NBA @ 2: Clippers Look to Advance
Of the eight postseason series, the match-up between the Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies has been the most compelling.
The San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder quickly dispatched the Utah Jazz and Dallas Mavericks in four-game sweeps. The Chicago Bulls and New York Knicks are injured and stumbling to the inevitable at 3-1. The Indiana Pacers, Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers seem certain to close out their 3-1 leads as well, even if the Orlando Magic, Atlanta Hawks and Denver Nuggets have shown some fight.
This Los Angeles/Memphis series started with the epic Clipper comeback in Game 1. After winning Game 2, the Grizzlies were a Rudy Gay jumper way from a stunning late comeback of their own in Game 3.
In a series where no lead is safe, the Grizzlies made up a 10-point deficit in four and a half minutes to force overtime on Monday night, but Chris Paul would not be denied, finishing with 27 points, seven assists and nine rebounds. Now, Memphis has to win three-straight to advance.
The difficult part for the Clippers is taking that next step: closing out a series.
“I’ve only won one series since I’ve been in the NBA and that was Dallas in 2007-08 and just from watching so many games and actually playing in the games, the closeout game is the toughest one,” Paul said. “It’s the toughest one, especially going to Memphis to play Game 5. It’s going to be extremely tough because their backs are against the wall and we can’t get complacent.”
As great a player as Paul has been through his now seven-years in the league, he’s only gotten out of the first round once?
Of course Chauncey Billups, the player with the most postseason experience including an NBA Finals MVP, is in a suit still rehabbing from a torn Achilles’.
“We can’t go out there and feel sorry for ourselves and say ‘We haven’t been in this situation. What do we do?’ At the end of the day it’s basketball,” Paul said.
This is new territory for head coach Vinny Del Negro as well, who led the Chicago Bulls to the playoffs twice but was unable to advance (although his first year was an epic battle against the Kevin Garnett-less Boston Celtics).
“The physicality is going to be high, which is great and we’ll have to be ready for it,” Del Negro said. “If we go in there just thinking that we’re going to be playing a normal game then we’re going to be in trouble. We have to go with the intensity like our backs are against the wall and we’re ready to fight and ready to play and put pressure on them to have to make plays and try and steal another one on the road. We can’t just rely, just because we have home court in Game 6.”
The Clippers may be up but “up” doesn’t guarantee they advance to the next round.
“We are having fun, and playing well, but we still have not done anything yet,” Paul said.
Grizzlies Try To Stay Hopeful
Given how close every game has been, Memphis is still hopeful they can claw their way back into the series.
“We’re still confident. We could’ve easily come out here and not performed but we’re a team that’s a confident team,” said guard Mike Conley. “We’ve got a bunch of guys that really believe in themselves, believe in our team, that we can come back and can beat this team so we’ve got to start at home, get it one win at a time.”
Conley was a force Monday with 25 points (10-15 shooting), eight assists and seven boards. It’s been that way all series for Conley, who is averaging 17.5 points on 50 percent shooting (61.5 percent from three) and 7.5 assists per game.
“We’ve got to treat it like it’s the last game,” said Conley. “It can be the last game for us, so we’ve got to give it everything we got regardless of if guys are happy or guys are not playing for one another, understanding that winning is all that matters at this point. It doesn’t matter how we do it, it doesn’t matter who steps up or who doesn’t. We’ve got to win.”
Last year, the Grizzlies were the surprise team, advancing past the San Antonio Spurs and giving the Oklahoma City Thunder a fight through six games.
Now, they’re facing elimination with Zach Randolph nowhere near the beast he was last year, still not quite the same after tearing his MCL in January. Randolph is averaging 12.5 points per game on just 41.7 percent shooting, bothered by Blake Griffin along with Clippers’ reserves Kenyon Martin and Reggie Evans.
Center Marc Gasol doesn’t look to be at his best either, scoring 10.3 points a game on 46.4 percent shooting with just 6.4 boards a game.
The bulk of the scoring has come from Rudy Gay and Conley. Gay is the team’s leading scorer at 21.8 points but he’s shot just 42.3 percent from the field, taking 71 shots, which is 23 more than the closest teammate in Randolph.
Perhaps that’s what Conley is hinting at when it comes to his teammates “playing for one another.”
Losing can lead to finger-pointing and bring forth resentments that bubble below the surface.
Another Grizzly struggling against the Clippers is O.J. Mayo, who has shot just 31.0 percent from the field with 3.3 turnovers a game.
If there’s one factor that’s kept Memphis close, it’s rebounding (165 collectively against 146 through the four contests).
“I think we know what we can be. The losses we have, there’s no secret to why we lost these games,” said Gay prior to Game 4. “We got away from how we play basketball. When we play our way, we’re a better team.”
Is it that the Grizzlies aren’t playing their way, the way they played last season when Gay was out, or is it because the Memphis bigs just aren’t as healthy as they need to be?
Memphis as a group has hit 44.2 percent of their shots while allowing the Clippers to hit 49.5 percent and yet the Grizzlies have out-scored LA by a point (386-385).
“It’s a great battle. It’s a great series. It’s tough,” said head coach Lionel Hollins. “We’ve been on the short end in three games.”
As far as the difference in Game 4?
