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May 10, 2012
Playoff Prospectus
Pounded in the Paint

by Dan Feldman

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at Memphis 92, L.A. Clippers 80 (L.A. Clippers lead, 3-2)
Pace: 84.8
Offensive Ratings: Memphis 107.7, L.A. Clippers 95.0

Chris Paul's and Blake Griffin's injuries will loom over the series, at least until they prove they're still capable of playing like the stars they are. But Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph loomed over Game 5.

If Game 4 left any doubt whether Gasol, and to a lesser degree Randolph, could still impose their wills, they answered that question early. Gasol had 18 points on 8-of-11 shooting with four assists and three rebounds and Randolph had 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting with five rebounds and an assist in the first half alone.

Gasol and Randolph ran the floor well early, giving themselves easy baskets that helped establish their rhythm and confidence. Then, they went to work on their masterful high-low game to give Memphis a 57-42 halftime lead.

Of course, after Los Angeles' giant comeback in Game 1, the Grizzlies should know no lead is safe--even when it appeared the Clippers were self-destructing. With 4:18 left in the third quarter, Paul and Caron Butler picked up technical fouls, and Memphis quickly went up 24 points.

And then the Grizzlies let up.

Paul started getting to the free throw line, Gasol picked up a technical and Memphis got even more lax as the quarter wound down. In the final moments of the third, Paul made a three-pointer, got a steal and drew a goaltend on the subsequent fast-break layup attempt. In all, including into the fourth quarter, Los Angeles went on a 20-4 run.

Memphis must learn to remain focused, even with a big lead. The Clippers are too good to relax.

But Gasol and Randolph were so good early, even if they were a combined 0-for-7 in the second half, Memphis survived tonight.

Gasol and Randolph also allowed Memphis to overcome Rudy Gay shooting 6-of-14, not making a three-pointer, not getting to the free-throw line other than when the Clippers intentionally stopped a fast break and not getting a single assist in 41 minutes. The Grizzlies are so much better running their offense through Gasol and Randolph than through Gay. Memphis' perimeter players get better looks, and the Clippers' bigs have less energy for offense.

To his credit, Gay has looked worse as a complement to Gasol and Randolph than he did tonight, and Gay's excellent offensive rebound on a missed free throw that he followed with a a driving layup finally gave the Grizzlies breathing room late in the fourth quarter. But Gay's game fits better in a higher-usage role, and someone like Quincy Pondexter (eight points on 3-of-4 shooting with seven rebounds and two steals in 25 minutes) nearly duplicated the positive contributions Gay made in the shadow of Gasol and Randolph.

As much as Gay held Memphis back, Caron Butler (2-of-10 with five fouls and, by far, a team-worst -21 plus-minus) supersized many of the same issues. His play was just part of an unimpressive performance by the Clippers beyond Paul and Griffin. DeAndre Jordan (0-for-0, zero rebounds and three fouls in 18 minutes) has completely disappeared. Mo Williams actually led Los Angeles with 20 points--by gunning 21 shots.

Paul (four steals) and Griffin (three steals) played the passing lanes well, but the Clippers scored just six points on the ensuing seven possessions--an even worse Offensive Rating than on their other possessions. The Clippers were built to capitalize on the fast-break looks steals typically generate. When Griffin and Paul are involved and those plays aren't going well, that's a big problem.

The Grizzlies, who've outscored Los Angeles by 13 in the five games combined, have been the series' better team on the whole. Needing to win only one of two might be enough for the Clippers to counter that. But if they don't have Paul and/or Griffin at full strength, maybe not.

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Dan Feldman is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Dan by clicking here or click here to see Dan's other articles.

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