The Grizzlies return to the court at 8:30 tonight at FedExForum in a spot they were able to avoid last spring: Down 0-1 and fighting, early on, to keep hope alive.
Can they recover from a historic collapse and a game that functioned like one the greatest cases of unintentional rope-a-dope ever seen? The mood at practice the past two days has seemed relaxed but determined. If anything, I'd worry about a hangover for the too-quiet, nail-biting fourth-quarter crowd than from the players themselves.
I had a chance to re-watch Game 1 last night for the first time, and it looked a little different than in the blur of the moment.
With that in mind, here are 10 takes on the state of the series heading into Game 2:
1. Offsetting Improbabilities and the Sensible Center: The fourth quarter of Game 1 was like a rock slide: In the four minutes that the Clippers cut a 24-point Grizzlies lead down to 12, it was like a few small chunks of stone were falling down the hill. Something to take note of but not be too concerned about. When that lead held for the next two-and-a-half-minutes — a 12-point lead with less than three minutes on the clock? — the quiet felt like everything had stabilized. And then Nick Young hit three three-pointers in the span of exactly 60 seconds and the whole mountain came tumbling down.
To lose a 24-point lead in eight minutes and then a 12-point lead in under three takes everything going wrong. We won't see anything quite like that again. But some of what built that lead was pretty improbable too: Chris Paul and Blake Griffin combining for more personal fouls (4) than points (3) in the first quarter. Grizzlies perimeter players connecting on 10 of their first 12 three-point attempts.
It felt like the Grizzlies dominated the game until those last eight minutes, but they only really dominated the first quarter. The Grizzlies' 34-16 explosion in the first was balanced by the Clippers' 35-13 explosion in the fourth. Those quiet, comparatively forgettable middle quarters — in which the Grizzlies outscored the Clippers 51-48 — are probably more indicative of what to expect going forward.
Instead it was the Clippers — a mediocre defense all season long — that finally played playoff “D” in the fourth quarter, which was such a shock to the comfortable, complacent Grizzlies after three quarters of comparative softness that they just didn't respond to it.
Tonight, the Grizzlies need to amp up their defense from the tip. And one way to maintain better defensive intensity throughout the game might be to give more minutes to Tony Allen and Dante Cunningham, the team's two best and most relentless defenders. In the regular season, Allen and Cunningham averaged a combined 44 minutes a game. Sunday night, they played only 32 minutes.
Allen played only 2:25 in the fourth quarter, when the Clippers offense scored 35 points. And despite his potentially game-costing and needlessly over-aggressive foul on Paul in the final minute, we all know that Allen can charge up the entire team defense. As for Cunningham, he had two of those four team “stocks” in only 10 minutes. His ability to make both make plays above the rim on both ends of the floor and step out to guard the pick-and-roll adds a different dimension to the Grizzlies frontcourt.
3. What Went Wrong With the Crunch-Time Offense: The conventional wisdom coming out of Game 1 was that the Grizzlies' offensive woes in the fourth quarter were a result of going away from the game plan that had built the lead: Running less of the offense through Marc Gasol (14 points and 4 assists on 6-9 shooting in the first half, exactly zero shot attempts or assists in the fourth quarter) and relying more on isolations for Zach Randolph and, particularly, Rudy Gay. And Lionel Hollins underscored that sense by admitting fault for not running more plays for Gasol in the final quarter. And I certainly shared that conventional wisdom.
But re-watching the game with the ability to pause, rewind, slow down I got a different sense of things. The fourth quarter offense looked less like a failure of design than of execution. A lot of the the Grizzlies early offense — as ESPN's Kevin Arnovitz beautifully illustrates here — came in a set designed to get Gasol the ball in the high post, where he could survey his options — which included himself — from the middle of a well-spaced set and trigger the team's offense. When the Grizzlies weren't scoring this way, they were often using a set that started with Mike Conley up top and Gasol and Rudy Gay both rolling off a side pick from Gasol. If that didn't open up a potential shot, the ball would swing to the opposite site, where Tony Allen could feed Zach Randolph in the low post.
These sets received minimal resistance in the first quarter, with the Grizzlies routinely able to deliver the ball to Gay, Randolph, especially Gasol in the right spots. In the fourth quarter, it was less that the Grizzlies didn't try to run this kind of team offense than that the Clippers — with different personnel on the floor — were defending it much more aggressively.
Everyone's saying Gasol wasn't getting the ball in the fourth quarter. But watch it back: Gasol is getting the ball a lot. Only instead of catching near the free-throw line, where he can set up teammates for shots, he's being pushed out to the three-point line or beyond; not just on that late turnover, but on several possessions leading up to it. And from that far out, Gasol's options and comfort was severely limited, often forcing him to just move the ball, under duress, to the closest stationary teammate — Randolph, Mayo, Gay — who would then try to create a shot.
I can't prove it – or at least don't have the time to — but you get the sense that Grizzlies offense is functioning best when scoring is relatively balanced but Gasol and Mike Conley are both racking up assists. That's what happened in the first quarter: Seven different players scored, with Gasol and Conley getting eight of 10 assists.
