10:30 PM EST, NBA TV – Line: Los Angeles – 3.0
Western Conference powerhouses collide tonight in the City of Angels, as the streaking Los Angeles Clippers host the rugged Memphis Grizzlies at STAPLES Center in downtown LA. After a disappointing stretch in which they dropped five out of six, including four in a row at one point, the Clippers (37-19, 2nd in Pacific) have rediscovered their mojo, stringing together four consecutive victories, including each of their first two out of the All-Star Break. It’s been feat or famine for Rivers and his charges this season, for when they win, they oftentimes win by a wide margin, and when they lose, they get blown the hell out. For example, during that recent ugly losing streak, the last three defeats came by an average margin of 16.7 points per game, but during this current four-game stretch they have earned victory by a margin of 15.8 points per game. That’s a familiar story for the Clippers, who over the course of the campaign, have won by an average margin of 14.6 points, but in defeat it’s been ugly, as they’ve been thumped by 9.6 points per game. Indeed, consistency has been something of a foreign concept for this team, but if you asked the Kings how they felt, then they’d probably tell you that these guys are legitimate contenders. In Saturday’s 126-99 route of Sacramento, the home-side got off to a fairly slow start, only to blow away the visitors 73-36 over the course of the second and third quarters. Rivers’ Bench played a huge role in the victory, accounting for sixty-eight points, with Jamal Crawford and Rivers’ son Austin, scoring twenty-three and twenty-eight points respectively. The former shook off persistent trade rumors to shoot 10-of-18 from the field (55.6%), while dishing out six assists, with many of those dimes going towards the latter, who caught fire from beyond the arc on a superb 5-of-9 shooting from three (55.6%). Overall, the hosts shot solid 48.4% from the field, including 14-of-35 from three (40.0%), all the while assisting on a ridiculous thirty-one of their forty-six field goals (67.4%). Defensively, they all but shut down the Kings, relegating them to a mere 34.1% shooting overall, including just 4-of-16 from three (25.0%), forcing seventeen turnovers. However, as they have all season long, they continued to commit far too many fouls (29), sending Sacramento to the line a whopping forty-six times, of which they thirty-five.
Coming from years of success in Boston, Doc Rivers was expected to create a culture change for the Clippers, who for all of their glitz and glamour lacked real substance. In other words, they were that pretty girl at the club who is great to look at, but can’t carry a conversation. Despite the oftentimes staggering amount of talent on this team, Los Angeles has been branded as a group that too often isn’t as good as the sum of it’s parts; the get outrebounded on the regular in lieu of their outstanding size (0.7 per game), while showing very little interest on the defensive end, ranking in the bottom third of the league in a number of categories. And when you play in the ludicrously competitive Western Conference, a lack of consistency on the defensive end will lend towards peaks and valleys on your resume. Thus far, the Clippers have allowed 100.9 points (25th Overall) on 45.1% shooting from the field (16th Overall), including a poor 49.6% from within the three-point arc (23rd Overall) and 34.5% from beyond it (12th Overall), while permitting 23.8 assists per game, the third-highest figure in the NBA. Furthermore, they have yielded a 50.2% Effective Field Goal Percentage (22nd Overall), and a terrible 23.3% Free-Throw/Field Goal Ratio (27th Overall). That last statistic is a dead giveaway of their penchant for fouling, as Rivers’ charges have sent their opponents to the charity stripe a whopping 25.6 times per game, also third-most in the league. Consider this; Los Angeles is one of the very best at getting to the stripe, averaging 18.8 made free-throws per game (4th Overall) on 25.7 attempts (3rd Overall), but their opponents have actually made more free-throws, 19.0 per contest (28th Overall), than they have themselves. The biggest problem is that there just aren’t enough defensive players on the roster. Granted, DeAndre Jordan (13.9 rebounds, 2.3 blocks) and Chris Paul (4.8 rebounds, 1.9 steals) are two of the best defensive players at their respective positions, but this team is severely lacking on the wings, as opposing Shooting Guards and Small Forwards have habitually lit them up throughout the campaign. JJ Reddick and the aforementioned Crawford strictly offensive players, while Matt Barnes, though tough, commits more fouls than anyone on the team (3.1). Add to that the sudden staph infection suffered by Power Forward Blake Griffin, and it’s no wonder why Management was so intent on shopping for reinforcements at the Trade Deadline. Alas, they found none, as the Clippers stood pat, choosing to go to war with the weapons on hand. They should be tested in that regard to the extreme as Memphis, one of the most physical teams in the league, pays them a visit tonight.
