Los Angeles Clippers: Marc Gasol
LOS ANGELES -- The Memphis Grizzlies defeated the Los Angeles Clippers 103-93 Tuesday night at Staples Center to take a 3-2 lead in their first-round series of the Western Conference playoffs. It was the third consecutive victory for the Grizzlies and the first road win in the series for either team.
Here's a quick breakdown.
How it happened: The Grizzlies played a tough, physical game and outshined a virtuoso performance by Clippers guard Chris Paul, who had 35 points, six rebounds and four assists.
The Clippers, who played much of the second half without injured All-Star forward Blake Griffin (sprained ankle) had no answer for the inside-outside combination of Memphis forward Zach Randolph and guard Mike Conley. Those two combined for 45 points, while center Marc Gasol was unstoppable for stretches at a time and added 21 points and eight rebounds.
Gasol scored six points during an 11-0 Memphis run in the third quarter and routinely got past a wounded Griffin. A few minutes later, Griffin left the game with the Clippers trailing 71-60. He did not return.
Paul and Jamal Crawford made back-to-back 3-pointers to give the Clippers a 40-38 lead with 5:34 left in the first half, but the Clippers went through a bad stretch that turned momentum in favor of the Grizzlies. Memphis went on a 16-5 run over the next 4:46 -- a stretch that included three L.A. turnovers and fouls Nos. 2 and 3 on Griffin -- and took a 54-45 lead.
Paul, however, kept the game from getting out of reach with a pair of layups and a late 3-pointer that cut the Memphis lead to 54-48 at halftime.
Turning point: The Clippers were within two points with 9:55 to play in the third quarter, but Memphis went on an 11-0 run to take a 65-52 lead with 6:28 left in the third. It was the first double-digit lead for either team, and the Grizzlies did not trail again after that.
Player of the game: Randolph scored 10 of his 25 points in the final 10 minutes, 5 seconds of the game, seemingly singlehandedly stemming any chance the Clippers could make a run. The Clippers had cut the Memphis lead to 75-71 with 10:23 to play, but Randolph scored four points during a 6-2 Grizzlies run that kept the Clippers at arm’s length. He scored six more points during a three-minute stretch later in the fourth that helped the Grizzlies maintain a comfortable lead at 89-80. He also had 11 rebounds -- five on the offensive glass.
What it means: Memphis, which left L.A. last week down 2-0 in the series, is one win away from advancing to the second round. Only 15 teams have come back from a 2-0 deficit to win a series in NBA playoff history. The Clippers will need to regroup and find some of the magic that helped them win last season’s series against Memphis.
What’s next: The series will resume Friday in Memphis. Game 7, if necessary, will be Sunday at Staples Center.
Here are three ways the Clippers can bounce back in Game 5:
Lean on their stars more
It’s not uncommon to see superstars play 40-plus minutes a night in the playoffs, as most teams don’t have enough depth to remain viable with their bench players on the floor.
The Clippers clearly don’t have that problem, as they have arguably the best bench in the league, but their depth has actually worked against them this postseason: It has prevented them from playing their stars, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, as much as they probably should play them.
Currently, 13 players are averaging 40 or more minutes per game (MPG) this postseason. In the regular season, no one averaged more than 38.7 MPG, implying a considerable uptick for more than a dozen players.
On that list you’ll find Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol, who has averaged 40.8 minutes per game despite the fact that the Grizzlies have backup big men Darrell Arthur and Ed Davis, who would start on a lot of teams. Mike Conley, Paul’s counterpart, isn’t far behind Gasol, having already logged 37-plus minutes in three of the four games.
Meanwhile, Paul and Blake Griffin are averaging 35 and 31 minutes per game, respectively. Paul has yet to play more than 36 minutes, and Griffin has yet to log more than 34.
While foul trouble has certainly hampered Griffin’s minutes, he actually played more in Game 3 (33 minutes), when he had five fouls, than in Game 4 (32 minutes), when he had only three. In comparison, Zach Randolph, who also battled foul trouble in Games 1 and 2, played 37 minutes in both Games 3 and 4.
There are unforeseen issues, such as injuries or foul trouble, which can inhibit a star from playing 40 minutes. But those factors notwithstanding, the Clippers can afford to lean on Paul and Griffin more and reap the benefits.
Help off non-shooters more aggressively
In Games 1 and 2, the Clippers thwarted the Grizzlies’ post-ups and high-low action by largely ignoring Memphis’ wings spotting up. Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince aren’t 3-point-shooting threats, so the Clippers were able to help off of them and either hedge or double-team down low.
Not only did their aggressive approach halt the Grizzlies’ big men from gaining extra ground on the block -- by making them pick their dribble up or stop short at times -- but it also put them in better rebounding position.
In Games 3 and 4, however, the Clipper wings were more conservative in their defensive approach, rarely helping off their man and often leaving Griffin and DeAndre Jordan to try to defend Gasol and Randolph one-on-one. As the rebounding margin and points in the paint show, the results were disastrous.
Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins elected to play Quincy Pondexter, a 39.5 percent 3-point shooter this season, more minutes in Memphis, resulting in a slight increase in the Grizzlies’ 3-point attempts from 11.5 on the road to 14.0 at home (although the shots still weren’t falling). This adjustment stretched out the Clippers’ defense and allowed the Grizzlies to put a larger, longer defender on Paul.
Regardless of the lineups they deploy, the Grizzlies have yet to make more than five 3-pointers in a game this series and are shooting a paltry 29.4 percent beyond the arc. During the regular season, the Grizzlies weren’t much better, making 4.2 3-pointers per game on 32.6 percent shooting; both figures ranked in the bottom five of the league.
By any measure, the Grizzlies are subpar 3-shooting team. Until they win a game by burning the Clippers from deep, L.A. needs to regain its focus on limiting Randolph and Gasol in the paint.
Stagger the starting lineups’ minutes
Throughout these playoffs, the Clippers have constantly shuffled their lineups, with only three five-man units logging 15 or more minutes. As such, it’s difficult to glean much from the lineup data. However, this much is clear: The starting lineup has struggled immensely against the Grizzlies.
In 59 minutes (the most by any lineup), the group has mustered a 96.8 offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions), which would rank lower than the Washington Wizards’ 97.8 last-place rating, and a defensive rating of 117.3 (points allowed per 100 possessions), significantly lower than the Charlotte Bobcat’s 108.9 last-place mark.
Overall, the lineup has a net rating of minus-20.5 (net differential per 100 possessions).
Conversely, the Grizzlies’ starting lineup, which has played 66 minutes, has a 110.5 offensive rating and a 90.8 defensive rating (both figures would lead the league) and an impressive +19.7 net rating.
Since Paul and Griffin should already be playing more, the changes will have to come from the three players around them.
Billups appears to be the weakest link, as he’s been a nonfactor offensively in two games already (30 percent shooting overall) and hasn’t been able to defend Allen in the open court -- he’s shooting 52.2 percent with Billups on the floor and 44.4 percent with Billups on the bench.
Whether it’s tweaking the starting lineup by inserting the energy of Matt Barnes or Eric Bledsoe, or just playing those two a little earlier in the game, the Clippers have to figure out a way to have more success in the beginning of games.
Stats used in this post are from ESPN Stats & Information and NBA.com/Stats.
Combining for 48 points and 22 rebounds in a 21-point victory is impressive enough, but the Memphis duo's impact against the Los Angeles Clippers isn't fully captured by those numbers since the series shifted to Memphis for Games 3 and 4.
The pushing and shoving under the basket, hard screens, constant battling for position, high-low passes and effective use of their massive frames are just some of the things that make them arguably the best big-man tandem in the NBA.
While Randolph rode the momentum from his breakout performance in Game 3 to another monster outing in Game 4, Gasol showed his first glimpses of offensive dominance all series, asserting himself in the second half after a halftime speech from head coach Lionel Hollins.
