The two sides entered into a seven-game slugfest a year ago, the Clippers a victor but not without their fair share of war wounds. And with both sides having stayed right in the middle of the Western Conference pack, we should already know what to expect from this series, right?
Not so much.
Though the jerseys and some names on the marquee will be the same, these are two vastly different rosters from the teams that met a year prior. Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph will all return, but the surrounding pieces around those players have undergone a 12-month overhaul.
You'll notice the name Rudy Gay appeared nowhere in that last sentence. The former face of the franchise forward was shipped off to the Raptors in a midseason trade that brought Ed Davis and Tayshaun Prince to Memphis. Prince has mostly assumed Gay's role, showing that his 33-year-old tank still has a surprising amount left.
Meanwhile, most of the Clippers' roster shuffling happened during the offseason. They brought in Jamal Crawford, Lamar Odom and Matt Barnes, just three of the names who give Los Angeles arguably the NBA's best bench. With Chauncey Billups, another summer acquisition, ready to return from an injury-plagued regular season, Los Angeles could actually be at full strength for the first time all season.
Despite the turmoil for both sides, the results were sterling. The Grizzlies and Clippers head into their postseason series with matching 56-26 regular season records and with coaches desperate to land a long-term extension. If there's any series that has all the makings of going seven, it's this one.
With that in mind, here is a complete breakdown of when and where to watch the Grizzlies' first-round matchup with the Clippers.
First Round Schedule
|1||Saturday, April 20 at 10:30 p.m. ET||Staples Center in Los Angeles||ESPN|
|2||Monday, April 22 at 10:30 p.m. ET||Staples Center in Los Angeles||TNT|
Thursday, April 25 at 9:30 p.m. ET
FedExForum in Memphis ||TNT|
Saturday, April 27 at 4:30 p.m. ET
FedExForum in Memphis ||TNT|
Tuesday, April 30
|Staples Center in Los Angeles||N/A|
Friday, May 3
|FedExForum in Memphis||N/A|
Sunday, May 5
|Staples Center in Los Angeles||N/A|
Regular-Season Record and Stats Leaders
Points Leader: Zach Randolph (15.4 PPG)
Rebounds Leader: Zach Randolph (11.2 RPG)
Assists Leader: Mike Conley (6.1 PPG)
First-Round Series Breakdown
Biggest Strength: Excellent Defensive Strategy
With apologies to the Spurs and Bulls, there are only two teams that can even remotely sniff the "best defense in the league" conversation: Indiana and Memphis. These were the teams far and away most efficient based on any advanced measurement available, and the eye-test backed that up. The Pacers and Grizzlies dominate but do so in two different ways.
Memphis' ascent to top dog defensively is particularly interesting. Its starting five boasts a massive net minus in Randolph, whose slow feet should make him a massive liability on pick-and-rolls. Theoretically, when Randolph flashes hard against ball-handler, his roll man should have enough time to get open under the basket.
When those situations crop up during games, practice matches theory—Randolph gets beat. The Grizzlies are just absolutely brilliant at making sure those situations happen rarely, and never if they can help it.
As ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz smartly points out, Memphis' top strategy against pick-and-rolls consists of one thing: Force the ball-handler baseline. Teams across the NBA do this as a standard practice to limit a point guard's options, but Memphis is unique because it does so all the time.
This strategy opens up a possible trap, which the Grizzlies do with Marc Gasol a ton, or allows a slower player like Randolph enough time to get back to his man. Synergy Sports measured Memphis as the sixth-best pick-and-roll team in the league this season, and they allowed a paltry 0.92 points per possession to roll men.
The one weakness in the armor is that Memphis is sometimes prone to allowing mid-range jumpers to bigs. DeMarcus Cousins coolly knocks down a jumper at the top of the key in the video above, which is wholly a product of the Grizzlies' aggression.
Memphis is fine with that shot. It's used those traps to compile the second-best opponent turnover rate during the season, and only a select few centers can knock down an 18-footer with any consistency. (DeAndre Jordan is not one such player.)
Those plays are a mere microcosm of what Memphis is all about: calculation and schematic brilliance defensively.
Biggest Weakness: Offensive Spacing
When the Grizzlies initially shipped Gay off to Toronto, the franchised faced a bevy of criticism across all spectrums. Gay is still largely seen as a star player (fair or not), and trading him for the simple purpose of saving luxury tax money was somewhat unseemly.
