We’ve seen five games come and go in the second straight first-round playoff series between the Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers and things look way different today than they did last Monday night when the Grizzlies lost on a Chris Paul runner with no time left.
Since that time, the Grizzlies have won three straight with a home game remaining and a chance to avenge the bad memories of 2012 (losing to the Clippers) and 2011 (being eliminated by the Thunder).
This wouldn’t have been possible without some slight fluctuation in performance by the key players and coaches in this series. Without further ado, here are the power rankings for the top 6 performers in the Grizzlies-Clippers series along with their fluctuation from the last set of power rankings that were taken before the playoffs began and find themselves saved in my brain:
6.) Tayshaun Prince- It’s kind of remarkable really when you consider that Prince has been a part of the playoffs since you were in high school. Then it becomes less charming when you realize he’s actually been involved for longer than that. He entered the league in 2002 with the Pistons and was a crucial part of their playoff success from 2002-2008.
Prince has more staying power than Cheers or Seinfeld. After a few years of sitting home in the spring on a rebuilding Pistons team, Prince has seemingly been rejuvenated in Memphis as a quality swingman that still knocks down big shots. Game 5 on it’s own proved his worth to a veteran team, and to a point it seems like the Grizzlies go as he goes. In games 1 and 2, Prince struggled with his shot but since it’s been falling, the Grizzlies are quite a roll.
If we had taken a power poll before game 3, this easily could have been Rudy Gay as the Flight 22 truthers were out in force and the Grizzlies actually looked like they may be missing Gay’s shot creating ability. Today? He’s an afterthought. As local radio talk show host Chris Vernon said on today’s show, “I hope Rudy Gay got his eyes fixed so he could see the game last night.”
5.) Lionel Hollins- Another guy who’s stock has fluctuated during this season. The Grizzlies started off like gangbusters in November, then tailed off in December and January. He lobbied against trading Rudy Gay, and when he was finally moved and the team continued to struggle, Hollins spoke out against the front office by saying “you can’t have champagne taste on a beer budget.”
He was right, and the Grizzlies took off almost immediately afterwards as Memphis posted a franchise record 56 wins, despite finishing with a worse seed than they did last year.
If we took this poll after game 2, Hollins may have been behind Clippers’ back-up center Ryan Hollins. The Grizzlies were down 2-0 and had lost a tight game 2. The only saving grace was that the Grizzlies may be able to use The Grindhouse as a launching pad. Whatever Hollins told them, it must have worked. Memphis is riding a three game winning streak now, going home to that same building where they’re so tough to beat.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, this almost has to be Vinny Del Negro. Del Negro looked like he had the Clips poised for a Western Conference Finals run up 2-0 and the Thunder being without Russell Westbrook. Today? He could be fired any day if the Clippers lose in round 1. Losing in round 1 isn’t the worst thing in the world as most 4/5 series mean that both teams are almost equally matched, but potentially losing after being up 2-0? That’s a death shot. Keep an eye on this.
4.) Mike Conley Jr.- We all know Conley’s story by now. But the idea that the Grizzlies may have a semi-legitimate perimeter threat to go with their All-Star caliber frontcourt should be a scary one for any future opponents.
Conley went from playing pretty timid (in my opinion) in game 1 to wreaking havoc on both ends of the floor since then. He hasn’t been as crucial as Gasol or Randolph but he’s made Chris Paul work enough on each end to disrupt the Clippers’ offense and swing the momentum to Memphis.
3.) Chris Paul- I can’t blame him for this crazy slide. Paul has done everything for the Clippers so far. He’s been able to score the ball when he wants, but also setting everyone else up. Blake Griffin leaving game 5 with his high ankle sprain didn’t lose the Clippers the game (because it was heading that way anyway) but it allowed the Grizzlies to let Paul get his without having to totally worry about anyone else. Paul’s great, but he had to feel like he was back in New Orleans for the second half last night.
As crazy as it seems, the Clippers are really missing those two crazy bench big men from the 2012 playoff run. Kenyon Martin and Reggie Evans shouldn’t be crucial cogs in your machine, but for whatever reason they were able to contain Gasol and Randolph last year. Some of that could have had to do with Randolph being slightly banged up heading into the playoffs, but the fact remains that Randolph has already played three better games in these playoffs than he did last year. Look it up.
