Welcome to the nouveau riche portion of the NBA Playoffs. The Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies don't have lengthy traditions of winning, or even competence. As recently as 2008-09, they lost 121 games, and between them they have two series wins in the last three decades.
The Grizzlies can at least point to recent success before this season, having upset the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs in the opening round of last year's playoffs. However, when the Clippers dropped their last two games of the regular season, it opened the door for Memphis to host a series for the first time in franchise history. Despite the late stumbles, the Clippers still set a franchise record by winning 60.6 percent of their games during the shortened season. They also improved their winning percentage from 2010-11 by the most of any team in the league, a testament to the value of one Chris Paul.
WHEN MEMPHIS HAS THE BALL
Pace: 89.7 possessions per 48 minutes (18th NBA)
Memphis Offensive Rating: 105.2 points per 100 possessions (21st NBA)
L.A. Clippers Defensive Rating: 107.2 points per 100 possessions (18th NBA)
The Grizzlies made strides on the offensive end over the course of the season after starting out in dreadful fashion. By April, they had improved to 13th in the league in Offensive Rating. In part, that reflects the return of forward Zach Randolph to the lineup in early March after missing more than two months with a torn MCL in his right knee. Still not yet 100 percent, Randolph at least contributed on the offensive glass and had to be respected by opponents.
Memphis also benefited from adding Gilbert Arenas as a free agent in late March. Though looking spryer than he did last year with Orlando before he was amnestied, Arenas is no great shakes. Still, his above-replacement play was a massive upgrade on the disastrous duo of rookies Jeremy Pargo and Josh Selby, who combined to rate as worth 2.9 wins below replacement. The Grizzlies had been almost completely unable to score when starting point guard Mike Conley hit the bench, and Arenas staunched the bleeding.
Even in April, Memphis' offensive performance belies the talent on hand, including two powerful post scorers, a dynamic wing in Rudy Gay and a capable point guard in Conley. Because of injuries to Gay last season and Randolph this year, the Grizzlies have only had their full complement of players at full health at the same time for brief stretches over the last season and a half. The playoffs may be the closest they've come since the first week of the season. Randolph shed his knee brace and started the final game of the regular season, going for 13 points and 12 rebounds in 26 minutes against Orlando's reserves.
If Randolph is right, Memphis will have advantages at both post positions. DeAndre Jordan is a fine help defender who has less success one on one and Blake Griffin doesn't take well to Randolph's physical style down low. Gasol averaged 14.0 points and 9.0 rebounds against the Clippers and Randolph averaged a double-double in two games, though neither player shot accurately from the field. The Clippers' best answer for Randolph is surely backup Kenyon Martin, but putting Martin on the floor would mean moving Griffin on Gasol and sacrificing length against drives from the perimeter.
Gay was the Grizzlies' leading scorer against the Clippers in the three head-to-head meetings, all of them won by the home team to give the Clippers a 2-1 advantage. Gay averaged 17.0 points on 51.4 percent shooting. He got the better of Caron Butler, shooting 53 percent when the two players were on the floor together, according to NBA.com/Stats. If Butler continues to struggle, Nick Young could be an option for Vinny Del Negro.
Down the stretch, the Clippers regularly used a zone defense that could be a useful tool in this series. The Grizzlies ranked 27th in the league in three-pointers and have just two players who shot better than league average from beyond the arc, Conley and O.J. Mayo. If the Clippers can avoid giving up second chances, the zone might be their best option defensively.
WHEN THE L.A. CLIPPERS HAVE THE BALL
Pace: 88.1 possessions per 48 minutes (25th NBA)
L.A. Clippers Offensive Rating: 109.5 points per 100 possessions (4th NBA)
Memphis Defensive Rating: 103.0 points per 100 possessions (7th NBA)
When the Clippers take possession, it's strength versus strength. The Clippers improved from 23rd in the NBA in Offensive Rating to fourth despite an incomplete roster and the season-ending Achilles injury suffered by Chauncey Billups. Paul's fingerprints are all over that 180-degree turnaround, most notably in terms of ballhandling. The Clippers went from the league's worst turnover rate to No. 2 behind the Philadelphia 76ers. (The turnover battle is especially strength versus strength, as Memphis forced miscues at the league's best rate.)
During the regular season, Lionel Hollins mostly played Paul straight up with his point guards. That changed a bit during the season finale, when Quincy Pondexter and O.J. Mayo both got chances to defend Paul. The only time stopper Tony Allen matched up with Paul during the regular season was down the stretch in the first meeting, a 98-91 Clippers win in Los Angeles. Allen told SI.com's Zach Lowe that it would be a good assumption that he would defend Paul a lot during this series. Naturally, Allen is the best possible matchup, though Paul can take advantage of his tendency to gamble at times.
The Grizzlies' post players may be more important to defending Paul anyway, given the frequency with which the Clippers run pick-and-rolls. Randolph's mobility has been slowest in coming back after his injury, so look for Paul to try to go at him and force switches. No point guard is better than Paul at dribbling into a midrange jumper or getting a big man off balance and driving the lane.
Griffin will also be a tough matchup when Memphis has its traditional starting frontcourt on the floor. Griffin's quickness could give either big man fits both in the pick-and-roll and when he faces up and attacks with the dribble. Griffin shot 62.2 percent from the field in the three games against the Grizzlies, averaging 19.7 points. One wild card is whether Memphis will utilize fouls to slow Griffin around the basket and force him to make free throws.
To win this series, the Clippers will need to get scoring and shooting from the wings. Randy Foye has come on lately, averaging 15.2 points and knocking down 44.3 percent of his three-point attempts in the month of April. Mo Williams made 41.2 percent from beyond the arc in the month and Caron Butler 39.7 percent. Young is a threat too. Del Negro can mix and match on the perimeter, riding the hot hands.
The way the Grizzlies survived Randolph's absence and dismal play from Conley's backups to earn home-court advantage leaves open the possibility that they could click and play at an elite level during the postseason. Still, the Clippers appear to be the stronger overall team. They had the slightly better point differential over the course of the season, were better after March 1 and in the month of April. Yes, the Clippers lost their last two games of the regular season, but both were difficult matchups (at least before the New York Knicks pulled their starters) and the Clippers had won 14 of 17 before then. They've won at Dallas, Denver and Oklahoma City in the month of April, so they've proven they can win on the road. And this appears to be a particularly good matchup for the Clippers, who can neutralize the strongest part of Memphis' defense with Paul's ability to take care of the basketball and can use the zone to expose the Grizzlies' weaknesses at the other end of the floor.
Clippers in 6
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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