The Los Angeles Clippers had every intention of being in this position after landing coveted free agent point guard Chris Paul.
Playoff-bound for the first time since the 2005-06 season, the Clippers acquired Paul from the New Orleans Hornets in the offseason to team up with Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Chauncey Billups. The deadly foursome turned into a three-headed monster when Billups went down with a season-ending Achilles injury, leaving much of the scoring up to Paul and Griffin.
The fifth-seeded Clippers, who took on the moniker "Lob City" for their seemingly never-ending ability to master the alley-oop, knocked off Western Conference power Oklahoma City earlier this month at home to punch their ticket to the postseason. Paul was excited about the achievement, but also understood the fact that it will be a grind when the playoffs commence.
"It doesn't matter who you are playing against," Paul told the LA Times after beating the Thunder. "But it is a good win for us. We wanted to clinch a playoff berth tonight, especially here at home in front of our home crowd. But we've still got a lot of work to do."
Having secured just their sixth playoff berth since the team moved to Los Angeles in 1984, the Clippers almost unseated the rival Lakers for their first Pacific Division title, but Kobe Bryant and Co. were too much in the end. The Clippers hope the dynamic duo of Paul and Griffin can get some much-needed assistance during the "second season" in order to leave a lasting impression on the postseason field.
"We're not satisfied with just getting into the playoffs," Griffin said. "We want more than that."
The West is arguably the toughest conference in the NBA, and it will be no walk in the park against the playoff-tested Grizzlies.
Memphis captured the fourth seed in this year's standings and is back in the playoffs for a second year in a row. The Grizzlies sent the San Antonio Spurs packing in six games during the opening round of last season's playoffs before bowing out in seven games against the Thunder in the semifinals.
The Grizzlies finished second to the Spurs in the Southwest Division this season and were once again led by Rudy Gay and Marc Gasol. O.J. Mayo, Mike Conley and Tony Allen also spurred the Grizz to the postseason, while Marreese Speights turned his game around when Philadelphia traded him to Memphis. Speights played well at the power forward position and gave the Grizzlies life in the paint with Zach Randolph nursing a partial MCL tear in his knee.
With Randolph back in action the Grizzlies should be able to enjoy a solid first-round playoff series. Randolph was a big reason for the team's success a year ago and may come off the bench this time around for head coach Lionel Hollins. The Grizzlies were able to succeed without Z-Bo and may just stick to what got them there. Hollins gave his perspective on the postseason after his team clinched a spot a few weeks ago.
"We didn't want to be a one-and-done kind of group," Hollins said. "We had a lot of success last year and we just wanted to make sure we got back."
Memphis lost two of three meetings against the Clippers in the regular season and four of five overall. Memphis has lost three straight, nine of 11 and 10 of its last 13 games as the visitor in this series.
POINT GUARD: Paul is one of the top three point guards in the league and averaged more than 19 points and nine assists this season. To say his first stint in LA was a success would be an understatement, as the crafty floor boss is responsible for helping the Clippers improve on a 32-win season the year before. Paul, a deadly weapon in the fourth quarter this season, has plenty of weapons to dish the ball off to and is a sharp defender to boot. He is the only player to average more than 19 points, nine assists and two steals.
Conley had averages of more than 12 points and six assists this season, and stayed generally healthy. He got his first taste of the playoffs last year, averaging 15.2 points and 6.4 assists in 13 games, and sets Hollins' offense in motion. With Randolph nearing 100 percent, it gives Memphis another option to score and it's up to Conley to get him the ball. Gay, of course, is the Grizzlies' top scorer and has led the squad in assists for five straight seasons. Actually, Conley has led the Grizzlies in assists in every season since being drafted fourth overall by the team in 2007. He has also increased his points and assists averages in every season since entering the NBA, and is a sharp defender much like Paul. But Paul gets the easy edge in this matchup.
SHOOTING GUARD: Clippers head coach Vinny Del Negro had to be pleased with what he got from Randy Foye this season. Foye, in his second season with the Clippers, will make his postseason debut and spent time previously with Minnesota and Washington. He averaged more than 10 ppg this season and became a mainstay in the starting lineup since February. Foye went on a nice scoring tear bridging the end of March and the beginning of April thanks to his three- point prowess, but does not have the advantage against Gay at shooting guard. Foye is perhaps the third or fourth choice at scoring for LA, but could break out in these playoffs.
Tony Allen isn't required to do that much scoring since Gay, Gasol and Mayo carry the load in that department. Allen has plenty of playoff experience from his days with Boston and has averages of 4.1 points and 1.5 rebounds in 69 postseason games. Allen missed some time recently because of a cut lip, but has been back in action since the middle of this month. Allen was a member of the 2010-11 NBA All-Defense second team and was fourth in Defensive Player of the Year voting.
CENTER: Coming off his first All-Star appearance, Grizzlies center Marc Gasol transformed his game for 2011-12 and the results have been impressive. Although his points and rebounds are not career highs, Gasol gives Memphis a formidable frontcourt alongside Speights and Randolph. Gasol posted more than 14 points and nine rebounds per game this season and was a reliable factor due to his strong health. Gasol, a mainstay in the starting lineup each of the past three seasons, started all 13 playoff game last season and boasted averages of 15.0 points, 11.2 rebounds and 2.2 blocks. Memphis' all-time leader in field goal percentage, Gasol gives the Grizz an easy edge here.
