The biggest concern tonight as the Grizzlies return home for an elimination Game 5 might be the general mood — on the court and in the stands. I'm concerned that complaints about scapegoating and various attempts to assign specific blame for team failings might suggest cracks in the team focus and chemistry. I also worry if the fans will really bring the heat tonight. Have a great couple of seasons erased the fickleness bred from the many bad seasons that have preceded it? Is the fan base that has sold out eight straight playoff games for real now or just along for the ride when times are good? Tonight will provide some answers on both of these subjects.
As for on-court specifics, here are five series factors I've been thinking about:
1. Two Stars Are Better Than None: The biggest difference between the Clippers and the Grizzlies? The Grizzlies worry about which player is going to take the big shot. The fans argue about it. It's a hotly contested issue. The Clippers? They don't really care who takes the big shot. They worry about getting the best shot. In Game 4, Chris Paul took over in the extra period with his own scoring, but that's not always the case. He's arguably the best crunch-time operator in basketball and every possession will start in his hands, but they don't always end there. It might be a Nick Young open in the corner. It might be Blake Griffin or even Reggie Evans under the basket. Paul will get the ball to whoever has the best shot. It's the way basketball is supposed to be played but rarely is when things get tight.
And yet, the Clippers execute this way with the luxury of one true superstar and another potentially emerging one.
In a series in which every game has been up for grabs in the final five minutes, it's no shock that the team with Chris Paul at the helm has been coming out ahead. And the prospect of having to beat Paul in three straight games makes the Grizzlies' predicament more even daunting than it might otherwise seem given the the closeness of these games.
When the Grizzlies got a big stop in Game 4, it was not only with Tony Allen on Paul, but with Rudy Gay coming over to trap him. I would expect more double teams and traps on Paul tonight.
As for Griffin, he had been good in the series' first three games but not a major difference-maker, averaging 18.6 points per game. But he finally had a superstar performance in Game 4, with 30 points on 10-15 shooting and 7 assists, manhandling Zach Randolph on the block on several possessions. If Griffin is totally on his game, the Grizzlies don't have a great defensive match-up for him. He's too athletic for Randolph and Mo Speights, too quick for Marc Gasol and Hamed Haddadi, and too strong for Dante Cunningham. The Grizzlies can hope Griffin falls back to his less dominant form, but that's not a strategy. A better bet is to attack Griffin more on the other end. Griffin is a mediocre defender who is also prone to foul trouble: He fouled out in 37 minutes in Game 4 and had five fouls in each of the first three games in the series. Gasol, Randolph, and Speights can all score on him, and I'd like to see the Grizzlies go at Griffin more consistently tonight.
2. The Disappearing Grizzlies Post Game: I've been hammering at this all series and I don't think there's a solitary explanation for why the Grizzlies are not exploiting the dual-post offensive potential that helped drive last season's playoff run — why Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph have gone from 28 field-goal attempts per game in last year's playoffs to 19 per game so far in this one; why Marc Gasol has gone from second on the team in field-goal attempts per game in the regular season to tied for fifth (with Mo Speights, barely above Tony Allen) in this series.
There's no mystery, of course, why the team got away from the post-based game to begin with: When Zach Randolph went down, they had no choice but to redirect the offense. But I do think the team should have put more effort, even with a diminished Randolph, into re-establishing this style a month ago. This is why I was a proponent for re-inserting Randolph into the starting lineup a couple of weeks before it finally happened, just on the eve of the playoffs.
So, I think the origin of this problem dates back to early January and the fault dates back to early April. As for what's gone wrong in this series specifically, I'm not sure why so many seem so intent on embracing only one factor when it seems clear there have been lots of contributing factors:
Play calling: Set plays coming out of timeouts, especially in tight situations, have tended to start with Rudy Gay at the top of the key rather than trying to use Gasol or Randolph as the triggerman for the play.
Perimeter execution and decision-making: A couple of plays stick out from Game 4: Midway through the fourth quarter, Rudy Gay trying to feed Zach Randolph on the baseline and having his pass stolen by Blake Griffin. In overtime, a pick-and-roll between Mike Conley and Marc Gasol when Conley's feed to a rolling Gasol was at the big man's knees. I think there have been lots of times in this series where perimeter players have struggled to make the right pass to set up Randolph and Gasol. Even more frequently, especially with Gay and especially in Game 4, I think there have been instances where perimeter players have decided against trying to make the good entry feed in favor of the easier route of taking their own perimeter shot.
Physical play in the post: It's not just Gasol and Randolph's shot attempts that are down from last spring. Their rebounding is off just as much, and that doesn't have much, if anything, to do with any of these other factors. Rebounding, in large part, is about positioning and physicality. So is setting up to receive a post feed. If those factors are faltering in a manner that's impacted the duo's rebounding, wouldn't it also follow that this has been a factor in terms of getting consistent post position as well? Obviously, Randolph is still diminished followed his early season knee injury and Gasol carried a very heavy burden in the regular season and saw his rebounding decline in the second half, so there's reason to think neither of them is in the same place physically that they were a year ago.
The opposition: The Clippers may not have the defensive reputation of the Spurs, but they boast a bigger, stronger frontline than the Grizzlies' first-round opponent last season. Starters Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan can be exploited because they're not strong fundamental defenders, but in terms of denying position they are more physically formidable than the likes of Antonio McDyess or Matt Bonner. And the Clippers bring two strong frontcourt defenders — Reggie Evans and Kenyon Martin — off the bench.
