Clippers play to strengths in Game 1
LOS ANGELES -- We knew a series rematch between the Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies would be disorderly. The Grizzlies have never been concerned with appearances. They're defensive savants with untucked shirts and scuffed shoes. The Clippers' offense is efficient, but despite the pyrotechnics you catch on "SportsCenter," it sure isn't elegant in the half court.
Many of those impressions held up in the Clippers' 112-91 Game 1 win over the Grizzlies on Saturday night. A brisk first quarter devolved into a slow, 85-possession slog. Blake Griffin, Zach Randolph, Mike Conley, Marc Gasol and DeAndre Jordan battled foul trouble. Griffin and Randolph repeatedly locked arms and snarled down on the low block, while both defenses clipped cutters, bumped rollers and pushed anyone who dared to post up off his spot.
"It's going to be physical every single game," Griffin said. "So as long as at the end of the game we're winning that rebounding battle and we're up, I'm cool with it."
In these respects, the game had all the flavor of a usual tilt between these two teams, but while the Clippers played to their strengths, the Grizzlies acted completely out of character.
"We got beat at our game," Gasol said. "Even though we weren't really feeling like ourselves, they were doing a good job of trying to get us away from what we're trying to do."[+] EnlargeHarry How/Getty ImagesEric Bledsoe was a catalyst for the Clippers, tallying 15 points on 7-for-7 shooting in only 18 minutes of action.
Chris Paul tends to have that effect on defenses and did again in Game 1. The Grizzlies have typically done a reasonably good job defending the Clippers' pick-and-roll by influencing Paul to the left sideline. After a first quarter in which he spent a fair amount of time off the ball, Paul defied the Grizzlies' schemes and owned the middle of the floor. When that happens, the Clippers are a dangerous team.
"Offensively, we got what we want," Griffin said. "Guys were attacking. Guys hit shots -- and we took open shots."
So how does an elite, well-prepared defense yield that kind of real estate? Credit Paul and the Clippers for being mindful of the Grizzlies' tendencies and doing everything in their power to control the half court.
"We ran a lot of plays that were geared toward the middle of the court," Jamal Crawford said. "[Griffin] and [Jordan] flipped a lot of their screens and Chris is so crafty. Give him enough space and he'll cross over and get where he wants to go."
Paul finished with 23 points on 7-for-11 shooting from the field and 6-for-6 from the stripe. He sparked a flurry to begin the third quarter when he scored seven points in just more than two minutes. The final of his three buckets came on a crossover of Jerryd Bayless, then a step-back 3-pointer. The shot extended a six-point halftime lead to double-digits and forced a frustrated Memphis bench to call timeout. Less than an hour later in an almost identical sequence, Paul drilled the dagger over Bayless from 27 feet out.
Throughout the night, the Clippers got the ball into the hands of their primary creators. When those players encountered a wall, they promptly kicked it out to the perimeter for open shots or drives. The Clippers shot a whopping 61.8 percent on 2-point shots, a figure that no defense, however grindy or gritty, can possibly contend with.
That was just one of the many uncharacteristic elements we saw from the Grizzlies. The league's second-ranked rebounding team got pummeled on the glass. The Clippers collected 42 percent of their missed shots, resulting in 25 second-chance points.
"They have two and three guys going to the glass every time, jumping over us and using their athleticism," Conley said. "We have to do a better job checking up, and our guards have to come back to rebound and help our bigs."
Conley was another anomaly for the Grizzlies on Saturday. The point guard is the bellwether for Memphis' success but did not have a memorable evening. He was apprehensive on offense, tentative when it was time to turn the corner on high picks, but also remarkably unable to make passes to the second side. Defensively, he got burned by Paul all night.
Often, defensive stopper Tony Allen is called on as the fireman against an aggressive point guard, but with Chauncey Billups stationed at the 2 spot for the Clippers, the Grizzlies were reluctant to risk having Billups drag Conley down to the post. On the one occasion in the third quarter Conley found himself switched onto the vet, Billups promptly hit a shot over the diminutive point guard.
Eric Bledsoe, who gives the Grizzlies fits, was a vital factor not just defensively, but as an offensive spark plug who scored 15 points on a perfect 7-for-7 night from the field. Not seconds after he removed his sweats and checked in, Bledsoe's relentless pestering lured Keyon Dooling into a technical foul. Under Bledsoe's direction, Crawford's shot and Barnes' activity, the Clippers' frenetic second unit posted one of its better outings in recent weeks.
"I stay in Bledsoe's ear because he's the catalyst," Paul said. "He's the guy that's the game-changer. When he's playing with that aggressive mentality on both ends of the court, we're tough to beat."
For the Clippers, the vibe during and after Game 1 felt very much like their undefeated December. Jordan scored only three points but patrolled the paint and controlled the glass for the Clippers, earning himself 30 minutes. Players' kids overran a cheery postgame locker room. Griffin was wry and measured at the podium, fully aware he was the grown-up in the Griffin-Randolph relationship on Saturday night.
For all the talk about vengeance, a budding rivalry, Wrestlemania and whatever common traits these two teams share, Clippers versus Grizzlies is a prototypical "something's gotta give" series, matching the league's second-ranked defense (Memphis) against the No. 4 offense (Los Angeles).
While the Grizzlies are unlikely to yield 131.8 points per 100 possessions again in this series nor collect fewer than one-third of available rebounds, something gave in Game 1. They'll have to fight to wrest it away from a confident Clippers' squad that's starting to believe it's cracked the Grizzlies' code.
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