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Memphis center Marc Gasol: "We haven't done anything. We're 2-2."
Let’s not call what the Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies share a rivalry, because that’s a stamp reserved for rare use. But for the second consecutive season, the Clippers and Grizzlies are delivering us a serious piece of first-round entertainment that plays like something we usually see in late May. These games have been fueled by a familiar but unique grade of intensity, and with Game 5 set for Staples Center on Tuesday night, the heat in this series will be dialed up to maximum capacity.
Both last year and now, Clips-Griz has been the rare first-round series where an early bounce would be cataclysmic for both teams. Each team played championship-caliber basketball for sustained stretches during the regular season, and both have produced a single performance (Clippers Game 1, Grizzlies Game 4) as good as anything else on display in the first round.
The problem for both is that the furthest reaches of the playoff bracket generally have room for only one team of that breed. That means that in less than a week, one of these two 56-win teams will be in basketball purgatory after the most successful season in franchise history and showing glimpses of brilliance just days before elimination.
Beyond success or failure, there’s even more at stake. Chris Paul becomes a free agent on July 1. Although the probabilities of his remaining with the Clippers are very high, meeting last season’s benchmark leaves far less doubt than a playoff failure does.
On the Memphis side, it’s clear the Grizzlies’ new management is playing the long game. They’re an inquisitive group by their very nature, and it’s difficult to imagine the organization not fully exploring every opportunity this summer, even if that means losing guys who are major contributors to the team’s identity. The case for retaining the present core becomes an even tougher sell if the Grizzlies make a first-round exit for a second straight spring.
Neither coach is under contract for next season, which means the respective long-term prospects of Vinny Del Negro and Lionel Hollins are both in play, something we rarely see in a series. No matter how high the stated expectations or personal preferences, it’s hard to dismiss a coach who led a team that won a ton of basketball games and justified its playoff seeding. But it’s easy to argue for change if that team is either backsliding or stagnating.
A vulnerable Oklahoma City Thunder team -- the presumptive second-round matchup for whoever emerges from the wreckage -- compounds that intensity because both the Clippers and Grizzlies can see a navigable path to the NBA Finals.
The most competitive seven-game playoff series tend to be divided into two acts. The first four games comprise the first act. Although the Clippers and Grizzlies met 14 times in 15 months prior to this series, Act 1 served to re-establish the characters and larger themes of the series -- and the introduction of new ones.
The Grizzlies are the league’s most self-realized team. They’ve come to terms with their shortcomings, and when they’re at their best, the Grizzlies mitigate those flaws and focus on their undeniable strength. No other unit in the NBA features a frontcourt tandem that is so perfectly complementary as Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. For a team that ranked in the bottom half of the league in offensive efficiency during the regular season, man, Memphis runs some beautiful stuff when Gasol and Randolph are synchronized and using their big-man telepathy.
In Games 1 and 2 on their home court, the Clippers had relative success mucking this up. Much of that was Blake Griffin winning the battle of wits against Randolph down on the low block, but also the Clippers’ bigs applying pressure and making aggressive attempts to deny entry to Gasol and Randolph.
In Memphis, Gasol controlled the space on the floor, almost as the big man version of Chris Paul. Gasol obviously doesn’t have possession of the ball to the extent Paul does, but Gasol’s movement off the ball is just as vital to his team’s offense as Paul's movement of the ball is to the Clippers. Randolph’s work space is much smaller, but the baseline in Memphis belonged to him. Space dictates control underneath -- the angles available to Randolph when he’s fed the ball and looking to score (which he does at an efficient rate), and the room he’s afforded to gobble up misses. Armed with virtually no lethal perimeter shooting, the Grizzlies can’t succeed without executing the high-low game, Randolph isolated in the post and Gasol finding clean attempts by lifting to 20 feet against a scrambling Clippers’ defense.
The Clippers are almost mirror opposites of the Grizzlies and are a hard team to understand because they’re a study in contradiction. Critics -- and I’ve been one -- cite the team’s rudimentary offense which seems to stall at inopportune times against the league’s better defenses (Memphis is ranked No. 2 in the NBA). But as Del Negro rightly pointed out the other day, the Clippers ranked fourth in offensive efficiency this season. However much the Clippers’ half-court offense offends aesthetic sensibilities, the results bear out. Paul’s surgical work off the dribble and Griffin’s capacity to work at will on the block were the primary elements of control in Games 1 and 2.
So here we are at Act II, about 265 basketball possessions per team to culminate a season that’s seen almost 8,000. The Clippers and Grizzlies style different fashions on the court, but they both stake claim to possession control as the defining attribute to their master plans. For all the other factors that are ratcheting up the pressure in the series, that commonality -- the need to control not just tempo, but also physical and mental space -- boils the hottest.