NBA 1st Round Preview: Memphis-LA Clippers

Memphis and the LA Clippers will meet in the first round of the NBA’s Western Conference playoffs, slotted in the 4-5 bracket, with the Grizzlies holding homecourt advantage. TheSportsNotebook previews what looks like the best matchup of the opening round…

The Clippers looked like they were going to hold homecourt for this matchup and maybe even sneak past the crosstown Lakers for the Pacific Division title and get up to #3. The Clips had won 13 of 15, but the bottom fell out on three challenging road games in the final week. They lost at Phoenix, lost at Atlanta and completed the trifecta with a loss at New York on Wednesday night. Memphis, after an up-and-down year, was ready to move into the vacuum, winning 11 of their final 13 to move into the #4 place and earn the right to open this series at home.

Both of these teams are young and talented, but neither plays at a rapid pace. Both play lower-possession games, somewhat surprising when you consider Chris Paul and Mike Conley have the keys to the car for each team—but perhaps less so when you look at the inside talent, from Blake Griffin to Pau Gasol, that make the halfcourt game advantageous each way. Both teams are in the league’s upper third in rebounding, but where the similarities end is in what side of the ball each excels on. Memphis is a bottom tier team in offensive efficiency, but upper third on the defensive side. Los Angeles is in the league’s elite for offensive execution, but below average on defense.

The Clippers, as advertised by the mainstream media, are built around Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, who each average 20-plus points per game. Paul leads the way in assists, while Griffin hits the boards. This team’s playoff success is going to be determined by factors like whether Randy Foye and Nick Young can take the burden of backcourt scoring off Paul. Or whether DeAndre Jordan will rebound and block shots on the interior, enabling Los Angeles to neutralize Memphis’ bigs. And small forward Caron Butler has to be seen as a prime candidate for a breakout series—at least if the Clippers are going to win.

Memphis gets its points down low, with Gasol averaging 15, Zach Randolph getting 12 at power forward and most of all by talented small forward Rudy Gay who hits for 19 ppg. But the biggest X-factor Memphis has down low is Marressee Speights, who can give key minutes off the bench at either power forward or center, effectively making the Grizzlies immune to foul trouble. The backcourt is solid in its individual components, with Conley a good floor leader and O.J. Mayo or Tony Allen respective at the two-guard, but this team really lacks a three-point shooter to open up the lane.

I’m skeptical of offensive-oriented teams to win at this time of year, so I like the Grizzlies, but there are some strong factors pushing the Clippers way—most notably the star system of the NBA playoffs. The same league that hotwired the 76ers into the 2001 NBA Finals and the Lakers into the 2002 Finals over small-market teams with some officiating that went beyond shaky, can’t be considered above handing a few extra calls to the team from America’s largest second-city, having the game’s best point guard and the big man in the KIA commercials. Especially when the opponent is less than marquee. I wouldn’t consider the NBA above it, but I haven’t become conspiratorial enough to assume it, so I’m going with defense and the strong interior of Memphis over a team who’s shaky defense and inconsistent supporting cast played them out of a division title and homecourt.