By John Carroll
The Memphis Grizzlies are a tough, hungry team that wants to double last year's postseason efforts and make a deep run in 2012. Lionel Hollins has done a terrific job molding this team into an excellent defensive team that pounds the ball inside on offense. The Grizzlies have one of the deepest frontcourts in the NBA with Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Marreese Speights. Randolph may be the best low-post player in the NBA and he can get 20 points and 10 rebounds for the Grizzlies at any time in the postseason. They have a wing player in Rudy Gay who is an effortless, natural scorer. At the defensive end of the floor the Grizzlies have the height, length and toughness to combat the explosive play of Blake Griffin and negate his effectiveness.
The Grizzlies ended the season playing good basketball, going 13-3 in the month of April. They have the necessary tools to win in the postseason.
The Clippers were slotted in the No. 4 spot in the West but fell to fifth after three losses in the season's final week.cBut they do deserve a lot of credit having earned the first playoff berth for the franchise in six years. The Clippers are a very talented team but they will struggle against the more battle-tested Grizzlies unless they are on the same page and play as a collective unit in the playoffs. They are a young, untested playoff team and no one knows how they will react to the pressures and the slower pace of the playoffs.
One factor that will gather some attention in this series is the coaching matchup of Vinny Del Negro vs. Lionel Hollins. Del Negro has a poor postseason record (4-8) coming into this series and he came under tremendous criticism earlier this year. The playoffs bring out all the warts of a team, so there is nowhere to hide. Del Negro will have to be at the top of his game in this series, because Hollins has did a masterful job of coaching the Grizzlies in the playoffs last season. He was 7-6 in his first season coaching in the playoffs and has a balanced inside-out attack and tremendous team chemistry.
If the Grizzlies are able to beat the Clippers in the first two home games there will be tremendous pressure on the Del Negro when his team returns home to Los Angeles for Games 3 and 4. This is where Del Negro will earn his paycheck and we will find out if he has the ability to lead this young talented team to a deep playoff run.
Los Angeles Clippers Offense
• The Clippers started the season as an inside-out team but have morphed into an outside-in team as the season has progressed. They are now much more of a jump-shooting team. They need Chris Paul to drive and dish and generate points in the paint to combat the Grizzlies paint production. The Clippers must generate paint points in this series in order to have a chance.
• Clippers must control and take care of the basketball. Low-turnover teams win in the playoffs.
• The Clippers began the season as one of the poorest rebounding teams in the league. Over the course of the season they have become one of the better ones. Rebounding is essential in the playoffs where extra possessions are the difference between winning and losing. Griffin (3.3), DeAndre Jordan (3.1) and Kenyon Martin (1.2) must attack the offensive glass and provide the Clippers' offense more opportunities to score
• L.A. will run a ton of pick-and-rolls for Chris Paul. They will run middle picks, side picks and step-up picks. Paul is one of the best playmakers in the NBA and he as he comes off the picks he will read what the defense is giving him. He will score off picks, set up perimeter shooters or attack the rim and lob it up to Griffin for an easy score.
• The Clippers need to be judicious in their use of the 3-point shot. They shoot 21.8 per game and make 35.7 percent. If used wisely with inside out action and off pick and rolls by Paul the Clippers can hurt the Grizzlies. Paul, Foye, Young and Williams can do damage in the playoffs as long as they attempt quality 3-point shots.
• The Clippers have a major problem in late-game situations. They are a horrible free throw-shooting team at 68 percent for the season. The Grizzlies will foul Griffin, Jordan, Martin and Reggie Evans late in the game if necessary. This is a big disadvantage in a half-court grind-it-out game.
Memphis Grizzlies Offense
• The Grizzlies will continuously pound the ball inside to Gasol and Randolph. They will play old fashioned inside-out basketball. Gasol and Randolph work well together because of Gasol’s ability to play at the high post, which opens up the paint for Randolph. The Clippers will attempt to defend them with one-on-one coverage. This way the team can stay locked on Rudy Gay, O.J. Mayo and Mike Conley. This would slow the pace of the game and force the Grizzlies to become a one-dimensional team.
• The Grizzlies' offensive philosophy of pounding the ball inside makes them one of the top teams in the NBA in points in the paint, with 45.2 per game. Amazingly, this number is down from last season, when they scored 50.5 per game.
• Hollins will reinsert Randolph back into the starting lineup in this series. He can get 20 points and 10 rebounds at any point in this series if gets enough minutes.
