Published January 13, 2015
It will be high-octane, fast-breaking offense versus slow- it-down defense when the Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies tangle in a rematch of last season's first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
Last season, the Grizzlies had home-court advantage, but the Clippers took Game 7 in Memphis to advance. This time around, the setting shifts, (Staples Center will play host to first two games), but the teams remain the same.
"We know that team very well," Clippers guard Chauncey Billups said. "They're going to play hard. They want to out-execute you. They want to pound you and rebound and throw it to their bigs inside and we've just got to be ready for them."
Billups' analysis was pretty spot-on. The Grizzlies led the NBA in opponents' scoring and finished third in opponents' field-goal percentage. The Clippers tied for eighth in scoring.
The Clippers took three of four from the Grizzlies in the regular season, including Saturday's 91-87 victory in Memphis. That game went a long way to getting the Clippers' home-court in this series.
"They've been a pain in our butts, but we've just got to go out there and worry about us, play hard, value every possession, play in and out basketball and stick to the things that got us to this point," Memphis guard Tony Allen said of the Clippers.
Both teams head into the series playing good basketball.
The Clippers won seven in row to finish the regular season. They earned their first Pacific Division title in franchise history and won a record 32 games at home.
The Grizzlies took nine of their last 11 and, like the Clips, boasted a 32-9 record at home this season. They matched Los Angeles with the second-best road mark in the Western Conference with a 24-17 record.
Basically, this is about as even a series as can be between two wildly opposite teams.
BACKCOURT: Chris Paul is the best point guard in a league littered with outstanding top guards. He finished second in the NBA in assists and led the league in steals. He is so good at pressuring the ball and facilitating Lob City. Billups has sparingly played this season with a myriad of injuries, but if he's going to be out there, he will hit big shots in the fourth quarter. The guy is a former NBA Finals MVP.
The Grizzlies backcourt is all about defense as Mike Conley finished third in steals and Tony Allen is one of the toughest on-the-ball defenders in the business. Conley had a career-high this season with 14.6 ppg.
FRONTCOURT: Blake Griffin is an athletic force in this league. Some of his dunks this season have defied both the eyes and science. He is an elite player in this league. Caron Butler tweaked his knee in the penultimate game, but saw significant time Wednesday's finale. DeAndre Jordan fits this team perfectly. He's an athletic big who only needs to defend and gets rewarded running the floor with easy baskets. (He shot 64 percent from the field this season).
Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro referred to the Grizzlies' pair of brutes - Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol - as perhaps the best "frontcourt duo in the league."
Both are supremely skilled big men, Gasol especially. He's a contender for Defensive Player of the Year and averaged 4.0 apg, which is staggering for a center. Randolph is more a rebounder and back-to-the-basket forward. That's not the only way he can score, but he and Gasol play beautifully together in high- low situations. Tayshaun Prince was acquired just before the deadline for Rudy Gay and he's paid dividends. He's playoff-tested, still a good defender and can make open threes.
BENCH: The Clippers bench is one of the best in the league. They boast reserves who could easily start for some teams and there are a few players, Grant Hill and Ronny Turiaf, don't even play. The bench was the fourth-best scoring group in the league and Jamal Crawford is a favorite for the Sixth Man of the Year. Matt Barnes would be if Crawford wasn't on the team. They both see action during crunch time.
Memphis had the 27th-best scoring backup unit in the league. They rely heavily on their starters and mortgaged quite a bit on the Prince trade, giving up several key bench pieces. Jerryd Bayless has played very well toward the end of the season.
COACHING: Would you believe that neither of these coaches is under contract for next season?
Del Negro and Lionel Hollins both could be free-agents and one surely will be after this series, assuming a deal doesn't get done in the next week or so.
Del Negro has a much more talented roster, but has more egos to massage.
Hollins has less talent and less of a bench.
PREDICTION: When these teams met in last season's first round, Randolph played on basically one leg. The Grizzlies had the advantage and lost at home.
The knock on the Clippers is that when the playoffs come, and the pace slows as it always does, L.A. doesn't have a great half-court offense. There's probably some truth to that, but with Paul and Griffin, it's not like the Clippers will be starved for scoring.
Plus, the Clippers' defense is really underrated. When it's clicking, with Paul intercepting passes and Jordan patrolling the paint, L.A. is really good. They are fourth in the NBA in opponents' scoring. When the Clips get turnovers, they're running, then they're dunking, then, the Grizzlies are in trouble.
If Memphis controls the tempo, they will be right there. It's a big "if," but the Grizzlies can do it. They are a veteran, professional group that prides themselves on defense.
This is a tough one to call, but Billups' presence, coupled with the Clippers underrated defense is too much for Memphis.
SPORTS NETWORK PREDICTION: CLIPPERS in 6.