The Clippers don’t like to acknowledge the popular notion that those long, arching passes and thunderous slam dunks are part of their identity, but there’s no getting around it. Their fans pay good money to see them.
Except that Saturday night’s NBA playoff opener between the Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies at Staples Center was more about bruising basketball than about high-flying acrobatics. Not that it mattered.
The Clippers still won. Their 112-91 victory over the Grizzlies in Game 1 of the best-of-seven series included 57 fouls, 56 free throws, two technicals and the rare double foul on Blake Griffin and Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph.
Dunks? The Clippers had just one – a DeAndre Jordan slam with 6 minutes, 2 seconds left in the fourth quarter. But they did so many other things well, including playing tough in the key moments, that no one seemed to care.
“It’s a team you have to keep grinding the game out with,” Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said of the Grizzlies. “Our guys battled.”
They did it in three areas, crushing Memphis on the boards 47-23, getting 49 points from their bench and closing with a flourish by outscoring the Grizzlies 35-15 over the final 10 minutes of the game.
The Clippers had almost as many offensive rebounds (14) as the Grizzlies did defensive rebounds (19). They also held a 25-5 edge in points in the paint.
“The biggest thing is rebounding,” Grizzlies guard Jerryd Bayless said. “Everybody has to help. We can’t put it on Z-Bo (Randolph). We can’t put it on Marc (Gasol). It’s a collective effort.”
If Game 1 was an indication – and it undoubtedly was – the series is going to be no different than any other game between the two teams. The Grizzlies like to rough up opponents and keep them away from easy baskets. Griffin and Randolph got into their usual skirmishes, although Griffin fouled out on what appeared to be a questionable call with 3:32 left.
“I’m ready for whatever, however many games it going to take,” Griffin said. “If that’s the way he wants to play, let’s do it.”
The Clippers can’t afford to play without Griffin down the stretch, but in Saturday’s game they survived because of their bench. Jamal Crawford had 13 points, and Eric Bledsoe had a spectacular game: 7 of 7 shooting for 15 points, six rebounds, four assists and just one turnover.
“Bledsoe is unbelievable to do what he did in 18 minutes,” Crawford said. “He was built for series like this. His toughness, his energy, his passion, the way he gets after it, he was terrific.”
Bledsoe gave the Clippers a big boost in the fourth quarter and was so effective driving to the basket, grabbing rebounds and pushing the pace that Del Negro kept him in the game with a backcourt of Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups.
Paul and Billups combined for 37 points on 11-of-19 shooting.
But both of them were on the bench when the Clippers pushed the flow of the game in their direction. With a 77-76 lead midway through the fourth quarter, Bledsoe, Ronny Turiaf and Matt Barnes scored baskets. Then, after a Memphis timeout, Bledsoe sank a free throw before Jordan’s dunk extended the lead to 88-79.
All of a sudden, the Grizzlies were staring at a large deficit with little time to mount a comeback.
“We made some mistakes,” coach Lionel Hollins said. “The whole game was about mental mistakes. We didn’t play that well, but we were right there. We made a mistake, we gave up a three, we came right back and fouled somebody and now they’re up seven.
“And they just kept steam-rolling. Things got out of hand.”
There will be adjustments, no doubt. The Grizzlies will rebound better and perhaps even figure out a way to stop Bledsoe.
As for the lack of dunks, no one seemed to care. When Paul and Griffin were asked after the game why they were able to score just one slam, Paul kidded, “I just decided not to dunk that often tonight. I don’t know what Blake’s problem was.”
But Griffin said, “We don’t live for the dunk. They just happen a lot of the time.”