• The Grizzlies will take advantage of their young legs and athleticism when the opportunity rises. They push the ball in transition and score 15.7 points per game on the fast break. This ranks them seventh in the NBA. The Grizzlies lead the league in steals at 9.6 per game and they are excellent in converting these steals into points.
• The Grizzlies Achilles' heel offensively is their perimeter shooting. They only shoot 32.9 percent from the 3-point line, which ranks 25th in the NBA. They are 28th in the league in 3-point attempts with only 12.9 per game. Mayo and Conley are the only two players that can knock down 3-point shots but even they are not big-time threats from deep range. Opponents can come off the perimeter players and help in the post without having to worry about getting beat from the 3-point line.
• Memphis gets to the free throw line thanks to their ability to get the ball into the paint. They put tremendous pressure on their opponents by getting to the foul line 22.8 times per game. They shoot 75.8 percent from the foul line and this is another advantage for them in the playoffs when points are so hard to come by. All of their high volume shooters Gay, Gasol, Randolph, Conley and Mayo are very good free throw shooters.
Chris Paul: Paul is a proven playoff performer who will always be the best player on the court in this series. He is a superstar who can single-handedly carry the Clippers. Paul averaged 19.8 points and dished out 9.1 assists per game. In the last five games of the regular season he has averaged 26.8 points per game. Paul is one of the best pick-and-roll player in the game and the Clippers utilize the pick-and-roll extensively in their offense. He is a clutch performer who will deliver in late-game situations. He is deadly from the foul line down the stretch of games; he shot 86 percent from the line this season.
Mike Conley: Conley is a steady, facilitator who averaged 6.6 assists and only 2.0 turnovers per game. Conley is a pass-first point guard who gets Gay and Mayo shots in comfortable scoring positions. He understands how to feed his two big men Randolph and Gasol and keep them happy. Conley is a capable scorer who will pick and choose his spots. He connected on 38.0 percent of his 3-point attempts this season. He will have a very difficult matchup with Chris Paul in this series and he must be able to defend him in pick and rolls and not allow him to constantly get into the paint.
Randy Foye: Many thought Foye would be just a bit player this season for the Clippers with their logjam in the backcourt. But with the injury to Chauncey Billups early in the season Foye has gone from a backup to a starting role. Foye may be the most improved player on their roster this year. He leads the NBA in 3-point shots made since the All Star break and has scored 15.0 points per game and shot 45.5 from the 3-point line in the last five games for the Clippers.
Tony Allen: Allen brings a veteran presence to the Grizzlies lineup having played in numerous playoff games with the Celtics and now Memphis. He is one of the league's best defenders and will be assigned to the opponents top perimeter player throughout the playoffs. He is a big steal guy, averaging 1.8 for the season. He has improved offensively scoring 9.8 points per game for the Grizzlies this season. Allen is a driver who loves to attack the rim. His inconsistent perimeter shot gets him in trouble at times because he forces the drive when the jump shot is available. Hollins may slide Allen over to defend Paul in this series. He is long, and has excellent hands and he may be able to challenge Paul’s shot and give him a different look
Caron Butler: Butler’s job in this series is to control Gay. That may be a problem because Carmelo Anthony dominated him earlier this week in New York. The Clippers do not have anyone on their roster that can defend 6-8 scorers except for Butler. He has a tremendous amount of playoff experience having scored 16.4 points and 7.8 rebounds in 31 playoff games. Butler averaged 12.0 points this season but shot a poor 40.7 percent from the field.
Rudy Gay: Gay leads the Grizzlies in scoring again this season. Over the last 10 games of the season he has averaged 21.6 points and 6.6 rebounds per game. Rudy Gay is a scorer and has been a perfect complement to the inside post play of Randolph and Gasol. He did not play in last year's playoffs due to injury and it is yet to be seen if he can be a go-to guy for Memphis in the playoffs. Hollins has driven Gay to improve at the defensive end of the floor this year.
Blake Griffin: Grffin is one of the league’s best young players. He made the All-Star team this season and averaged 20.7 points and 10.9 rebounds per game for the Clippers. He must continue to grow his skill set and develop a reliable jump shot and low post game. He currently relies strictly on his terrific athleticism and explosion. Griffin’s main problem coming into this series is his lack of postseason experience. He will be going up against one of the deepest frontlines in the NBA. It is imperative that he shows up at both ends of the court in this series in order for the Clippers to advance.
Zach Randolph: Randolph comes into this series after an injury riddled regular season where he only played in 27 games. Lionel Hollins decided to use Randolph off the bench instead of inserting him back in the starting lineup. He is one of the best post players in the league and has a knack for scoring at the rim. Look for the Grizzlies to get Randolph touches in the past and give him room to take his defender one-on-one.
