If you love basketball, you should make it a priority in your life to watch at least one NBA playoff game from within 15 feet of the basket. You will see, hear and feel the intensity with which players battle for the ball. It’s not a comparison to the regular season that you can track statistically, such as pace or points per possession or whatever other metric you want to use. It’s something you must quantify through your own impressions. It’s what makes the playoffs the playoffs.
“As soon as that ball goes up, it’s kind of a free-for-all,” Blake Griffin said.
The victories are so hard-fought that something as simple as tying up Zach Randolph for a jump ball during Game 6 of the Grizzlies-Clippers series could prompt L.A.’s Kenyon Martin to celebrate like a linebacker who had just dropped a quarterback for a 5-yard loss.
“Whoooo!” Martin yelled, gripping the ball like a prize for his effort as he locked eyes with the courtside fans. “Let’s go!”
It was the Grizzlies who ultimately prevailed on more of these little skirmishes. They outrebounded the Clippers, 48-32. They had more blocked shots, 9-6. They finished with more points in the paint, 46-40. That’s why it feels like they’re in the lead of a series that is tied at three games apiece ... because Game 7 is in Memphis on Sunday.
It’s not as if the Clippers weren’t willing to engage in the battle. Martin, and particularly Reggie Evans, spent the afternoon wresting with Randolph, Marc Gasol and whoever else dared enter the lane. Eric Bledsoe had almost as many rebounds as Griffin, proving that the ball was there for anyone bold enough to get it.
The Grizzlies just were more determined. It was a result, Randolph said, of “having our mindset coming into the game, knowing it was going to be a physical game. Having 48 minutes of pushing, arm-grabbing, locking, whatever.”
“We did a great job of taking the first hit,” Gasol said. “Doesn’t matter what happens. We kept on playing. We were very focused on our task defensively. We made some shots; defensively we were way more disciplined than we’ve been.”
Lamented the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan: “They got stops, they got offensive rebounds.”
Lionel Hollins won the coaching matchup, as well, thanks to his substitution pattern. During a timeout with 9:28 left in the game, Hollins sent in Rudy Gay, Hamed Haddadi, Tony Allen and Randolph. They fell behind by eight points, then that group rolled off seven consecutive points to get right back in the game. Haddadi might seem like the odd name in that group, but he had three rebounds, a blocked shot and scored two points on a putback of a missed free throw during his three-minute stretch before Gasol replaced him.
“We had the right lineup that I wanted in the game,” Hollins said.
Vinny Del Negro can’t truthfully say the same thing. He stayed with the group that got the lead just a little too long, waiting until there was only a point separating the teams before calling a 20-second timeout and substituting Chris Paul for Mo Williams. He let Bledsoe, who had been outstanding taking on an added burden for the injured Chris Paul, stay on the court a little past his stamina point.
The Clippers lost the lead and couldn’t prevail down the stretch. Paul committed an uncharacteristic two turnovers late in the game and missed the only shot he took. Their decisions on and off the court weren’t as good as Memphis’. They lost the mental game in addition to the physical battle.
From the bumps under the basket to the calculations on the sideline, there’s a greater magnitude to everything in the playoffs.