- Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN Staff Writer
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The Grizzlies established control of the series when they reacquainted themselves with the paint.
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- What was once indifference between the Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies has descended into hostility over six games. These teams actively dislike each other. The Clippers have made light of Memphis' "Grit 'n' Grind" handle and generally annoyed the Grizzlies with their posturing. Memphis has countered that the Clippers are a bunch of floppers -- its head coach going so far as to accuse Chris Paul in a live interview during Game 4. When the topic of Paul's injury came up after Game 6, Zach Randolph fired back that he didn't even know Paul was hurt, implying that the Clippers' injuries were merely incidental, a sideshow.
All of it will come to a head on Sunday afternoon in Game 7.
The health of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin
Whatever Randolph says at the podium, the Clippers simply aren't the same team with Paul and Blake Griffin hobbled. On Friday night after the Grizzlies' Game 6 win in Los Angeles, Paul, Marc Gasol and Randolph pointed out that nobody is 100 percent this time of year. True, but the Clippers can't function as an offensive team without Paul and Griffin. When the Clippers had their offense rolling late in Games 1 and 3 and most of Games 2 and 4, the formula was simple: Make the Grizzlies choose between bringing bodies to the paint to stifle Paul's penetration, which presents problems on the perimeter and with balance, or yield seams to Paul and pray that the help will come from the right place at the right time.
Paul clearly doesn't have the same burst off the bounce or the ability to change speeds, probe, beat his guy and get to his spot for an elbow jumper before the defense can recover. Without that, the Clippers' offense suffers from rigor mortis. Paul can't split a trap, and ultimately, the Grizzlies can play him straight up, while the help can stay home on the Clippers' perimeter shooters. With Paul on the court in Game 6, the Clippers shot only 39 percent.
Meanwhile, Griffin pummeled Memphis in his breakout Game 4 as the roll man with Paul, posting up and going decisively into his move. That's the key: Griffin's knee won't prevent him from being on the floor, but without a confident face-up game, he must rely entirely on those up-and-unders, spins and step-throughs. With the bum knee, he's a step slow -- and you can slice a few inches off the vertical. That's the difference between wreaking destruction at the rim and having to finesse his way to the basket.
The Grizzlies' inside job
Gasol got what he wanted after a frustrating long weekend in Los Angeles during Games 3 and 4: He's again the centerpiece of the Memphis offense. On Friday night, there was a lovely balance to Gasol's game, an exhibition of his versatility. Memphis used him to run a pick-and-roll in the left slot, from where he was able to beat the Clippers' rotation on the dive. They posted him up on the left block, where he launched that pretty hook over the Clippers' defense. And when the Clippers came hard at Gasol in the high post, he dumped it off to Randolph (the recipient of all three of Gasol's assists) in Memphis' savvy high-low game.
The pinpoint bounce pass that Gasol delivered to Randolph at the three-minute mark in Game 6 was a thing of beauty. Mike Conley and Gasol ran that angle pick-and-roll on the left side. Gasol stopped at the edge of the paint and received the pass as the Clippers trapped Conley, forcing Kenyon Martin to rotate up from the baseline. As Martin approached, Gasol hit Randolph wide open beneath the hoop on the right side. A perfectly executed play by Memphis at the biggest moment of the series, which is how you advance in the postseason.
Randolph has found his legs and looks more like the bully from last season's playoffs than the player who was struggling to carve out space for himself down low. For Randolph to be successful, he needs to rip through and keep his defender moving. That's how he creates that space, and that's what he's been doing the past few games.
Having two big men with diverse but overlapping skill sets allows Memphis to do some interesting stuff in the half court. Sometimes the offense just needs a nudge.
Who else for the Clippers?
With Paul and Griffin banged-up, the Clippers must get something exceptional from one of the supporting actors. Randy Foye, Caron Butler, Mo Williams and Nick Young have each had their moments over this season and, to a lesser extent, in the playoffs. In Game 5, that performance came from second-year dragonfly Eric Bledsoe.
Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro isn't predisposed to trust young players. Whether it's because he's risk-averse, conflict-averse or just more comfortable with guys who've "been there," Del Negro favors vets. With Paul hurting and Williams suffering a hand injury in Game 6, Del Negro had to lean on Bledsoe for significant minutes -- and it's about time.
Bledsoe doesn't stretch the floor for the Clippers, but he's their best perimeter defender on and off the ball. He has an uncanny synergy with Paul in the backcourt. For aforementioned reasons, the two played together for only 76 minutes in the regular season. The Clippers scored 111.4 points per 100 possessions during that time and gave up only 93.5. In this series, Bledsoe is a plus-35. When Bledsoe on the floor, Conley is minus-34 (and plus-47 when Bledsoe is off).
Both Bledsoe and Foye, who has struggled in the series, will have to make major contributions on Sunday for the Clippers to escape Memphis with a W. The Clippers also will have to be more resourceful because their two best creators are limited. When Reggie Evans is your roll man off the high ball screen, life doesn't become any easier, because now two defenders are blitzing Paul. As it is, Tony Allen and Conley make things difficult enough because they can play the Clippers' perimeter straight up. Getting the shooters clean looks at the basket will have to come via flare screens and a ton of movement in the half court.
So who's it going to be?
The battle on the margins
In many ways, this series has been fought in the periphery -- on the offensive glass, in passing lanes, at the foul stripe. Neither team has gotten much of what it wants offensively, but there have been ample opportunities to supplement that cruddy output with extras. For instance, the Grizzlies have annihilated the Clippers on the offensive glass, where Memphis has collected more than one out of every three available rebounds -- its 33.7 offensive rebounding rate is tops among postseason teams. (As a frame of reference, the Bulls ranked first in the regular season with a 32.6 offensive rebounding rate.)
For the Grizzlies, this is vital because they're a terrible shooting team. They've been outshot by the Clippers in the series but have been able to make up ground by getting additional looks at the basket -- at short range, no less. Memphis' prowess on the offensive glass is especially impressive when you consider that the Clippers were a pretty decent defensive rebounding team during the regular season. Overall, the Grizzlies have racked up 15.4 second-chance points per 48 minutes, with only 10.2 for the Clippers.
In the turnover event, the Clippers protected the ball better than any team other than Philadelphia during the regular season, and Memphis led the league in opponent turnover rate. Something had to give, and true to form, the Clippers and Grizzlies have played to a draw with identical 12.69 turnover rates. The Grizzlies had been winning the turnover battle but coughed the ball up 22 times in Game 6 -- the only reason the Clippers were in a game in which the Grizzlies shot better and controlled the glass decisively.
Then there's the foul game. Both teams hack with impunity, and both are spending plenty of time at the stripe in this series. But the team that has gotten to the line with greater frequency has won five of the six games -- the Clippers' Game 3 rally the only exception.
Here, the Clippers have to be careful on Sunday. When players are gimpy, they have a tougher time staying in front of their guy. They're more desperate defenders and, in turn, tend to be more likely to foul. Paul didn't foul out of a game all season but was whistled for six fouls in Game 6. Evans, who likely will pick up some of Griffin's minutes, is a foul machine. With the Grizzlies re-establishing their inside game, there will be more pressure than ever on the Clippers' defense to body up on the block. They'll have to do so carefully.
Information in this post was provided by NBA.com.
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