DeAndre Jordan: Jordan is a long and athletic big man that the Clippers went to great lengths to re-sign in the offseason. They understood that although he is extremely raw offensively he provides rebounding and shot-blocking for this young team that they desperately needed. He is the team’s best rim protector averaging 2.0 blocks per game. Jordan cannot score via a post touch. He needs to score off interior passes, lobs to the rim and offensive rebounds. He is an aggressive offensive rebounder averaging 3.1 offensive boards per game.
Marc Gasol: Gasol has established himself as one of the top centers in the NBA. This past season he averaged a near double-double for the 2011-12 season with 14.5 points and 9.0 rebounds per game. Gasol is a crafty scorer who can also step out to the high post where he can catch and make the mid-range jumper. In addition Gasol will go into the low post and the Grizzlies will pound the ball inside to him. He leads the team in free throw attempts with 4.9 per game. He attempts 11.4 field goals per game and is shooting 48.0 percent from the field. He also protects the rim for the Grizzlies averaging 1.8 blocks per game.
Los Angeles Clippers Bench
Mo Williams: Williams has played 28.3 minutes off the bench for the Clippers this season averaging 13.2 points per game. He plays with energy and works hard on the defensive end of the floor. Williams is an effective scorer who can shoot the 3 with good proficiency. He attempted 4.6 3 point shots and made 39.0 percent of them.
Nick Young: Young is a scorer who can create his own shot and the Clippers will need production from him in the playoffs. He recently scored 19 points off the bench for the Clippers and it was his best scoring output since the trade that brought him to Los Angeles in mid March. He has had to make an adjustment to his new role, going from scoring 16.6 points with the Wizards to 9.8 points per game and playing only 24.9 minutes.
Kenyon Martin: Martin brings a wealth of playoff experience to the Clippers roster. He has played in 89 postseason games, scoring 14.9 points and 7.6 rebounds in those games. He brings a tremendous effort and a defensive mindset to the court. Martin is a rugged interior player who will be called on in this series to battle with Zach Randolph toe-to-toe. Anything he gives the Clippers offensively is just gravy; he just needs to defend, rebound and attack the offensive glass.
Eric Bledsoe: Bledsoe is a terrific young player who is a high-energy guy for the Clippers. He is an excellent defender who puts tremendous pressure on the ball. He has gone from an inconsistent rookie to someone that has produced all season for the Clippers. Bledsoe gets lost in this extremely deep and talented backcourt.
Reggie Evans: Evans is a hard worker and tenacious rebounder. He is only 6’8” but is willing to mix it up with players much taller and bigger. He may be called upon in this series if the Clipper big men get into foul problems versus the Memphis Grizzlies frontline.
Memphis Grizzlies Bench
Marreese Speights: Although Speights has been placed into the starting lineup due to Randolph’s injury he is truly a backup player. He has been a quality player for the Grizzlies since they acquired him from Philly earlier this season. He could be an X factor in this series with his ability to back up Randolph and Gasol. He gives the Grizzlies protection versus foul problems to their primary post players. Speights made the most of the opportunity, averaging a career best 8.9 points and 6.4 rebounds per game in a carer high 22.5 minutes. He will battle Griffin in the low post and utilize his toughness and fouls to limit his effectiveness.
O.J. Mayo: Mayo is a shooting guard who comes off the bench for the Grizzlies who plays starter minutes. He is the best deep shooter on the team. The Grizzlies will need Mayo to take his game to another level if they want to beat the Clippers. Memphis will need Mayo to find his shooting touch, this past season he shot a career low 41% from the field. Mayo will need to be a shot maker in order to give Gasol and Randolph room to operate in the post.
Lester Hudson: Lester Hudson signed with the Grizzlies on April 20 and prior to that he had played 13 games for the Cleveland Cavaliers and had been very impressive scoring 12.7 points over that time. He is an assertive scorer and the Grizzlies are hoping he can provide instant offense off the bench when called upon in the playoffs.
Dante Cunningham: Cunningham has been a solid reserve who averaged 17.5 minutes off the bench. He is primarily a big-body post man who can play defense and rebound. He is a very limited offensive player.
Quincy Pondexter: Pondexter was a reliable role player off the bench this season. He is an aggressive offensive player who attacks the rim off the dribble. Comes into the game looking to attack the rim but he is not much of a perimeter shooter.
Gilbert Arenas: Battling a torn ligament on his shooting hand. If it heals he may get an opportunity to help this team in the post season
Prediction: Grizzlies in six.