A focal point of the Grizzlies’ offensive attack is the high-low play between Gasol and Randolph. With Gasol stationed at the high post, capable of shooting or passing over his defender, and Randolph down low, outmuscling his opponent for position, it’s almost impossible to stop.
The Grizzlies often initiate the movement by running a decoy action to set up either Gasol or Randolph in scoring position later in the possession.
In one instance midway through the second quarter, Mike Conley and Gasol ran a basic pick-and-roll on the left wing. As Conley drove left and evaded the Clippers’ ensuing trap, he got into the paint and kicked the ball back out to Randolph at the top of the key.
Randolph surveyed the floor, and then made an entry pass to Gasol at the left elbow. As Randolph’s defender, Ronny Turiaf, started recovering back to him after helping in the lane to stop Conley’s penetration, Randolph made a nimble backdoor cut and was fed by Gasol for a layup to extend the Grizzlies’ lead to 40-35.
The give-and-go was beautiful, the type of play you’d see from two quick guards, not a pair of lumbering big men.
"Their synergy is pretty amazing,” Clippers point guard Chris Paul told reporters after Game 4. "Z-Bo on the inside and big fella Marc -- that's another guard the way he passes the ball and shoots the ball.”
Whether it’s big-to-big screens along the baseline to create mismatches inside or tag-teaming the offensive boards, Gasol and Randolph have had their way with the Clippers’ big men. Almost no one can guard Randolph one-on-one in the paint, and Gasol’s 7-foot-1 frame allows him to release his grounded jumper whenever he chooses.
Behind the play of their bigs, the Grizzlies dominated the glass (90-61), points in the paint (86-64), and second-chance points (44-6) in Memphis, en route to two double-digit wins and a 2-2 series tie.
To have even remotely a chance of gaining back the edge in the series, the Clippers will need to double-team down low early and often, rotate decisively, and match the Grizzlies’ physicality and intensity.
The Clippers entered Memphis hoping to steal a game and then wrap up the series in L.A. in Game 5. Now, they’re guaranteed a return to FedEx Forum -- their personal house of horrors this postseason -- with their season potentially on the line.
With the history these two teams have, there are no surprises. Each team knows what the other wants to do. The Clippers are well are of the adjustments they need to make, and the type of energy and attention to detail required to handle Memphis’ frontline. Now it’s just a matter of doing it for 48 minutes.
As the Los Angeles Clippers celebrated their blowout win in Game 1 of their first-round series against the Memphis Grizzlies, there was a simple message written on the dry-erase board in the locker room:
"9 min. left 77-76. End game on 35-15 run!"
It was the kind of closeout effort that championship teams need in the playoffs. Since that game, however, the Clippers have not done a good job of closing out games at all.
The Grizzlies have outscored the Clippers in the fourth quarter of every game since then, and Saturday’s 104-83 loss was the worst performance yet. The game was tied 62-62 with 3:20 left in the third quarter before the Grizzlies outscored the Clippers 42-21 the rest of the way. The Grizzlies outscored the Clippers 33-16 in the fourth quarter and over the past three games have outscored the Clippers 77-54 in the final period.
How it happened: Much like in Game 3, the Grizzlies' big man tandem of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol was just too much for the Clippers. Randolph had 24 points and nine rebounds while Gasol, the defensive player of the year, had 24 points and 13 rebounds. The tandem’s combined 48 points and 22 rebounds were greater than the Clippers’ starters combined (40 points, 17 rebounds). In fact, Randolph and Gasol almost had as many rebounds as the entire Clippers team (28).
What it means: Despite playing a close game through three quarters, the final box score ended up looking as lopsided as the final score. The Grizzlies outrebounded the Clippers (45 to 28), had more points in the paint (46 to 38), had more second-chance points (22 to 2) and shot more free throws (29 to 17). The lopsided numbers were almost identical to the Game 3 numbers, which has to be cause for concern for L.A. after the team spent the past two days working to reverse these trends. The most glaring similarities were rebounding (45 to 33 in Game 3) and second-chance points (22 to 2 in Game 3). If the Clippers can’t change this in Los Angeles, it’s going to be hard to change the final score.
