PLAYA VISTA, Calif. – Tough losses fester, which is why the Memphis Grizzles have probably been counting the days until Wednesday night’s season opener against the Clippers at Staples Center.
The Grizzlies remember their grueling, physical seven-game playoff series loss to the Clippers last spring. Five months later, they get a chance for payback – or a measure of it.
“Any time you lose to a team in a playoff series, it’s a bitter taste in your mouth,” Clippers forward Caron Butler said Tuesday. “Every day you go work out in the gym, watch film over the summer, (you) remember those last moments on the court. We beat them in a Game 7 at Memphis, so that’s a tough loss and a tough feeling I know they carry with them. They’ve been talking about this game for quite a while.”
What a way to start the season. If it’s not a rivalry, it must be close.
The Clippers aren’t exactly at full strength, but the core of their starting lineup – Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Butler – is healthy. Their bench, expected to be among the best in the NBA, is short-handed.
Forward Matt Barnes is serving a league-ordered one-game suspension after pleading no contest on a charge of resisting arrest in July. Lamar Odom (bone bruise, left knee) practiced for a second day in a row and probably will play, but Grant Hill (bone bruise, right knee) is out and Chauncey Billups (Achilles tendon surgery) won’t play at least until November.
“Our depth is good if guys are healthy,” coach Vinny Del Negro said. “With Chauncey out and Grant and Lamar out, those three guys give us a lot of depth. We don’t have that right now. Hopefully we can get them back, and that’ll change the complexion of our team.”
The Clippers and Grizzlies played a rousing first-round playoff series that may have turned in the first game. The Clippers came back from a 27-point deficit in the second half to win the game 99-98. They were 21 points down at the start of the fourth quarter, tying them for the largest comeback win entering the final period in NBA playoff history, and outscored Memphis 28-3 over the final 9 minutes, 11 seconds.
The Clippers took a 3-1 lead in games, but lost two in a row and had to win Game 7 in Memphis.
“That was last year. This is a different year, different teams,” Del Negro said. “It’s a season opener. We’ve got a lot of work to do before we get back to feeling real comfortable.”
Blake Griffin dismissed any notion that the Clippers-Grizzlies are budding rivalry as a result of their playoff series. But he agreed that it was competitive.
“That word gets thrown around a little too much nowadays,” he said. “It was definitely a good series, definitely back and forth, but it has to be more to become a rivalry. We look forward to playing them and we look forward to the competition that it brings and the strength that they bring.”
There will be plenty of that. The Grizzlies are loaded again with Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and Rudy Gay providing size and scoring up front and guard Mike Conley in the backcourt.
“It was obviously a physical series last year,” Del Negro said. “They pound the ball in the paint with Zach and Gasol. Conley has improved, Rudy Gay is a difficult cover, they have a difficult front line. There’s no easy games, but it’s our opener. I expect us to play hard, play well. We’re going to have to.”
A productive start will help the Clippers reach what Butler says are the team’s “high expectations.”
“We want to win,” he said. “We want to win a lot, and we want to win the whole thing. That’s a realistic goal with the guys we have in this locker room. The first challenge starts tomorrow night – the first of many — so we look forward to it.”