It turned out—like it usually does in these cases—that he handwringing was totally unnecessary. Not only did the Grizzlies' offense not crater after trading their pseudo-star, it actually improved by a couple points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. Tayshaun Prince had more in the tank than anyone thought possible knocking down sneaky mid-range shots on the wings, and Quincy Pondexter was able to help somewhat with floor spacing.
But the real key to the Grizzlies staying afloat was the increased usage of Marc Gasol. The seven-footer has been used heavily as a facilitator at the high post, where his deft passing has allowed Mike Conley to move off the ball more.
Conley is the only Memphis starter who could even be called a remote plus from beyond the arc. Prince is fine from mid-range but lacks range, and Tony Allen actively subtracts from any team's offensive spacing and shooting prowess.
Memphis has survived during the regular season without a floor spacer just fine. Doing so in the playoffs is an entirely different animal. As pace slows down and possessions hit an even higher premium during the playoffs, an offense's ability to create space in the half court becomes paramount. Even used as a decoy a spot-up shooter can work wonders on the weak side, as defenders are too afraid to leave their man on help.
Unless they want Gasol bringing the ball up-court, the Grizzlies have no floor spacers in their starting five. Over the course of a seven-game series, where teams have plenty of time to scout in between meetings, that's going to be a looming issue. Teams are only going to get better over the course of a series at working against Gasol in the high post, no matter how great the Spaniard is.
Without a secondary option, the Grizzlies' offense may suffocate their playoff chances.
Best Matchup: Grizzlies' Isolation Defense vs. Clippers' Isolation Offense
There have been plenty of criticisms lobbed at Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro, both fair and unfair. But the one that has stuck out the most during the regular season, the one that could cripple Los Angeles in the playoffs is a complete lack of offensive innovation.
During a period in the NBA where ball movement in the half court is only moving upward, the Clippers adore isolation sets. The Clippers run iso on over 12 percent of their plays, which is contrasted by Memphis' eight percent rate in this series, per Synergy Sports. Los Angeles is especially iso friendly in crunch time, where Chris Paul or Jamal Crawford is often given the ball with one initiative: Score however you can.
During the regular season, this strategy has surprisingly been strong. Paul has again been brilliant in clutch situations and Crawford's off-the-dribble skills are always fun to watch in those situations. Synergy measures the Clippers as the third-most proficient team in isolation, averaging 0.88 points per possession on sets finished on an isolation base.
One problem for the Clippers: Memphis is nothing short of brilliant defensively against isolation.
Tony Allen is a massive minus on the offensive end, but he's also arguably the best one-on-one defender in the league. Opposing players are shooting just 33.9 percent in isolation sets and only 30.8 percent in pick-and-rolls versus Allen this season, per Synergy. Depending on the situation, he'll be the one guarding Paul or Crawford down the stretch of games.
Guarding the other player will be Mike Conley. The Grizzlies guard is nowhere near as adept as Allen navigating pick-and-rolls yet, but Conley has developed into quite the isolation defender. Synergy actually measures Conley as being the better of the two in isolation, opponents shooting a minuscule 30.9 percent in those sets.
During their regular-season matchups, the Clippers have had to majorly adjust their strategy against Memphis as a result. They've finished only nine percent of their plays in isolation versus the Grizz, which is a smart adjustment theoretically.
The question comes late in games. Del Negro has very few backup plans in his repertoire other than "Hey Chris, go get 'em" and that could haunt the Clippers if CP3 isn't on top of his game.
Worst Matchup: Grizzlies’ Pick-and-Roll Offense vs. Clippers P&R Defense
Memphis isn't the only team with its defensive strengths in this series. The Clippers managed to finish seventh this season in defensive efficiency, ahead of renowned defensive juggernauts like the Celtics. But Los Angeles has been below-average since the All-Star break, thanks mostly to some poor effort from already-mediocre defenders (Looking at you, Jamal Crawford).
The one place the Clippers never slipped up this season was against pick-and-rolls. Blake Griffin has shown vast improvement understanding defensive rotations in 2012-13, morphing from a mediocre help defender to a very strong one. His athleticism and quickness getting back to his man has been sound, and he's taking fewer bad gambles than he had in previous seasons.
DeAndre Jordan has also done a nice job developing patience in those situations. He no longer hedges hard when not needed, instead choosing to play his length to intimidate opposing guards.
