Tough and good are not enough
The Grizzlies mounted a late comeback only to be done in by Chris Paul
LOS ANGELES -- After losing Game 1 to the Los Angeles Clippers, the Memphis Grizzlies' solution in Tony Allen's eyes was simple.
"We've got to toughen up," Allen said on the day off.
"No," Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins countered in the hours leading up to Game 2, "it's about how you play, or if you play well or not. That's what's important."
The Grizzlies improved in both of those departments and still don't have a playoff victory to show for it.
Sometimes it gets down to what the playoffs eventually come down to.
"Star players," Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. "That's why they're star players. They step up in the biggest moments."
The Grizzlies did so much right only to have it all go wrong at the end, when Chris Paul created just enough space to bank home a running shot with a tenth of a second remaining, providing the Clippers' 93-91 victory.
Even though the Clippers took a 2-0 lead, it felt as though the series got longer, not shorter, because the Grizzlies drew closer to the Clippers. They're well within the margin of benefit from home-court advantage, which the Grizzlies enjoy for the next two games.
They were tougher, all right, and the officials allowed them to be so; Marc Gasol shoved Blake Griffin into a row of cameramen and Chris Paul was hip-checked out of bounds with nary a blown whistle. The visiting Grizzlies actually had a 34-22 advantage in free throw attempts over the home team.
The Grizzlies doused many Clipper flames, from a 13-point opening quarter by Blake Griffin to a 10-point outburst by Jamal Crawford in the second quarter. A little more help defense here, a switch of assignments for Tony Allen there, and the problems were solved. They weren't deterred by an early fourth-quarter spurt that put the Clippers ahead by 12 points. They closed the rebounding gap from 47-23 in Game 1 to a negligible 40-38 in Game 2. The Clippers, meanwhile, had nothing for Mike Conley, who hit them up for 28 points and nine assists.
Memphis found an antidote to its offensive woes by having a lone player sprint ahead of the entire Clipper defense, for fast-break dunks with fouls to boot. Its defense brought the score back into their preferred range: the low 90s, rather than the 112 the Clippers rolled off in Game 1.
"We battled, 1 through 12, everybody who as out there," Allen said. "But like I said, ain't no moral victories. We've got to conclude it with a win. It was a tough game all night. That's what we did we got tougher, now we have to be smarter down the end. Make more free throws. Keep fighting and clawing."
The free throws would probably help more than the fighting or clawing. The Grizzlies, a top-10 team at the line during the season with a .773 percentage, made only 68 percent Wednesday night (23 of 34).
What they did make was a clutch basket on their last real possession. Crunch-time points was supposed to be one of their issues after they traded leading scorer Rudy Gay to Toronto, but there isn't a player or system in the league that could have produced a better shot than the one the Grizzlies had to tie the game: a wide-open Marc Gasol dunk off a pick-and-roll with Mike Conley.
Ahead by two points, the Clippers were so afraid of yielding a 3-pointer that no one left his man to rotate to Gasol when he rolled to the basket, leaving him alone for the tying basket with 13.9 seconds remaining.
Then came Paul, there went the ballgame.
The Grizzlies weren't even mad about Paul. No reason to be. They lost to a great player, not because of poor defense. If anything, it wasn't the end of the fourth quarter that bothered Tayshaun Prince, it was the start, when Eric Bledsoe scored four points, then fed Matt Barnes for a layup that provided the 12-point lead. "Bledsoe has been a thorn in our side as far as the energy, getting the crowd into the game with layups and stuff like that," said Prince, sounding poised and full of perspective from his 120 career playoff games.
"As far as our performance, we played well. We did some good things. We have to continue to be consistent. Right now they're more consistent than us. They're executing better."
If the Grizzlies can just get Zach Randolph to be average (for him) and score 15 points, they can win games. He was up to 13 points in Game 2, but that's still below his average in the regular season. This was one of those games in which the losing team had many positive talking points, and the winners had their laments; Allen talked with pride, while Griffin was apologetic that the Clippers even put Paul in the position of having to bail them out.
"It's not doom and gloom," Hollins said.
It's not toughness and it's not about merely playing well. It's about finding a way to place the game where Chris Paul can't reach it.