The Los Angeles Clippers got a vintage performance from Chris Paul, a dominant overall rebounding effort and a massive boost from their highly touted bench en route to a decisive 112-91 Game 1 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies.
The Clippers came out aggressively, getting a couple of early buckets from Caron Butler and Chauncey Billups, and an unusually assertive early-game effort from Paul. L.A.'s floor general scored seven points in the opening period, clearly making an effort to put his stamp on the game well in advance of his usual fourth-quarter takeover.
Speaking of stamps, Jamal Crawford put his official seal on his first playoff game as a Clipper by dropping in a three-point shot from the corner, hitting the deck like he'd been shot and earning a foul call. The Clips' sixth man holds the NBA regular-season record with 37 four-point plays, so, of course, he had to christen the postseason with another one.
Memphis hung tough in the second quarter, slowly chipping away at the 29-21 advantage the Clippers built during the first period. The Grizzlies' resilience was impressive, especially considering the uncharacteristically poor first-half performance they got from Mike Conley. The point guard hit just one of his first five shots, finishing with just two points in 13 minutes before the break.
As usual, Marc Gasol served as the Grizzlies' offensive focal point, setting up teammates when the Clippers big men showed too hard on the pick-and-roll and scoring on his own when faced with single coverage. He led Memphis with 11 first-half points.
There was plenty of physical play between these two teams, which wasn't at all surprising, given their recent history. But things ramped up after halftime between Blake Griffin and Zach Randolph, as the power forwards fought for position on every trip up the court.
They tangled after made baskets, jostled in the post and took every opportunity to knock heads when the officials weren't watching. Despite their best efforts to scuffle undetected, the pair received multiple warnings from the referees.
Gasol kept up his brilliant offensive orchestration in the third quarter. One particular find led to a pretty layup on a backdoor cut by Mike Conley midway through the period. Gasol caught the ball at the elbow with his back to the hoop, seemed to sense Conley was streaking behind him and fired a bounce pass as he turned to face the lane.
Centers just aren't supposed to have that kind of innate court vision.
For all of Gasol's excellence, the Grizzlies couldn't cut into the Clippers' six-point halftime lead. L.A. took a 75-69 advantage into the final 12 minutes as the pace slowed and the tension increased.
A short burst from Jerryd Bayless to start the fourth quarter helped cut the Clips' lead to 75-71, and Gasol found Randolph underneath with a sneaky feed to trim the deficit to a single basket.
The Clippers' vaunted second unit took control after that, though.
Eric Bledsoe drove the lane for a two-handed dunk, and Crawford found Matt Barnes with a bullet pass underneath for an easy deuce. One of the most oft-repeated refrains coming into this series was that the Clippers' bench gave them a massive advantage over the top-heavy Grizzlies.
That certainly wasn't true over the whole of the contest, as Memphis' bench held a 33-32 scoring advantage over L.A.'s at one point in the early part of the fourth quarter. But it certainly proved to be the case during the critical fourth-quarter stretch in which "A Tribe Called Bench" preserved L.A.'s lead.
Incredibly, the citizens of Lob City didn't register a single dunk until Matt Barnes found DeAndre Jordan for a one-handed spike with six minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. The slam gave the Clippers a nine-point lead.
When Paul re-entered the game with less than five minutes remaining, the contest was all but over. A few more chippy fouls and a failed attempt at "Hack-a-DeAndre" by the Grizzlies were all that remained before the final buzzer.
Appropriately, Bledsoe and the bench finished the game with Paul, melding the two parts of L.A.'s attack that did the most damage against Memphis.
Key Player: Chris Paul
No player had a bigger impact on Game 1 than Paul did.
He expertly dictated the tempo and was brilliant in discerning whether his team needed him to score or distribute. Normally, Paul does that from quarter to quarter. But against Memphis, he seemed to shift gears on every possession, keeping the Grizzlies completely off balance.
Whether it was his deep first-quarter three or his scoring spurt to open the second half, Paul was dialed in.
All of his usual tricks worked, too. Paul frustrated Conley, Bayless and Dooling with his subtle "ward off," a devilish, right-handed shove he constantly got away with when defenders ventured into his personal space.
The Clippers bench deserves an honorable mention here, but even the 49 points produced by L.A.'s reserves weren't as impactful as CP3's brilliant effort. He finished with 23 points, seven assists and two steals on 7-of-11 shooting.
These teams have a history. There's no love lost. There's bad blood between them. Whichever cliche you'd prefer, things got physical right away between the Clippers and Grizzlies, according to a first-quarter tweet from Zach Harper of CBS Sports' Eye On Basketball:
That kind of rough play was predictable, as was Jamal Crawford's four-point play. I mean, the guy has 37 in his career, the most in NBA history. Brett Pollakoff of NBC Sports had the proper, unsurprised reaction:
As the game wore on, L.A. ratcheted up the defensive intensity—particularly against Memphis' vulnerable reserve guards. B/R's own Adam Fromal said:
Despite the solid start by the Clips, Memphis rallied behind its unselfish offense. Chris Palmer of ESPN noted:
Gasol got things going in the second quarter, prompting Vinny Del Negro to adopt a defense-by-committee approach. Brett Polakoff of NBC Sports tweeted:
For what it's worth, none of the three had much luck. Gasol led the Grizzlies with 11 first-half points.
Physical play marked the second half as much as it did the first. Griffin and Randolph wrestled on virtually every possession, often with one or the other ending up tumbling to the floor. Peter Vecsey seemed to note that Griffin often came out worse for wear:
Meanwhile, CP3 kept up his act, taking the game over after the break. Hardwood Paroxysm chimed in with Paul's well-earned nickname after a particularly impressive scoring flurry:
The Clips took a six-point lead into the fourth quarter, but Memphis trimmed the advantage to a single point in the early stages of the final period. But that's when the Clippers' terrific bench flipped the switch. Arash Markazi of ESPN noted:
As the game wound down, Bledsoe hit the afterburners, tipping in misses, harassing ball-handlers and scoring as a one-man fast break. Justin Vernier of ESPN suggested an appropriately weaponized nickname for the Clippers' explosive guard:
The last word of the night appropriately goes to the man that has spoken so many of them about the Clippers over the years. Play-by-play man Ralph Lawler summed things up nicely, citing L.A.'s bench dominance and a late surge as the reasons for the Clips' Game 1 win:
The Clippers have the early advantage after a great performance, but we know too much about the history between these two teams to assume that either club is willing to go down without a fight. Last season's playoff series went the full seven games.
There's no reason to expect less this time around.