Meanwhile, the Grizzlies (40-14, 1st in Southwest) are peaking, having won sixteen out of their last nineteen games. Dave Joerger’s crew suffered just their third defeat during that stretch back on February 11th, which was consequently their final outing heading into the All-Star Break, in a 105-89 thumping at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder. It’s a wonder what seven days of rest will do for you though, as they traveled to Portland and bested the Trail Blazers in a 98-93 comeback victory. With the game squared away at 38-38 at Halftime, the hosts exploded in the Third Quarter, outscoring the visitors 39-26, but the Grizzlies would not go quietly into the night. Trailing by thirteen points entering the final stanza, they proceeded to outscore Portland 34-15 in the Fourth Quarter, ending the contest on a 9-2 run. All five starters scored in double-figures for the Grizzlies, led by Marc Gasol and his twenty-one points on 9-of-17 shooting from the field (52.9%), while also totaling six rebounds, four assists, and three blocks. Eight of the towering Spaniard’s point total came within the final 5:45 of play, while Courtney Lee caught fire with 2:30 left to play, scoring seven of his nineteen points during that period. On the night, Memphis shot a solid 47.2% from the field, assisting on a very healthy twenty of their forty-two field goals, but it was their defense that Joerger and Co. owe this victory too. They held the Blazers to 40.2% shooting overall, forcing fifteen turnovers, eleven of which were steals that turned into transition opportunities for a team that typically doesn’t get very many. So just how good was their defense in the Fourth Quarter, you ask; the Grizzlies held the home-side to a scant 4-of-23 from the field (17.4%) over the final twelve minutes of play, which was the lowest that Portland had shot in any quarter this season. Memphis, in contrast made twelve of their final twenty-three attempts from the field (52.2%), as they continue to keep pace in the Western Conference, and madhouse that is the Southwest Division in particular.
So just how competitive has the Southwest been thus far, you ask? Well, for starters, all five teams that call it home currently hold winning records, the only division in the NBA to claim that distinction. If the Playoffs started today, the Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, and defending champion San Antonio Spurs would comprise the Third, Sixth, and Seventh Seeds in the pecking order out West, while at 28-27, the New Orleans Pelicans are on the fringe of qualification. On the surface, it may seem as Memphis would be locked into that Second Seed, but as of this moment they only trail the Golden State Warriors by 3.5 games, so home court is well within their grasp. Ironically, the Grizzlies read just like an inverted reflection of their opponent tonight, the Clippers; while not team in the league has been as consistently effective on the defensive end, it’s the offensive end of the court that at times gives them problems. Memphis has allowed 95.7 points (1st Overall) on 44.1% shooting from the field (9th Overall), including 47.6% from within the three-point arc (10th Overall) and 35.1% from beyond it (7th Overall), while permitting just 19.5 assists (1st Overall) and forcing 15.5 turnovers per contest (8th Overall). And where their counterparts tonight foul far too often, Joerger’s charges have sent their opponents to the free-throw line just 20.5 times per game, second-fewest in the NBA, with a mere 15.3 free-throws made, fewest overall. However, it’s been a different story offensively, where while showing gradual improvement, are far from being confused with the Warriors, Mavericks, or their opponent tonight. When Joerger was promoted Lionel Hollins dismissal, it was with the design that creative, young coach would improve their plodding, grinding play on offense. In many respects, he has done exactly that; as long as Zach Randolph and the aforementioned Gasol roam the painted area, this team will always play from the inside out, and with those two bigs being the focal point of the attack, the Griz will continue to play at a slower, plodding pace. At 92.0 possessions per 48 minutes, they rank twenty-sixth in the league in terms of Pace, which is actually an improvement over last year’s unit that ranked dead-last. But it’s the percentages that have improved so, with Memphis becoming much more efficient on this end of the floor. They shoot a stellar 46.1% from the field (8th Overall), with a top-five Turnover Percentage (12.1%), and a robust Free-Throw/Field Goal Attempt Ratio (22.1%), good for eighth in the league. At 22.0 assists per game, they rank sixteenth overall, another indication of their efficient play. With that said, the criticism of this team has been prowess from beyond the arc, which is still a legitimate concern; Memphis shoots 34.0% from three (21st Overall), but doesn’t attempt many (15.5), second-fewest in the game today. Mike Conley (80), Courtney Lee (67), and Vince Carter (44) are the only players to make over forty three-pointers this season, with nobody else netting over seventeen. Balance is what they’re striving for, but as the numbers suggest they’ve still got a long way to go.