With solid perimeter defenders like Chris Paul and Eric Bledsoe also adorning the roster, it's no surprise the Clippers led the league in defensive pick-and-roll efficiency, per Synergy.
And while the Grizzlies were never the most heavy-using pick-and-roll team, they've been using more to create dribble space since Gay's departure. In the video above, Conley is able to create a basket for himself, but you see the struggles Memphis goes through on every possession. The Clippers don't have enough respect for Memphis' shooters to worry about helping, forcing two separate pick-and-rolls on one set, with the latter getting Conley a mediocre shot at best.
Lionel Hollins is going to have to find a way to create offense other than putting his two bigs on the blocks or using his seven-foot center to act as a point guard. Hollins has done so mostly by utilizing a heavy motion of pick-and-roll plays like above, but it's questionable at best whether those sets can work over a seven-game series—especially versus an elite P&R defense.
Key Player: Zach Randolph
Whether this is ultimately true or not (read: it's not), the public's perception of the Rudy Gay trade was that it handed over the Memphis franchise keys to Zach Randolph. The two were oft-mentioned as poor fits with one another, with Memphis' opening-round defeat of San Antonio in 2011 being mused most prevalently as circumstantial evidence.
Those who watch Memphis on a regular basis would tell you the keys have been handed to Marc Gasol, not Randolph. It's Gasol who has overtaken much of the offensive responsibility left by Gay, whether that be distributing from the high post or taking his man down low. The Spaniard is Memphis' best player and has been for a while.
Nonetheless, Gasol's ascent doesn't make Z-Bo any less important to the Grizzlies' cause. He's still one of the NBA's most gifted bigs down in the post, equipped with an array of post moves and a bullying strength that's incredibly rare in today's game. Randolph's lingering injury issues that plagued him last season were largely seen as a factor for Memphis as to why it lost to the Clippers last postseason.
Though Randolph played 75 games this season, injury issues continue to linger for the Grizzlies big man. He wasn't having a banner campaign by any stretch this season—arguably his worst prime statistical season where he's played half his team's games—but injuring his ankle in March sent Randolph's numbers on an eerily similar spiral.
Since returning from a four-game absence on March 12, Randolph has seen his effectiveness dwindle even further. He's scoring just 14.4 points and shooting only 44.3 percent from the field during that 21-game stretch. And more disconcerting is that things haven't gotten better; he's actually dipped down to 41.7 percent during the month of April.
As Grantland's Zach Lowe noted last week, what little bounce Randolph had in his game is all but gone. He's not planting well down in the post and he hasn't been able to create that little separation to get his creative shots off.
Without Randolph playing at a high level down low—where he creates shots for himself and others by drawing double-teams in the post—Memphis can't subsist. The Clippers are too good and have too many weapons for anything less than 2010-11 Z-Bo to show up during this series.
These two teams pounded one another into submission last season. They battled through a seven-game series that often looked more like rugby than basketball, with the Clippers barely pulling out an 82-72 win in Game 7. That series developed a deep-seeded rivalry between Memphis and Los Angeles, which was apparent in each matchup during the regular season.
There is nothing we've covered in regard to this series that points toward anything other than a carbon copy of a year prior.
Who ya got?
This series isn't going to look like a classic ABA series the way Denver-Golden State will or carry all of the storyline connotations of Lakers-Spurs. But it's very possible that the Grizzlies and Clippers will provide the best series of the entire first round from a night-to-night sense. Close, low-to-mid-scoring games will be the norm—overtime contests will probably be the only time we see triple-digits.
And that's just fine with both teams. While the Grizzlies have a reputation as a defensive stalwart, the Clippers are fantastic offensively in the half court—thanks mostly to Chris Paul. It's the Clippers point guard who pushed his team past Memphis 12 months ago, and his top-dog status individually in this series weighs heavily on its result.
Marc Gasol is a star and worthy of Defensive Player of the Year. His effect is palpable and his continued underratedness is infuriating to just about anyone who watches the sport closely.But he's just not enough of an offensive force in crunch time for Memphis to pull this series out.
The Grizzlies all too often have to rely on Mike Conley to do isolation creation down the stretch. Conley is a very good player; he's just not someone who should be taking late-game shots.
Clippers advance, but this series goes seven.
Series Prediction: Clippers in Seven.