Exactly six weeks after the Memphis Grizzlies traded their leading scorer for spare parts in what was widely seen as a cost-cutting move, they dominated the Pacific Division-leading Los Angeles Clippers for their 14th victory in 15 games.
So what’s got into the Grizz left behind by Rudy Gay?
They say it’s nothing fancy: Just hard work, determination and that signature Memphis toughness.
Marc Gasol scored 21 points, Tayshaun Prince added 18 and the surging Grizzlies beat the Clippers 96-85 on Wednesday night for their sixth straight win.
Mike Conley had 17 points and 11 assists, and Zach Randolph scored 13 points as Memphis hung on in the fourth quarter of back-to-back road victories. Shutting down the Clippers’ lob game and scoring with their own unflashy offense, the Grizzlies followed up last night’s win in Portland with a tenacious effort against the Clippers, who have lost three of five.
It might have been a statement victory, but nobody was making a statement in the upbeat visitors’ locker room.
”We don’t get caught up in the gravity of the situation too much,” Conley said. ”We just go out there as a hardworking team every night. This is a huge win, obviously, second game of a back-to-back against a good team. We just did a good job defensively, and playing at our pace.”
The Grizzlies realize they’re on a 15-4 surge since trading Gay to Toronto on Jan. 30, but they’re not getting too excited about their achievements in his absence – although they took particular satisfaction in beating the Clippers, who eliminated them from the first round of the postseason last spring and beat the Grizzlies in their first two meetings this year.
”We’ve seen this team before, and we have some good battles against this team,” Gasol said. ”It feels good to get one against them.”
What’s more, the Grizzlies are excelling during a particularly brutal stretch in their schedule with help from newcomer Prince, the Los Angeles native acquired in the deal for Gay. They’re late in a five-week stretch in which they never play consecutive games in the same city, with 10 of 14 games on the road.
Memphis (44-19) is percentage points ahead of Los Angeles (45-21) for third place in the Western Conference, although the Clippers are division leaders.
”We just keep playing good basketball,” Prince said. ”It’s very surprising I’m able to build that bond with them so quickly, without having a training camp. We trust each other, and that’s the most important thing.”
Chris Paul had 24 points and nine assists, and Blake Griffin added 22 points for the Clippers, who won the clubs’ first two meetings this season.
Matt Barnes scored 14 points as a fill-in starter for Los Angeles in a physical meeting of two Western Conference contenders whose bruising seven-game playoff series is still fresh in most players’ minds.
”They’re pretty physical,” Paul said. ”We obviously saw that in seven games last year and we were able to adjust to it, but we’ve got to figure some things out. … I could care less what (playoff) seed we are. We just need to be playing the right way when the time comes, and we’re not there yet.”
One game after scoring a season-high 129 points, the Clippers struggled offensively, including a 6-for-25 effort on 3-pointers while scoring just 33 points after halftime. Although the Clippers seem capable of coasting to the first division title in the long-suffering franchise’s history, the Pacific leaders might be in danger of entering another slump in their mostly stellar season.
”We want to be playing better,” Griffin said. ”Concern, I don’t know if that’s the right word. Frustration, yeah. We’re not scared of any team we have to face in the playoffs, but we do need to be executing better to be able to impose our will and our game on other teams. … It’s disappointing we didn’t play as well as we should have, but this game meant more to them, and that’s the way they played. They played hungrier.”
The Clippers’ impressive depth has been thinned by minor injuries recently. Los Angeles played without starting forward Caron Butler, who’s out with a strained left elbow, and backup point guard Eric Bledsoe, who has a strained calf. Although Jamal Crawford returned from a two-game absence with a sore left ankle, he scored just two points against Memphis on 1-for-10 shooting.
Memphis jumped to an 11-point lead in the third quarter with a rally led by Gasol, who had 11 points and three steals in the period. Los Angeles got within three points with 7 minutes to play, but Quincy Pondexter’s 3-pointer kick-started Memphis’ final rally.
Notes: After a day off, Memphis finishes its four-game trip in Utah and Denver. … Along with his playmaking prowess, Paul scored his 10,000th career point on a jumper early in the second quarter, getting a standing ovation from the sellout crowd when the milestone was announced. But the All-Star point guard managed just six points in the second half. … Unbeaten WBO welterweight champion Timothy Bradley watched the game in a Clippers jersey. The Palm Springs-area native defends his belt Saturday night in nearby Carson against Ruslan Provodnikov.