Hits: If the Clippers can hang their hat on one thing, it’s that Chris Paul responded to one of his worst playoff games ever with a solid performance. He had 19 points, six assists and just one turnover after having just eight points and five turnovers in Game 3. The problem is Paul had 14 points and five assists in the first half, which means he didn’t do much in the second half. Paul had just one point, one assist and one turnover in the fourth quarter before being taken out with the game out of hand.
Misses: Every one of the Grizzlies’ starters scored double-digit points, with two having 15 points and two more having 24 points. On the flip side, two of the Clippers’ starters went scoreless (Chauncey Billups and Caron Butler), while another (DeAndre Jordan) had only two points. It’s going to be hard for the Clippers to win many games -- on the road no less -- when three of their five starters are combing for two points, five rebounds and one assist.
Stat of the game: There are plenty of stats that Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro will circle on his final box score with a red pen, but the two big ones will be the discrepancies in rebounding and second-chance points. The Clippers don’t have a chance if those two numbers continue to be that lopsided.
Up next: The goal for the Clippers coming into these two games in Memphis was stealing one game and putting themselves in position to close the series out in Game 5 in Los Angeles. After losing back-to-back games for the first time since March, the Clippers now need to win Game 5 at Staples Center to avoid giving the Grizzlies an opportunity to close the series out in Memphis in Game 6.
They lost the rebounding battle (45 to 33), turned the ball over 18 times, were outscored in the paint (40-26), and had their worst shooting performance -- 38.8 percent -- since Feb. 1 in Toronto.
The most telling stat, however, was this: Chris Paul had more turnovers (5) than assists (4) or made field goals (4).
After failing to properly execute their pick-and-roll defense against Paul in Games 1 and 2, the Grizzlies made a concerted effort to restrict his space and force him to the left sideline in Game 3, instead of letting him to go to the middle of the floor.
The main adjustment came from the Grizzlies’ big men, who dropped back and station themselves at the free-throw line, preventing Paul from penetrating but also not giving him enough room to get a clean shot off.
With 5:40 remaining in the game, and the Clippers trailing 81-71, Paul dribbled up the left sideline while being hounded by defensive ace Tony Allen, and stopped at the left wing to initiate a side pick-and-roll with Blake Griffin.
As Zach Randolph came up to trap him, Paul split the two defenders and darted towards the paint. He then crossed over from left to right, but didn’t get far, as Allen quickly swiped the ball away from behind. Marc Gasol recovered the loose ball, and the Grizzlies went on an 8-2 run, effectively putting the game out of reach at 89-73.
The sight of Paul being stripped in a crucial juncture, as uncommon as it is, was typical of his performance on the night. He simply had no answer for the Grizzlies’ defense down the stretch. His next two pick-and-roll possessions resulted in an airball 3-pointer and an offensive foul. Four of Paul’s five turnovers came out of pick-and-roll plays.
“We made a big point of emphasis on the pick-and-roll and how our bigs were down low,” Allen told the Memphis Flyer after the game. “They had their antennas on when he was coming off of it. We tried not to let him go to the right as much as he wanted to. That's his strong hand. He does a lot of damage that way.”
In Game 3, the Clippers averaged .53 points per play (PPP) when they ran a pick-and-roll in which the ball-handler scored, got fouled or turned the ball over. For comparison, they scored 1.45 PPP in Game 1 and 1.13 PPP in Game 2 on the same possessions. During the regular season they averaged .83 PPP in those situations, which ranked third in the NBA.
Paul has had off shooting nights before, but he rarely fails to approach double-digit assists, and his four assists tied the fewest he’s had all season when playing at least 30 minutes in a game.
“It's uncharacteristic of us, especially me,” Paul told reporters after the game.
The Grizzlies found a defensive strategy that worked against Paul in Game 3. But seven-game series are all about game-to-game adjustments, so now it’s up to the Clippers to figure out with ways to free up Paul so he can become effective again.
Statistics used in this post are from ESPN.com, NBA.com/Stats and MySynergySports.com.
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.