We made it through another season. This specific season began like gangbusters for the Memphis Grizzlies. Tons of buzz and a hot start almost made people forget about last year’s first-round loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.
As fun as the hot start was, it seems like the Grizzlies will again draw the Clippers in the opening round this season and they likely won’t have home-court advantage this time. It may be comforting to realize that the Clippers won a game 7 in Memphis last year, but that hardly matters now. All that matters now is how these two teams match-up on the floor and why the Grizzlies should feel like they have a better chance this year.
– Jerryd Bayless could very possibly be an upgrade to OJ Mayo. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking about how Mayo filled it up for the Mavericks in Dirk Nowitzki’s absence at the beginning of the season. That’s true, his scoring numbers were way up from his previous years in that time frame. Since then? Not quite as impressive. It could have been Dirk’s return or just Mayo regressing to the mean, but at the end of the day, his numbers per 48 minutes were right in line with his career numbers.
Bayless has been a revelation since the Rudy Gay trade, however. Bayless has displayed an ability to score regardless of the circumstances, but with the ability to handle the ball like a point guard. The latter skill is something that Mayo always struggled with in Memphis and was highlighted by Eric Bledsoe’s defensive prowess in the playoffs last year against the Clippers.
Nobody can deny that Mayo is a bigger name than Bayless, but playoff series aren’t won on paper, they’re won on the court. If series were played on paper, the Grizzlies team of last season should have rolled the Clips behind Rudy Gay and Mayo, but both of those guys are gone and somehow the Grizzlies have posted their best regular season ever.
– Speaking of Gay and, let’s look at that further. A common refrain from the Grizzlies and their fans is that Gay’s absence cost them dearly against the Oklahoma City Thunder in in the 2011 Western Conference Semifinals. A lot of those same people were noticeably quiet when Gay shot 42% from the field, along with 21% from three point range in last year’s Clippers series. Some people argue that a lot of great scorers take a lot of shots, but that would be assuming that Gay is a great scorer and he really isn’t. He scores a lot of points because he takes a lot of shots.
That quick trigger finger was a huge reason for Memphis losses in games 3 and 4 last season and while the Grizzlies will almost certainly miss his ability to create shots for other people, Rudy often didn’t look to pass in those situations, opting for a contested jumper instead.
In his stead, Tayshaun Prince has contributed more efficient scoring, even though he rarely outscores Gay if that makes sense. Prince also seems to grasp the concept of help defense and has caught up to the Grizzlies’ defensive scheme as well. Gay was too often caught out of position and freelancing too often.
More importantly, the Grizzlies have gone from having a bunch of young pups in 2011 to being very battle tested this year. Tony Allen and Prince have played major roles on World Championship teams and Prince even won a Gold Medal at the 2008 Olympics. Experience like that isn’t an end-all, be-all but it certainly can’t hurt.
– The last thing is the most important question: how will the Grizzlies handle Chris Paul? You know all about Paul by now, and he’s simply one of the five best players in the league today. He’s one of the toughest guys to stop at any given time and even if you do a good job of him, he can still make tough shots or get you in foul trouble and sometimes even both.
The scary part about facing the Clippers again is that a lot of times, the best player in the series ends up advancing unless the talent divide is so massive that it can’t be overcome. Think about it, when is the last time that Kobe, Dirk, LeBron, Durant, Chris Paul or Dwight Howard were eliminated in the first round? What about Tim Duncan? Obviously the goal isn’t to just win one playoff series for those guys, but in a lot of ways, making the second round as regularly as they do confirms their status as the great players in this league. It’s the chicken or the egg argument but it’s something interesting to think about nonetheless.
In 2011, the Grizzlies had the most dominant player in the first round against the Spurs as Zach Randolph was able to outduel Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. Marc Gasol wasn’t too shabby either and everything else fell in line. In the second round, Z-Bo was still great, but not as great as Kevin Durant and Oklahoma City won. In the Western Finals that year, Durant and Russell Westbrook were fine but couldn’t slow Dirk Nowitzki. Dirk stayed hot through the Finals and was the best player in that series against the Heat.
Again, as long as everything else is even remotely even, the alpha dog in most series takes the team home. The Grizzlies and Clippers look to be even to me and unless Zach Randolph can pull off a 2011-type run then the Grizzlies may be in some serious trouble because of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. It’s possible that Marc Gasol may be closer to being that guy than Zach is and the Clippers have no answer for him offensively or defensively. If Gasol suddenly decides to average 26 and 13 for the series, he’s more than capable and the Grizzlies would probably win. But Gasol would have to make his mind up to do it. He’s almost too good a teammate to do that, but it may be what the Grizzlies need at this juncture.