Don't be fooled by the Los Angeles Clippers' strong defensive showing during in the first round of the playoffs: Their day of reckoning is coming soon.
That day won't come during their series against the Memphis Grizzlies, however. For whatever reason, the Grizzlies have failed to find an answer for the Clippers' defensive puzzle. Including the postseason, the Clippers and Grizzlies have met seven times this year, and Memphis has yet to score more than 96 points in any game.
And, to be fair, the Clippers aren't a bad defensive team: They allowed just 94.6 points per game during the regular season (fourth in the NBA), and their Defensive Rating of 103.6 ranks seventh among the 16 teams currently competing in the playoffs.
That said, they aren't the Grizzlies, who are seemingly on the wrong end of an ill-timed role reversal of sorts. Memphis held opponents to 89.3 points per game in 2012-13, so it's odd to find the Grizzlies in a series where they're the ones who are getting outworked on defense.
Clippers switched from man to zone back to man again. I like a defense that keeps offense guessing— Amin Elhassan (@AminESPN) April 26, 2013
It wasn't too long ago where Clippers' head coach Vinny Del Negro's job status was in question due to his team's lackadaisical effort on defense. L.A. was just 7-7 during the month of March, and the team's Defensive Rating over those 14 games was a troubling 106.2.
Since then, Del Negro has implored upon his team to step up its intensity on both ends of the court, and the Clippers have responded by holding their opponents to less than 100 points in eight of the team's last nine games dating back to April 5.
"We have to go in with the mind-set that we're down," said Del Negro in a recent interview with Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times. "We have to go in with a mind-set that we have to play with a desperation and urgency and match the physicality of the game."
The Lob City crew should be able to ride this wave out for a few more days, but their title hopes will come to an end if and when they face the short-handed Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference semifinals.
As good as Los Angeles has been defensively this season (despite a few stretches of inconsistency), the Clippers still haven't figured out how to handle Oklahoma City. In three regular-season matchups against the Thunder, L.A. has allowed more than 111 points per game while dropping all three contests.
Aside from Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, Memphis' offensive options are limited at best. Meanwhile, Oklahoma City has a number of players who can go for 20 points or more on any given night, and even without Russell Westbrook in the lineup, the Thunder's ability to stretch the floor with Kevin Durant, Kevin Martin, Serge Ibaka, et al. will make the Clippers work exceptionally hard on defense.
It should also be noted that at 88.4 possessions per 48 minutes, the Grizzlies played at the slowest pace in the NBA this season. By comparison, the Thunder averaged 93.3 possessions per game, roughly two possessions more than the Clippers.
Four of the five Los Angeles starters have playoff Defensive Ratings of 105 or more. And just like every other team in the league, the Clippers are powerless to stop Durant, who averaged 34.0 PPG, 7.3 RPG and 5.3 APG in three games against L.A. this season.
Each NBA playoff series is a separate and distinct matchup between two teams: short of injuries and fatigue, nothing from a previous round carries over into the next. So read little into L.A.'s success against Memphis so far. The true test of the Clippers' defense is slowly approaching on the horizon, and it will prove to be a challenge that they aren't quite prepared for.