I understand letting those guys walk, but replacing them with Lamar Odom, Ronny Turiaf and Ryan Hollins was defensible until you realize that you could potentially end up playing Memphis in round 1. The Clippers could march those guys out there against anyone else out west (save for the Lakers) and be fine. Against Memphis? It’s a debacle.
So yes, the Clippers are one game away from being eliminated, but it’s not Chris Paul’s fault. He’s clinched his spot as “Most Eligible Free Agent In The Summer of 2013″ edging Dwight Howard.
2.) Marc Gasol- What can you say? 2013 Defensive Player of the Year, a guy that makes his teammates better on offense and defense and a total joy to watch. The best thing about Gasol, to me anyway, are his leadership abilities. I’ve never thought that being a leader is something that can be taught. I think you can sharpen some areas up, but at the end of the day, you either are or you aren’t. That’s not a knock on anybody, just an opinion.
I believe everyone looks up to Gasol and takes his lead. When Big Spain is hitting the floor chasing loose balls and making the extra pass, everyone else falls in line. When your best player cares that much and wants to win as badly as Gasol does, you don’t want to let that guy down. He’d be #1 most of the time but…
1.) Zach Randolph- This guy is channeling his 2011 self and completely dominating Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and whichever bench scrub the Clippers throw at him. Gasol is the Grizzlies’ best all-around player, but Randolph is their best offensive player and this particular team needs Randolph’s 25-11 more than they need Gasol’s 19-8 and fantastic defense. The Grizzlies have tons of great individual defenders but struggle to score. They can make up for Randolph’s sometimes tricky footwork on defense if he’s scoring in bunches like he has in the past three games.
The best thing I can say about Z-Bo is this: Before the series, I said that the Grizzlies could beat the Clippers but only if Randolph was able to get back to doing what he did two springs ago. If he couldn’t, Paul and the Clippers were going to roll the Grizzlies. After two games, everything I predicted backed that prediction up.
When the series returned to Memphis, so did Randolph. Everyone jumped on his back and he’s carrying them to the finish line.
A week and a half ago, tons of questions surrounded the Grizzlies and a lot of people were wondering if the Grizzlies had picked the right forward when they traded Gay and kept Randolph. After all, Gay was much younger and Randolph hadn’t looked the same in over a year. Maybe Gay wasn’t as good as everyone seemed to think he was, but you’d get that Gay for longer than you would Randolph who was seemingly already on the decline.
Nobody is wondering that today. The reason you roll with Zach Randolph over Rudy Gay is for Z-Bo’s performance in games 3-5. Because every now and then, Randolph will have one of those performances that you just marvel at and four years down the line you can talk to your buddy and say “remember that Randolph game?” You just weren’t going to get that from Gay. He would be between 16-24 points every night, five rebounds and (maybe) four assists. You’d get an athletic dunk or a crazy shot block, but do those moments really outweigh Randolph’s proven performance in big games? The Grizzlies’ front office didn’t think so and now they’re being rewarded for that faith.
On the flip-side, the Clippers could be the team on the verge of destruction if they lose this series. We touched on Paul and Del Negro earlier and do we think that Blake Griffin is capable of being the best player on a championship team? Del Negro has probably held the Clips back more than anything in his time, but Paul is already the best player in franchise history. If he leaves after just two seasons? You just don’t replace that guy. Eric Bledsoe is a great player but he’s no Chris Paul and the Clippers have a lot of money tied up in DeAndre Jordan and he just hasn’t taken the leap yet. Can a nucleus of Griffin, Bledsoe and Jordan compete in a brutal Western Conference? Is that even a playoff team? That core is probably just a little better than this year’s 8th seeded Houston Rockets team, but it would seem Houston’s arrow is pointing up.
Basically, the Clippers are facing what the Grizzlies were facing eight days ago. Fortunes change in a hurry in the NBA. One day you’re up 2-0 and facing a vulnerable top seed without their second best player and looking like a sleeper to make the Finals and the next you’re down 3-2, hitting the road and the very distinct possibility of your best player leaving you holding the bag in free agency as he tries to join up and start his own super team elsewhere.