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.