With their storybook season on a lifeline, the Los Angeles Clippers had perhaps their gutsiest performance of the 2013 playoffs, but it simply proved too late.
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.
The Grizzlies adjusted -- just as they did all series -- by attacking the double-teams early, bringing better shooters off the bench to space the floor and cutting behind the teeth of the Clippers' defense to get into the paint and draw fouls (they shot 47 free throws). Even with no Clippers big men out there at times, the Grizzlies stayed true to their game plan and kept Randolph and Gasol on the floor, finding other ways to tweak their style of play.
A 21-foot fadeaway jumper by Butler with 5:15 left capped a brief 10-1 run by the Clippers -- a stretch in which they implemented a 3-2 matchup zone defense -- bringing them to within six points, 103-97.
On the ensuing possession, the Clippers coaxed Gasol into a contested hook shot that he missed, igniting a Clippers fast break the other way. Barnes secured the rebound and began dribbling to the right side of the floor, ignoring the left side -- where Paul was asking for an outlet pass -- altogether.
He then passed to Chauncey Billups, who pushed the ball up the floor and isolated Mike Conley on the right wing. When Billups began to make his move baseline, a simple left-to-right crossover, he fumbled the ball off his right leg and out of bounds.
The unforced error halted the Clippers' momentum. What's worse, the Grizzlies' struggling offense had a chance to catch its breath and regroup. Conley came down, passed to Jerryd Bayless on the right wing, quickly received a back screen from Gasol and then stepped back to calmly swish a wide-open 3-pointer at the top of the arc.
The Grizzlies' lead stretched to nine points, 106-97, and the Clippers never got any closer. Memphis made another backbreaking 3-pointer and then a Randolph layup to seal the Clippers' fate. The game, the series and the season were over.
For as much as the Grizzlies' big men dominated the paint and seemingly scored at will, one of the X factors of the series was how the Grizzlies' wing players -- Tony Allen, Tayshaun Prince, Quincy Pondexter and Bayless -- all made timely contributions, exposing the Clippers' wings as old, slow and unathletic defensively.
Billups played abysmal defense all series, allowing Allen (19 points, seven rebounds and six assists in Game 6) to leak out in transition, grab offensive rebounds, and cut into the lane for uncontested layups. He didn't provide much offensive value either, averaging just 6.2 points and 1.0 assist on 30.6 percent shooting. He also had the second-worst net rating on the team (-12.7 points per 100 possessions), trailing only Butler (-19.3).
Yet those two started the entire series and closed out Game 6, while Eric Bledsoe (+10.3 net rating) and Jamal Crawford (-0.9 net rating) watched from the bench. Crawford was the Clippers' second-best option offensively with Griffin hobbled, and Bledsoe has been a one-man wrecking crew against Conley since last season. Instead, Willie Green and Hill, both of whom didn't play much during the series, were inserted and played crunch-time minutes.
Overall, the Clippers' defensive strategy in Game 6 forced the Grizzlies to beat them with 3-pointers and they did. Memphis made eight, the most the Grizzlies made all series, and scored a season-high 118 points, five more points than their Jan. 7 matchup with the lowly Sacramento Kings, beholders of the second-worst defense in the league.
It was also the most points the Clippers had allowed a team to score this season. In the most important game of their season, the Clippers had their worst defensive performance. The loss marked the first time in playoff history that a team with a 2-0 lead lost their next four games by double-digit points.
As the series progressed, the Clippers' shaky defense made the Grizzlies look more and more like offensive juggernauts, giving them momentum they'll likely ride deep into the playoffs. The Clippers, meanwhile, will have plenty of questions to answers over the offseason, including the direction of the franchise and who will return next year.
"We didn't do a good job responding to their changes," Griffin somberly told reporters in his postgame news conference.
Those words defined this series. In an even battle, the slightest advantages make the biggest differences. The Grizzlies made adjustments and the Clippers never countered. When they finally tried, it was too late.