“I mean, come on,” said Hollins at the obvious question. “Chris Paul won the game for them down the stretch.”
Griffin Adjusting to Physicality
When the series started in Memphis, Griffin looked overwhelmed in the first quarter, as did most of the Clipper team.
“It’s been physical man. It’s been unreal, I don’t know. I don’t know how to describe it really,” said Griffin. “It’s just one of those things where you feel like ‘Okay it’s going to be really physical the whole game both ways’ and then all of the sudden it’s not and then it is, so it keeps you on your toes. Kind of keeps you guessing at where you can play physical and I think I’ve averaged 5.5 fouls per game in this series. I’ve got to do a better job of kind of figuring that out and not putting myself in that position.”
Griffin would foul out of Game 4 in overtime after scoring 30 points on just 15 shots. He also dished as many assists as Paul (seven). Oddly, Paul’s nine rebounds was a game-high for both teams (tied with Randolph).
Through four games, Griffin has averaged 21.5 points on 56.9 percent shooting but just 6.3 rebounds playing against the “meaty” Memphis frontcourt of Marc Gasol and Randolph.
“I think it’s all good. It’s all about experience and going through. That’s what the playoffs are about,” said head coach Vinny Del Negro of Griffin’s playoff debut. “When you’re playing a team, they’re going to start taking things away and you have to go to your counters and your different looks. You’ve just got to keep playing and you’ve got to keep learning and you’ve got to go through the process. That’s what all the great players do.”
By the time the series had shifted to Los Angeles, Griffin became the aggressor. Teammates Martin and Evans have been major factors and, to a lesser extent, starter DeAndre Jordan as well.
The Memphis frontcourt is their biggest strength but they’ve been relatively neutralized offensively.
Griffin’s parents were at the game Monday, did that help contribute to his strong play against the Grizzlies?
“They’re always watching and I know they’re always watching but really it was a big game for us and we needed this and we talked about it before the game as a team, coming out and being aggressive and taking the fight to them,” Griffin said. “Fortunately, we were able to do that but it didn’t hurt that my parents were here.”
Afterwards, Griffin was admittedly exhausted.
“It takes a lot more out of you. Things are a lot more physical down low– you’re constantly fighting for position and rebound or a box out,” Griffin said. “I kind of expect that. I mean I expect it now. I know what’s coming so like I said I try to take the fight to them and be the more aggressive one.”
Still, Blake recognized that he has more to contribute, especially after fouling out and having to sit and watch his team close out.
“I still didn’t do some of the things I could and should have done to help us out,” said Griffin.
Paul, who said he watched NBA TV last year and knew exactly what to expect in Blake, has a lot of confidence in his young teammate.
“We’re going to keep giving him the ball – every night. That’s our horse right now and we’re going to keep feeding him,” Paul said.
Despite it being his first time to the playoffs, Griffin has risen to the occasion and has his team on the verge of a visit to the second round where the San Antonio Spurs await.
Griffin still feels he has plenty of growing to do along the way.
“I have a lot to prove. My game has a lot of improvement left to be made and I don’t ever want to feel that I don’t have anything to prove,” said Griffin. “This year especially, I felt like there’s really been a drive inside of me – that I need to step up and step up in a bigger way and step up on a team that actually wins games. Last year, we were out of a lot of games and I found out quickly that it’s a lot different to rebound and score in games that, not necessarily don’t mean anything, but aren’t close. Doing that in games that do mean a lot is a lot different and I’m learning that right now.”
Random Clipper Quotes
“They’re never going to give up. They’re never out of a game,” Chris Paul said of the Grizzlies. “When you have an electrifying scorer like Rudy Gay, you’re definitely never out of a game.”
“I just walked around, he threw it to me,” joked Blake Griffin about his late Game 4 alley-oop from Paul.
“He is crazy,” Paul on Caron Butler playing with a broken hand. “It would have been so easy for him to say, ‘I’m done.’”
“I think that just shows even more how much fight we have to miss that many free throws and still come up with the win like that,” said Paul of Game 3 and his team’s 17-missed free throws. “We know in order to get to where we want to get to, that’s unacceptable.”
Late Time Out
In an awkward moment with 8.1 seconds left, the Clippers up by just two, Del Negro called a time out that was whistled right as Martin tossed the ball into Mo Williams.
All Los Angeles had to do was get the ball into play and, upon accomplishing that, Martin was visibly frustrated by the stoppage by Del Negro. So were the puzzled fans.
After the game, Del Negro explained the circumstances.
“I saw the double team on Mo and the ball is in the back court and then one of the refs, I think James [Capers], was to the side of me calling out ‘one, two, three’ and he was about on four and I didn’t see Mo squeeze through the double team,” Del Negro said. “Right as he threw it, that’s when I said it because I didn’t want to get a five second call and I wanted to make sure it was to the right guy.”
The Clippers were able to advance the ball to their frontcourt, which made it easier to get it in-bounded and Williams did make both free throws.
“We had plenty of timeouts so it was just a timing thing but we got the ball into Mo and it worked out,” Del Negro said. “When it’s in the backcourt like that and when you’re up two, you have to make sure you protect it pretty well.”
It’s one of those ‘better safe than sorry’ moments and the team, with even more room to make the catch from their frontcourt, had no problem getting the ball into Williams, who iced a pair and the game.
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