By Dan Arritt, for NBA.com
Posted Apr 19, 2013 6:39 AM
The Clippers already have one-upped the Grizzlies. They went to Memphis last Saturday night and dominated the fourth quarter in a 91-87 victory, a win that played a significant role in the Clippers earning home-court advantage in their Western Conference first-round playoff series.
The Clippers have hosted Game 1 of the playoffs just one other time in franchise history, but they'll likely roll out the welcome mat with confidence this time around, knowing they've already won three out of four against Memphis this season (and seven of 11 if you count last year's epic first-round series). They'll step onto the court Saturday night at Staples Center undoubtedly feeling the momentum generated by their seven-game winning streak to end the regular season and the comfort of knowing they're healthier than they've been in a long time.
"Getting the home-court advantage was very important to us," Clippers guard Jamal Crawford said after his team's victory Wednesday night in Sacramento, which clinched home-court advantage for the first round. "That's what you're playing for all season, to get home court in the playoffs."
In the front of the Clippers' minds, however, is the realization that they haven't accomplished anything yet. After all, the Clippers are in the same position that the Grizzlies were last April.
A year ago, the Clippers lost three of their last four regular-season games to miss out on home-court advantage in the first round. They flew to Memphis for Game 1, only to fall behind by 27 points in the second half. They still trailed by 24 points with eight minutes remaining when the unexplainable occurred. The Grizzlies missed 12 consecutive shots, Nick Young buried three 3-pointers in 60 seconds and, suddenly, L.A. had staged one of the greatest comebacks in NBA playoff history to win, 99-98, and take back home-court advantage. They failed to put away the Grizzlies in Game 6 at Staples Center, but somehow found a way to win Game 7 on the road
The Grizzlies must be wondering how they keep getting stuck with the Clippers. Why not the Rockets, who they beat three out of four times this season with a perimeter defense that's built to put the clamps on a scoring machine like James Harden? Or the Warriors, who were swept in three games by the Grizzlies this season because they don't possess enough big bodies to handle the Memphis duo of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph?
Memphis didn't exactly fold down the stretch the way the Clippers did last season. The Grizzlies have won nine of 11 heading into the playoffs, a better mark in that span than the four teams seeded ahead of them, including the Clippers.
1. Will Jamal Crawford regain his touch? The league's top sixth man is coming off his worst shooting month of the regular season, which means he's right on track for another disappointing postseason.
2. Will DeAndre Jordan be more player or spectator? The Grizzlies aren't the type to go small for long stretches, meaning the L.A. center will likely play more than his usual 20-someting minutes.
3. How will Tayshaun Prince impact this series? The Grizzlies have been one of the top defensive teams in the league since he arrived at the trade deadline. No reason that should change now.
4. Can Chauncey Billups make it through the series intact? Injuries have limited the veteran to 21 games this season. Some believe he's been playing a little possum.
5. Who will emerge as a household name? Eric Bledsoe isn't even the most famous player from his college team at Kentucky -- Washington's John Wall and Sacramento's DeMarcus Cousins were on that team, too -- but he'll make a bigger name for himself against the Grizzlies.
The Grizzlies used to have to concern themselves with making sure Rudy Gay got his 16 shots a game, but after they traded him midseason, they've become much more balanced. Look for point guard Mike Conley to mine for more scoring opportunities than he did last postseason. That, in turn, will make him a more dangerous distributor, especially when he can attract help defense and dump off to Gasol and Randolph for dunks. Gasol may be looking to flash his all-around game in this series as well. His brother, Lakers forward Pau Gasol, had triple-doubles in two of the last three regular-season games. There's something to be said about sibling rivalry.
For the first three quarters, look for Paul to keep everybody happy. Blake Griffin usually gets the most touches early in the game. Crawford will come off the bench midway through the opening quarter and waste no time trying to expose the weak links on the second unit. Matt Barnes and Bledsoe typically come off the bench and join Crawford at the start of the second, where they up the tempo and try to score easy transition buckets. Caron Butler has been phenomenal in the third quarter this season -- he scored 18 points in Tuesday's win at Portland. But if the score is still close in the fourth, Paul will take over all the playmaking duties, from scoring to distributing to practically running the huddle during timeouts.
Few players in the history of the NBA are as cold-blooded as Paul. Just ask the Nets, who watched him score 17 of his 29 points in the fourth quarter of a game he turned upside down three weeks ago. Unless Crawford can pry the ball from Paul down the stretch, expect more of the same. The Grizzlies will go low, with either Randolph or Gasol.
Allen is considered one of the league's best on-ball defenders, and that could force the Clippers to look elsewhere if the Grizzlies decide to put him on Paul in crunch time. That could force Crawford to take some pivotal shots. He hasn't proven to be a clutch player.
Billups was unavailable for the playoffs last season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn Achilles' tendon two months earlier. While his knowledge and experience was valued on the bench at the time, his ball handling and 3-point shooting will be even more welcome this time around. He ramped up by shooting 3-for-6 from beyond the arc in Wednesday's victory against the Kings.
From their stunning comeback in Game 1 of last season's first-round series, to the Clippers' season-opening win against the Grizzlies on Halloween night, to their pivotal win last Saturday in Memphis, the Clippers have to feel like they have the Grizzlies' number. They do. L.A. wins the series in six.
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