So, the shaky post-game is a team-wide problem and requires a team-wide solution. Among many other reasons this problem needs to be solved: The aforementioned need to attack Griffin and get him into foul trouble, and the sense that the Grizzlies halfcourt offense functions best when Gasol gets the ball early in the shot clock.
Gasol addressed this subject briefly after today's shoot-around. One point he made was the Clippers' strategy of fronting post players and bringing a second defender from behind to discourage lob feeds. Gasol's recipe to combat this? "We need more ball movement," he said. "There will be an open man. We have to keep the ball moving and find him."
Asked about Gasol's production in particular, Hollins suggested fatigue as a factor. "They've been physical and he's also a little tired," Hollins said. "He's had to play big minutes this season." Hollins implied he might try to keep Gasol's minutes down tonight in order to keep him fresher.
3. Rudy Gay's Erratic Play: Rudy Gay has been almost unwatchably bad in long stretches in this series — the first half of Game 3, the first three quarters of Game 4, in particular — and pretty good in other stretches — most of Game 2, most of the second half of Game 3, the fourth quarter and overtime of Game 4. It's been a more intense and more widely watched microcosm of the erratic play that's plagued him this season and for much of his career.
Early in Game 4, Gay was clearly rattled — frustrated by non-calls and forcing shots. Obviously, most of fixing this problem is on him. He has to settle down, move the ball instead of taking contested jumpers early in the clock, and not let offensive struggles impact defensive focus. But there's a degree to which the team can exert more control. Gay was so bad in the first half that he deserved shorter leash in the third quarter. Instead, he shot 1-6 with zero assists while playing the entire third quarter.
Further, this series has further confirmed what was already obvious: While Gay can create shots on clear outs, his ball-handling is wobbly enough and his passing so uncertain that this isn't a fruitful strategy for any kind of sustained offense. By and large, Gay's been at his best in this series when catching the ball within 15 feet, on the move, or spotting up. The Grizzlies need his scoring, but he's most effective when finishing plays or when he's in position to make one strong move toward the basket. Asking him to consistently handle the ball on the perimeter against defensive pressure is a recipe for turnovers and contested jumpers.
Hopefully, the jitters that have plagued Gay at times in this first career playoff series will settle down at home. Or maybe the pressures of an elimination game will make them worse. That will be a compelling and crucial subplot for tonight's game.
As glaring as Gay's worst moments have been, however, there has been good here. While Gay has missed a couple of potential game winners, he's also hit big shots at the end of all three losses: A go-ahead shot in Game 1 that was negated by a bad foul at the other end; two three-pointers to set up an unlikely chance to win in Game 3; and a drive on Griffin to tie the game near the end of regulation in Game 4.
One surprising stat, albeit one that says more about how poor the team's perimeter play was last post-season despite the overall success: As bad as Gay has been for stretches, he's actually been a more efficient scorer in this series (1.2 points per shot) than any regular perimeter player last spring (Mayo at 1.1).
4. Reggie Evans, X-Factor: In a series where every game has been in play in the final minutes, you can point to a near endless number of things that seem determinative. But one crystal-clear X-factor has been the play of Clippers reserve big Reggie Evans, who has been the Clippers' defensive/rebounding closer in the place of starting center DeAndre Jordan.
Evans has gone from regular-season averages of 14 minutes, 4.8 rebounds, and 47% shooting to series averages of 21.3 minutes, 8.3 rebounds, and 67% shooting. And look at his rebounds per game in the series relative to Clipper success: 13(W), 1(L), 11(W), 8(L).
Evans is getting away with an awful lot: He gave Marc Gasol a two-hand shove for a key defensive rebound late in Game 1 and then literally threw Gasol to the floor to offensive rebound a missed free-throw late in Game 3. But that's playoff basketball. You can't depend on the referees to make those calls. Evans had four offensive rebounds on missed free throws in the two games in Los Angeles. On one of those, a long, high bounce off the rim sent the ball towards him, but on the other three he simply outworked the Griz player attempted to box him out — first Mareesse Speights, then Gasol, and finally, in overtime of Game 4, Zach Randolph, a play that set up a Chris Paul jumper that extended the Clippers lead to 92-89.
The Grizzlies are known for being a physical team in the paint, but in this series, Evans has been the most physical frontcourt players.
"His impact has been pushing, grabbing, and throwing people out of the way," Lionel Hollins said this morning when asked about Evans. "We just need to be tougher and more physical ourselves."
5. Secondary Shooters: Somewhat lost amid the clamor and concern about post play and Rudy Gay's up-and-down performances: How poorly O.J. Mayo has played for much of this series.
Mayo hit some big shots early in the fourth quarter of Game 2, but he's now shooting only 31% on the series and only 27% from inside the arc. Additionally, tasked with the primary back-up point guard duties, Mayo has struggled with a very high turnover rate.
I'll credit radio partner Chris Vernon with pointing out that Mayo has, on the season, shot the ball better at home than on the road, especially from long-range, where he was 41% at FedExForum and 31% elsewhere. After a 2-14 showing in Los Angeles, hopefully Mayo can get his groove back tonight.
The Grizzlies need it, because they're much more dependent on Mayo for that extra shooting boost than the Clippers are on any one secondary threat. Instead, the Clippers have three "Mayo" types, and all have been good from deep in this series: Nick Young at 62%, Mo Williams at 42%, and Randy Foye at 43%.
That kind of shooting discrepancy between Mayo and the Clippers trio is a lot to overcome.