Perhaps the most anticipated series of the first round, the Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies are certain to provide some interesting matchups. Each team has a solid frontcourt and very good lead guards. But which team will be able to outperform their counterparts in order to tilt the game in their favor?
The Clippers are led by Chris Paul and will likely go as far as he is able to carry them. Paul is one of the few lead guards in the entire league that can create his own shot and dictate the tempo of a game. According to Hoopdata, Paul leads all point guards in PER, but only has a usage rating of 22.43. For comparison, the league average for point guards is 19.91. Paul is so efficient and rarely turns the ball over, making him one of the most productive guards in the NBA.
Off the bench, Eric Bledsoe provides the Clippers with the ultimate change of pace. His speed and athleticism make him a defensive nightmare. 82 games shows that the Clippers were 4.9 points per game better on defense with Bledsoe on the floor.
For Memphis, Mike Conley is the key for them on offense. Conley set career-highs in PER, offensive rating and defensive rating. His ability to penetrate and defend Chris Paul will be something to keep an eye in in this series.
When Conley is able to create steals and get to the basket, Memphis becomes a very difficult team to cover, due in large part to their rebounding and size in the frontcourt. If Conley is unable to slow down Paul, that means he will likely see time guarding Chauncey Billups, who loves to back smaller guards into the post.
Keyon Dooling is Memphis’ backup point guard, but is unlikely to see many minutes barring foul trouble or an injury. He is essentially a non-factor in this series.
Paul’s overall game and Bledsoe’s defensive impact swing this matchup clearly in favor of the Clippers.
Although Chauncey Billups starts at shooting guard for Los Angeles, Jamal Crawford sees a majority of the minutes and rightfully so.
Crawford finished runner-up in Sixth Man of the Year voting and recorded his highest win share of his career. He provides the Clippers with another shot creator next to CP3, and is deadly from long distance, shooting 37 percent on the season.
Billups will start and close games, but he is hardly the Billups of old due to recovering from a torn Achilles last season. His productivity has been marginal and he has only appeared in 22 games this season.
Memphis starts an All-NBA caliber defender in Tony Allen, and is able to bring Jerryd Bayless’ scoring off the bench for a nice one-two punch at shooting guard.
Allen wreaks havoc every time he laces them up, holding opposing shooting guards to an amazing 11.8 PER. He is one of the reasons why Memphis finished first in points allowed per game.
Furthermore, his ability to cover Paul in crunch-time situations will be key to the Grizzlies’ success in this series. He likely will not spend the entire game on Paul, but will be relied upon to limit him late in games.
Bayless has come on in the second half of the season and been a spark off Memphis’ bench, scoring 8.7 points per game. Additionally, he allows Lionel Hollins to put another scorer on the floor with Conley, as he plays well off the ball.
Until Billups proves he can shake off the rust of sitting out most of the season, the advantage goes to Memphis.
Neither team has much to brag about at small forward, but Matt Barnes’ play this season has been a pleasant surprise for the Clippers. Barnes ranks 31st in overall plus-minus, according to NBA.com.
His ability to defend, rebound and finish in transition, makes him the perfect energy forward to split time with the bench unit and starters. Barnes also provides the grit and hustle needed to dive on loose balls, jump in passing lanes and hit the offensive glass.
Caron Butler starts, but does not see major minutes unless his shot is falling so he can spread the floor for the starters. His impact on the series will not determine if the Clippers win or lose, but the Clippers are at their best when he can knock down threes.
Tayshaun Prince plays most of the minutes for Memphis, but is not the same player he was a few years back with the Detroit Pistons. His biggest asset is that he provides Memphis with another ball-handler in the starting five.
Quincy Pondexter spells Prince, but his impact will be much like Butler’s. Unless he is hitting from deep, his minutes will be sparse.
Barnes’ play this season gives the Clippers a slight advantage at small forward.
Blake Griffin and Zach Randolph is definitely one of the mist intriguing matchups of the first round. The two battle hard in the paint and neither is willing to give up ground to the other.
Griffin’s athleticism and relentlessness make him very difficult to defend, especially to ZBO, who is not a very good defender. Griffin’s shot improved this season, as evidenced by Hoopdata’s tracking of his field-goal percentages from shot locations. If Griffin can stretch Randolph out on the perimeter, he has a major advantage on offense, because Randolph is not quick enough to guard him.
Lamar Odom will back up Griffin and will see some time alongside him late in games. His versatility could be the Clippers’ x-factor in this series. His rebounding, handles and solid defense allow Vinny Del Negro plenty of options on how to defend Memphis’ frontcourt.
Randolph’s ability to rebound the basketball make this a difficult matchup for whichever Clipper defends him. According to Hoopdata, Randolph recorded the second-highest rebound rate of his career this season. Last year Randolph was injured prior to this series, but will be healthy this time around and poses a threat to the Clippers on the glass.
Darrell Arthur will come off the bench behind Zach and is able to stretch the floor with his jumper. Like Billups, Arthur is recovering from a torn Achilles last season. His main asset, other than spacing the floor, will be his pick-and-roll defense, which is good. Memphis will need him to try to slow down Paul and Bledsoe from breaking down their defense.
The key to this matchup will be foul trouble. It played an important factor last season and will this year as well. Both teams need their starters to stay out of foul trouble to make an impact on the game. Because of that, this is a draw.
The Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan led the league in field-goal percentage this season, but most of his baskets come from offensive rebounds and dunks. Jordan’s presence needs to be felt on the defensive side of the ball, because Marc Gasol is one of the most difficult centers to defend in the NBA.
Jordan’s impact will also be limited due to his terrible foul shooting. DJ shot 38 percent from the line, ranking 442nd in the league. Vinny Del Negro opts to sit Jordan late in games for fear of opponents intentionally fouling him to take the Clippers out of rhythm.
After Jordan, Ronny Turiaf and Ryan Hollins will split time. Neither is much of an offensive threat, but will be counted on for their energy and defense on Gasol.
Memphis’ biggest advantage in this series is in Marc Gasol. The Spaniard is able to stretch the floor and also can have the offense ran through him from the pinch-post because of his excellent passing. Gasol finished fifth among centers in assist rate.
Defensively, Gasol is one of the best defenders in the league. Marc’s stellar defensive rating of 98, sets the tone for Memphis’ impressive defense. Expect Gasol to switch onto Griffin at times in this series, but he will be counted on to protect the rim and limit the Clippers’ offensive rebounding.
Memphis has a huge advantage here and needs Gasol to be on top of his game to advance to the next round.