If the Clippers bring their fourth-quarter defense more frequently tonight, then the Grizzlies are going to have to find a way to make their offensive sets function again. And it won't be as simple as “get Gasol the ball.” He got it all the while the mountain was collapsing, but not in the position to do much with it.
4. Caron Butler Out/Rudy Gay on the Spot: Clippers small forward Caron Butler is now out for the series with a fractured left hand, with Game 1 Clipper hero likely to start in his place and vet journeyman Bobby Simmons — who DNP'd in Game 1 — likely to enter the rotation.
This probably won't make an enormous impact on the series, but should help the Grizzlies, and particularly Rudy Gay.
Despite leading the team with 19 points and doing good work on the boards with 7 rebounds, Gay was a little wobbly in his playoff debut, though it looked a little better on a second viewing than it did in real time.
With that first game behind him, the Grizzlies need Gay to settle down and be a consistent factor. Most of the time when he's on the floor, Gay's going to have the most favorable offensive match-up for the Grizzlies. That doesn't mean the Grizzlies have to force-feed isolations for Gay in lieu of running multi-option sets through Gasol or Conley. But it does mean that Gay needs to be a more efficient, significant scorer for the team. And he has to pick up his defensive intensity to keep his offensive output from being canceled out at the other end.
5. Zach Randolph Redux: Playing with out his knee brace and with the expectation of picking up his play for the post-season, Randolph's 6 points on 3-13 shooting was extremely troubling. Of Randolph's three baskets, two were on his trademark jab-step baseline jumper. Another was an uncontested, assisted dunk. Not once did he score in the paint over a defender.
Randolph's stat line in Game 1 was beneath even what we saw in the regular season. Randolph had scored in double digits with 50% shooting or better in four of his last five regular-season games. On the other hand, in two post-comeback games against the Clippers and their big/strong front line, Randolph had struggled in a similar manner, shooting a combined 10-27.
So, I don't think anyone knows what to expect from Randolph when the ball tips tonight. If he does struggle, I wouldn't be surprised to see his playing time reduced from Game 1's 32 minutes. Both Mareese Speights (only 4-10 shooting, but 9 rebounds in 18 minutes) and Dante Cunningham (4 rebounds, a steal, and a block in 10 minutes) were effective. And, as I wrote earlier, Cunningham's defense can be a tone-changer.
6. Reggie Evans/Eric Bledsoe/Kenyon Martin as Defensive Game-Changers?: Did the Clippers find something in the fourth quarter or was it a fluke?
Setting aside a streaky Nick Young's shooting-practice three-point barrage, the Clipper turned the game around with defensive contributions from bench players Eric Bledsoe and Reggie Evans, with Kenyon Martin joining in late.
Can they be credible enough again offensively for the Clippers to keep their defense on the floor? With Chris Paul around to generate offense, I fear the answer is yes.
Bledsoe's physicality and ball pressure helped push the Grizzlies' halfcourt offense further out. But, setting aside Paul's leadership and seven fourth-quarter assists, Evans was Man of the Match in Game 1. Twice, Evans stepped out on pick and rolls to slap the ball away from Rudy Gay. He bullied Zach Randolph into a tough fade-away from the post. He shoved Marc Gasol four feet — an uncalled foul, but still — for a crucial defensive rebound. Statistically, Evans was one of the worst players in the league this season, but he was a dominant fourth-quarter player in Game 1. Maybe that was a fluke, but the Grizzlies need to be ready if it wasn't. And they definitely can't let Evans – a terrible free-throw shooter — have any easy lay-ups again.
7. Three-Pointers and Paint Points: While it might seem out of character, the Clippers actually lead the season-series in points in the paint while the Grizzlies shot better from three-point range. But the extent that those two surprising trends carried over into Game 1 should be an anomaly. The Grizzlies were 11-16 from three in Game 1. The Clippers, despite Nick Young's Minute, were 6-18. Those numbers will likely be a lot closer tonight. But as long as the Grizzlies can cut into the Clippers 54-38 disparity in the paint, it should balance out.
8. Arena Action: Local hip-hop/rock/soul band Free Sol will play the outdoor party on the concourse tonight and will likely take the stage at around 7:30 p.m. Grammy-winning, Memphis sax man Kirk Whalum will be sitting in with the house band and then perform the anthem. Quick Change will erase the memory of Rubber Boy at halftime. And I'm told there's some special motivational material set to debut on the Jumbotron.
9. The Road Ahead: As I wrote the morning after the Game 1 debacle, I left the game even more convinced that the Grizzlies are the more talented team top-to-bottom but less convinced they'll win the series. The sense that the Grizzlies are better is now balanced against not only the Clippers having the best player but also now the homecourt advantage. I dislike the overuse of the phrase “must win” — which doesn't actually apply until a team is facing an elimination game — but obviously losing tonight would stack the odds very heavily against the Grizzlies. I think they win this and will be very surprised if this isn't a six- or seven-game series.
10. Remembering the Good: As someone who savors the small moments in a game that might not be relevant to the ultimate outcome, let us pause to remember a couple of little nuggets from Game 1:
Dante Cunningham puts Blake Griffin on a Poster: