MEMPHIS–It’s been six years for the Clippers, but the wait is over. Game 1 of the playoffs has arrived.
After closing out the regular season four days ago, the fifth-seeded Clippers (40-26) visit FedEx Forum Sunday to take on the fourth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies (41-25).
It’s the beginning of a series where outsiders haven’t given the Clippers much of a chance, which somewhat comes with the territory of being a perennial underdog. It’s something Nick Young talked about when he was acquired at the March 15 trade deadline, saying he liked the idea of being part of a reclamation project.
The project, though, was well underway before Young’s arrival. Players like Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Eric Bledsoe, and Randy Foye were a part of the Clipper turnaround last season, when they battled back from a 5-21 start to finish the season with 27 wins over the final four months. Small forward Caron Butler added instant cache to the young nucleus as a veteran who chose to join the team as an unrestricted free agent. Another NBA Champion, Chauncey Billups, came next. A day later: superstar Chris Paul, who is expected to be at full-strength Sunday despite missing Wednesday’s game with a mildly strained left groin.
By the time Kenyon Martin, Bobby Simmons, and Young came along, the Clippers had already transcended their past. The group, led by Paul’s mastery of the fourth quarter and Griffin’s dominance around the rim, exceeded the best winning percentage in team history (.606).
“Hopefully this is the start of many [playoff victories],” Clippers head coach Vinny Del Negro said. “You want to make a good statement in Game 1, but then you’ve got to keep on making your adjustments and it’s going to come down to making plays as always.”
That starts with winning at least one game on the road, something Memphis head coach Lionel Hollins says every team has to do in order to win a title.
“You’ve got to win on the road,” Hollins said. “I don’t think you can go through a whole playoff series and not win on the road.”
Del Negro thinks his team is certainly capable of doing that. “We’ve been a pretty good road team,” he said. “We slipped up at the end of the year with Chris having a little bit of an injury the last couple games, but overall we’ve done a much better job of winning on the road.”
It’s been stated and stated again, but the turnover story could go a long way in determining the outcome in Game 1 and the series. The Clippers won two of their three games against the Grizzlies in the regular season in part because they did what they normally do: take care of the ball.
“[Forcing turnovers] gets their offense going and gets their crowd going and everything for them, so for us to take care of the ball well is very important,” Blake Griffin said. “It starts with our guards, who already do a great job, and myself and DeAndre [Jordan] have to do a good job as well.”
However, another factor in the three regular-season games was shooting percentage, particularly because the differential was so drastic. In their two wins the Clippers shot an average 10.3% better than Memphis, while in their lone loss (94-85 at FedEx Forum on April 9) L.A. shot 9.5% worse.
MATCHUP TO WATCH
Blake Griffin vs. Zach Randolph
Griffin, playing his first career playoff game, averaged 19.7 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 5.3 assists in three games against Memphis’ big front line of Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, and Mareesse Speights. At times, Hollins uses a small lineup with Dante Cunningham playing the power forward spot, something which Griffin was able to use to his advantage in the Clippers’ 101-85 home victory over the Grizzlies in March. The Clippers star scored 20 points with 10 rebounds in the game, including sinking eight of his 12 free throws.
Hollins said it will be imperative for his team to limit easy baskets for Griffin and Jordan, particularly in transition.
“[You have to] stay in front of them, between them and the basket,” Hollins said. “Keep the ball out of the paint better that helps, too. I think the first time we played them we were down 33-17 in the first quarter and we battled back and tied it up and played a good game. But they had all the dunks and they fuel themselves off of that.”
Part of limiting those big plays for Memphis may be keeping the ball in the hands of Randolph, who in last year’s playoffs put up 22.2 points and 10.8 rebounds in 13 games.
This year Randolph started the final game of the regular season, but previously came off the Memphis bench for 18 games as the Grizzlies went 14-4 during the stretch. Randolph returned from surgery to a torn medial collateral ligament in right knee on March 16, which was also the last time he topped 20 points in a game.
“He has unbelievable touch around the rim and he’s very active,” Griffin said. “He uses his body well and you have to account for him and make sure he doesn’t duck in on you. And make it tougher for him. He’s going to make shots. That’s what he does. My job is just to show him down.”
He’s expected to start again Sunday.
“We’ll try to make him guard a little bit,” Del Negro said. “He’s not back to where he was [prior to the injury], I don’t think. He’s obviously going to be a huge factor in this series.”
Del Negro said Butler is a big factor for the Clippers, especially on the defensive end keeping up with Memphis’ leading scorer Rudy Gay… Griffin had his second career triple-double against the Grizzlies on the final day of the 2010-11 regular season… Sunday will be the Clippers fifth playoff season since moving to Los Angeles in 1984. They have one series win, coming in 2005-06 when the defeated the Denver Nuggets in five games of the opening round… The Grizzlies playoff record is 7-18, while the Clippers are 11-14 in 25 postseason games.
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