Last night was a very, very good night to be a Memphis Grizzlies fan. Not only did the mighty Grizz D shut down the Rockets offense in an 82-78 victory, the Mavericks upset the Nuggets, meaning the Grizzlies are tied for the third seed in the West. Unfortunately, Denver owns the tiebreaker, meaning the Grizzlies are still technically 5th in the Western Conference. If they wind up with the 5-seed, their first round matchup would be against the Los Angeles Clippers, who they will host at Fed Ex Forum tonight.
Ever since last year’s hotly contested First round series, which the Clippers won in seven games, there has been no love lost between these two teams. A cursory glance at Grizzlies Twitter will reveal numerous references to “flop city,” referring to the many apparent dives taken by the Clips (Blake Griffin, and Reggie Evans in particular) during that series. When these two teams meet, you can expect things to be pretty intense, and tonight’s game will likely be no exception.
The most intense position battle will likely be the duel between Mike Conley and Chris Paul. Chris Paul is first in the league in steals per game, while Conley. Watching these two try to outsmart each other figures to be thoroughly entertaining. Paul is, by most measures, the best point guard in the league, but while Conley’s stats aren’t quite as flashy, he does an excellent job of leading this job, and in recent weeks, his role in the offense has expanded significantly. If Conley can hold his own against Paul (and history says he can), that should help the Grizzlies immensely.
Meanwhile, the battle at the 4-spot sees a dual between polar opposites – the earthbound-but-wise Zach Randolph, and the flashy-but-still-somewhat-raw Blake Griffin. Griffin has gotten better as a mid-range shooter this season, and in a recent win over the Lakers, he brought the Staples Center crowd to its feet when he nailed a three-pointer as the shot clock was about to expire. Still, his main way of succeeding is by brute force and epic dunks. If Marc and Z-Bo can crowd the front court, and keep the Clips from entering “Lob City” mode, they should be okay.
At the small forward spot, we see two players at very similar points in their career. Both Caron Butler and Tayshaun Prince have likely played their best basketball, but they both have valuable experience, and are still capable of contributing to playoff teams. Butler has been known to rattle of a few dunks even as he’s gotten older, while Prince’s value comes from his top-notch defense, and his excellent passing. This will be one of the more quiet match-ups tonight, but these two might have a few entertaining moments tonight.
As for the benches, the Clips have a clear edge. Eric Bledsoe is a freak athlete, and could start for half the teams in the league. Jamal Crawford is a sixth-man of the year candidate, and while Lamar Odom hasn’t done much offensively, his killer D means he is still quite valuable. For the grizzlies, Jerryd Bayless has established himself as the leader of the second unit, and we’ve seen put up impressive numbers in many games lately. For a team that thrives primarily defense, Bayless is valuable is the one truly fearless scorer they can count among their ranks. What he gives to the Grizz is similar to what Nate Robinson gives the Bulls; he’s the yin to everyone else’s yang.
This is a key game for both teams, as each are desperately trying to catch the Nuggets for the 3-seed. Neither the Grizzlies or the Clips want to play each other in the first round, preferring an easier match-up against Golden State or Houston. The Grizzlies may want it a little more, since the Clippers would have a home court in a potential first round match-up. In any case, this game looks to be hotly contested battle between two teams who truly do not like each other.