The Grizzlies are a team that has thrived all season on disrupting passing lanes and parlaying those deflections and steals into transition buckets (fifth in the NBA). The Grizzlies will beat you up beneath their own glass and demoralize you with putbacks (also fifth), and by stopping you in transition (third) -- and they do all that without much of a perimeter game.
In short, Memphis got an “identity win” in Game 2, and now the Clippers need one of their own in Game 3 on their home floor. As Blake Griffin said, “They played the way they always play.”
Let’s delineate for a second what that means. Digging a hole and coming back might be a byproduct of a team’s character -- as it is with the Clippers -- but it doesn’t speak to a team’s on-court attributes.
The Clippers have won this season operating on a few basic principles. Their offense isn’t intricate but, thanks to Paul, they protect the ball better than any team in the league, save Philadelphia. But so far in the postseason, they’re second-to-last in turnover rate, ahead of only the train-wreck Knicks.
The Clippers were also outstanding on the glass in the regular season (seventh overall in rebounding rate), but rank 11th out of 16 playoff teams. The Grizzlies’ frontcourt trio combined for 11 offensive boards. The Clippers as a team recorded only four. Memphis won the second-chance points battle 18-6.
The uber-efficient Griffin -- free throw woes aside -- was virtually tied with Paul in usage rate this season, but in the first two games of the series he trails Paul, Caron Butler, Mo Williams and is neck-and-neck with Eric Bledsoe, despite the fact that Griffin is matched up with a slow-footed, less-than-100 percent Zach Randolph much of the time.
Of all the interesting protagonists in this series -- Paul, Randolph, Rudy Gay, Vinny Del Negro, among others -- nobody has more at stake than Griffin. He has firmly established himself as one of the NBA’s telegenic, marketable, highlight-generating talents. As with many such figures, a chorus of critics has emerged that dismisses him as eye candy, a one-trick pony, an actor. Griffin wants to be more than a guy who moves the needle, and the only way to make the jump from sensation to superstar is to be a difference-maker when it counts most.
Griffin has contributed -- a player efficiency rating of 19 over two games isn’t chopped liver, but it’s far below his season average. But his game had a tinge of caution in Memphis. The Grizzlies have occasionally sent help at Griffin, but the kickout has often come before the extra man. For the Clippers to win a seven-game series, Griffin must assert himself as the best big man on the floor. Marc Gasol has the ball skills, Randolph the willful stubbornness, but Griffin wins on talent. Now’s the time to translate it into production.
Griffin’s contributions are vital, because the Clippers have relied on a formula this season of Spahn and Sain and Pray for Rain -- or Griffin and Paul and 3-pointers from a Small. For the Clippers to win the series, at some point, one of those smalls -- Randy Foye, Mo Williams or Nick Young (who provided that outside ball in the crucial moments of the Game 1 comeback) -- will need to have an unconscious performance. All are capable of explosion, and Game 3 is an opportune time to go off.
The postseason is energized by improbable, fluky wins, as the Clippers demonstrated miraculously in Game 1. But more often, a team achieves sustainable success in the playoffs through self-awareness. The Clippers know which tools are in the shed. On Saturday afternoon they must brandish them with impunity and get back to what works.