One year after the Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies engaged in a bruising first-round, seven-game playoffs series, they’re preparing to resume hostilities.
A few of the names have changed, but for the most part, it will be Blake Griffin vs. Zach Randolph, DeAndre Jordan vs. Marc Gasol, Chris Paul vs. Mike Conley.
The previous playoff series was rough and tumble; this one, the Clippers’ first with home-court advantage, will be no different. For the Clippers, the big difference is that they expect to have guard Chauncey Billups in the lineup and they are one year older and wiser.
“Last year was an experience,” Paul said. “Guys now know what to expect. Last year was Blake and DJ’s first playoff experience. Now they know what it’s like to go on the road or be at home, and I think that’s going to help us going into this.”
The Clippers grew by leaps and bounds last season, winning 40 games in a lockout-shortened season, beating the Grizzlies in Memphis for the franchise’s first-ever Game 7 victory and building a sense of confidence that they could go farther this time around.
They also beat the Grizzlies three times in four regular-season meetings this season, holding Memphis to 87 points a game, six fewer than their season average.
Defense will be critical in the series, something coach Vinny Del Negro has stressed throughout the season. When the Clippers make stops, force turnovers and get their opponents to take poor shots, they usually win. Proof: When they hold teams to a shooting percentage of 42 percent or less, they have an NBA-best 28-0 record.
It’s worth noting that in their three regular-season wins over the Grizzlies, the Clippers held Memphis to field-goal percentages of 38.4, 30.3 and 41. In their one loss, the Grizz shot 54.4 percent.
“I think the biggest thing I like,” Billups said, “is that our emphasis on the defensive end has been a lot better, our focus on stopping guys on the pick-and-roll one night or rotating and running guys off the three-point line one night. We’ve been able to change it up game to game pretty successfully, and that’s going to be big going into the playoffs.”
Billups played in only 20 games last season and missed the entire playoffs after he sustained a torn left Achilles tendon in February. But his veteran presence will be important to the Clippers’ hopes; he won an NBA championship with the Detroit Pistons in 2004 and was named MVP of the NBA Finals that year.
This series won’t be won or lost on offense. The Grizzlies led the league in fewest points allowed per game (89.3) and were tied for first with the Clippers in opponents’ rebounds (39.1). They were third in opponents’ field goal percentage and three-point shooting.
The Grizzlies’ two big men, Gasol and Randolph, will make this a grueling, punishing series on Griffin and Jordan, using their bodies to force them away from the basket and deny the kind of Lob City dunks that are the Clippers’ signature.
But ultimately, it will likely turn into a series decided by Paul, the Clippers leader and the NBA’s ultimate point guard. If the game is close and the ball is in his hands, it will be difficult to see the Clippers fading.