Jordan is a shot-blocking specialist and also takes lobs from Paul when Griffin isn't hovering inside the paint. Jordan will also make his postseason debut and the Clippers are hoping the big man will be able to bang bodies inside against Gasol. The Clippers' 6-11 skyscraper is one of the league leaders in blocks and is averaged just over seven points and eight rebounds this season. A picture of health in each of the past two seasons, a blank infirmary sheet will not aid LA's efforts inside.
SMALL FORWARD: Gay is getting his first taste at the playoffs and missed last year's run because of a shoulder injury that required surgery to repair. Gay is arguably the reason why fans in Memphis show up to the games and recorded more than 19 points and six assists this season. Fully healthy for this postseason run, Gay is on the floor for almost 38 minutes a night and is a master at knocking down the outside shot. Gay is heating up at the right time and his performance in this series will dictate how the Grizzlies fare.
If Caron Butler can stay at full strength -- and he has so far -- and get decent looks when the usual suspects don't have the ball, the Clippers have a shot at winning this series. A former first-round draft pick back in 2002, the veteran Butler has averaged about 12 points during the regular season. Butler missed out on Dallas' postseason run to a championship a year ago, but has appeared in 31 career postseason games, averaging 16.4 points and 7.8 boards. LA owns more than 20 wins when Butler scores at least 13 points. He posted the 10,000th point in his career in January and has more than 600 appearances.
POWER FORWARD: Thanks in large part to the addition of Paul, the NBA world will get a chance to see Griffin on the big stage. Griffin, an All-Star, simply dominated the league inside this season and is one of the leaders in dunks with more than 180. One of only two players (Dwight Howard) to average 20-plus points, 10 or rebounds and shooting 50 percent from the field, Griffin brings a rare mix of ball-handling skills and gravity defying jumping ability, which makes it even more tough to defend. Griffin just completed his second season in the pros and is gifted with great health. A difference maker on the run, Griffin, a double-double threat on any given night, will surely posterize many of Memphis' defenders.
Speights will be in for a long series if he fails to knuckle down on defense. He will most likely get the start at PF with Randolph coming off the bench, but stranger things have happened. If Hollins gets too frustrated with Speights' play, expect a quick hook from the bench boss. Speights has played in five career postseason games -- all with the Sixers -- and recorded averages of 2.6 points and 2.4 rebounds. The Grizzlies recorded more than 35 wins in the regular season with Speights in the starting lineup and he has played with a chip on his shoulder even since Philly dumped him.
BENCH: Mayo can start on pretty much any team in the league, but Hollins likes him coming off the pine. Actually, there are many high-profile players who sit the bench during the opening tip such Jamal Crawford and James Harden. Mayo is a talented guard who is quick off the dribble, can drive the lane and knock down 18-footers with ease. Averaging more than 12 points and three rebounds, Mayo has scored in double figures more than 40 times this season. Randolph is another weapon for Memphis' bench as long as he's not inserted back into the starting lineup. Randolph led the charge in last year's postseason, posting 18.4 points and 9.6 boards in 21 games (17 starts). Dante Cunningham, Gilbert Arenas and Quincy Pondexter will help off the bench too.
While Mayo is instant offense off the bench, the Clippers' only reserve threat is guard Nick Young, who was acquired from Washington before the trade deadline. Young was one of the top scorers for the Wizards and has to be pleased to be out of the D.C. area. Young is averaging about 10 points per game this season. Defensive enforcer Kenyon Martin provides attitude and that's about it. Martin can rebound, however, and is good for about six points per game. Eric Bledsoe and Reggie Evans will see time off the bench as well.
COACHING: Many speculated that Clippers head coach Vinny Del Negro lost the team, but has responded since with an impressive run to the postseason. A point guard himself during his days in the NBA, it was easy for Del Negro to work with Paul and put him in position to win games. Del Negro deserves credit for piloting the Clips back into the postseason in his second season with the franchise. He owns a 4-8 record as a coach in the playoffs. and hopes his fast-breaking philosophy will garner more than just highlights on sports stations. Del Negro joined the Clippers after leading the Chicago Bulls to two consecutive trips to the playoffs (2009 and 2010). The Clippers' brass is counting on a memorable run this time around under Del Negro.
Hollins is the Grizzlies' all-time winningest coach and posted his 100th coaching victory on Dec. 30, 2011 versus Houston. The mild-tempered Hollins, who took over as the full-time head coach in January 2009, enjoys the half- court set with Gasol underneath, and can also run the floor with Gay on the wing. Mayo can thrive in either setting. The Grizzlies have improved each year under Hollins and hope to make even more of an impact in the postseason this time around after getting their feet wet in 2010-11. Defensively under Hollins, Memphis is one of the best in steals and forced turnovers. Hollins is 7-6 in the playoffs.
PREDICTION: It was definitely nice for the NBA landscape to have the Clippers back in the playoffs, and it will be even more exciting when they move on to the second round after a bumpy series with Memphis. The Grizzlies have an advantage at being in the postseason before, but then again so does Paul from his days with the Hornets (23 games, 21.9 points, 11.1 assists). This will be Griffin's first time in the postseason and you can bet he will be on his best behavior in order to get LA some deserved attention. The Grizzlies won't be an easy knockout, however, with Gay, Gasol, Mayo and Randolph. If Los Angeles can control the paint with Griffin and Jordan, and keep the Grizzlies from using their suffocating defense, the series could be over in at least five games.
SPORTS NETWORK PREDICTION: CLIPPERS IN 6