This is the 3rd installment of 3 Shades of Blue’s recap of the 2011-12 season. In Part 1 we covered the season up to the All-Star break. In the 2nd installment we covered the race to the playoffs. Now, we will cover the seven games of the playoffs against the L.A. Clippers.
Warning: Those not over the pain of the playoffs may want to avoid this blog.
The Memphis Grizzlies had coasted into the playoffs with a particularly easy closing stretch of games. This enabled two very important things to happen. The bench was given the opportunity to show what they were capable of doing, and the coaching staff was given the opportunity to experiment with different lineups.
In hindsight, neither of these opportunities turned out well for the Grizzlies in the playoffs. It could be argued that the lack of production from the bench and the altered lineup were two of the main problems preventing the Grizzlies from advancing. Of course, in a series as close as this one was, any of a number of small factors could have made a difference. Everything from rebounding missed free throws to the schedule of games could be attributed to the outcome.
Game 1: I Can’t Believe What I Just Saw
The Memphis fans were pumped for the start of the playoffs this year. Unlike previous seasons, the Grizzlies were opening the playoffs at home, in front of their home fans and with national TV coverage. The national TV coverage came because the Grizzlies-Clippers series was the last to get started in the playoffs.
This was not fortuitous for the Grizzlies. Memphis was ready to begin the playoffs immediately after the regular season ended. The Grizzlies hadn’t lost in two weeks and had finished the season with three successive home games. The Clippers on the other hand had lost their last two games at the New York Knicks and Atlanta Hawks. They had a very difficult closing schedule and wanted a break before initiating the series. Chris Paul, the Clippers’ All-Star PG, was nursing an injured groin muscle as well, and every day off meant another day of recovery for the Clippers’ superstar.
The delay did have one positive impact for the Grizzlies. Zach Randolph, the Grizzlies’ hero from last season’s playoffs, had been reinserted into the starting lineup for the last game of the regular season and the extra days of rest allowed the Grizzlies the opportunity to better integrate him into the lineup. It was assumed that Randolph would be a huge factor once again on both sides of the court. Randolph was expected to be able to pressure the Clippers other All-Star Blake Griffin on defense and his bulk would help keep him out of the paint on offense.
The game began with the Grizzlies looking like a team that would make short work of the Clippers. The Grizzlies took it to the fatigued and injured Clippers, building a 34-16 first quarter lead. Marc Gasol, the Grizzlies’ only All-Star this season, scored 10 points and dished out 4 assists, and Rudy Gay chipped in with 7 points and 5 rebounds. Mike Conley also dished out 4 assists while holding Chris Paul to one point and 0-3 shooting from the field.
By halftime, the lead had stretched to 17 points as O.J. Mayo buried 2 of the team’s 5 first half 3 point attempts and scored 9 points. Marreese Speights, the player benched in favor of Randolph, had 6 points and 6 rebounds and showed no ill effects from the demotion. The Clippers’ bench woke up after a slow first quarter (2 points) to keep the Clippers close, scoring 21 of the Clippers 39 first half points. Chris Paul, still hobbled from his groin injury, had only 3 points.
The third quarter continued the Grizzlies’ dominance as they increased their lead to 19 at the end of the quarter. Conley scored 13 points in the quarter, including 4 of 4 from the 3-point arc. The Grizzlies were 9-15 from deep as a team and were dominating most aspects of the game including a 7 rebound advantage on the glass and 7 more assists as well. However, while continuing to dominate, the Grizzlies were starting to show some weaknesses. First, Chris Paul was waking up. Paul had 9 points himself in the quarter. Second, the Clippers had evened the game since the first quarter, being outscored by only 3 points since the first quarter. Finally, the Grizzlies lead had been 27 during the 3rd quarter. The Clippers had already erased 8 points off their largest deficit, giving them some motivation heading into the final period.
The final period didn’t open poorly for the Grizzlies as they rebuilt their lead to 24 points with 9:13 remaining. Then, the Clippers amped up their defense thanks to their second team…and the Grizzlies collapsed. The Grizzlies made only one basket the rest of the game as the Clippers charged back behind Nick Young’s three-point shooting and Blake Griffin’s power inside. Chris Paul dished out 7 assists in the fourth quarter alone. Rudy Gay was the only Grizzlies starter to hit a basket in the 4th quarter as Marc Gasol, who had dominated the first half, was held scoreless in the second.
The Clippers took their first lead of the game with 23.7 seconds remaining on two Chris Paul free throws. The crowd was in shock. The team was in shock as well. The Grizzlies’ coaching staff turned to the one player who always had come though in clutch situations in the past, but Rudy Gay’s shot at the buzzer hit the front of the rim, and the Clippers comeback was complete.
Game 2: Redemption
People wondered if the Grizzlies could redeem themselves after the opening game collapse. History was actually on the Grizzlies side as the last three teams to blow an 18 point or larger lead in the 4th quarter had not only won their series, but actually made it to the NBA Finals. Of course, none of those leads had been blown at home, nor involved a 27-point collapse. The one major difference was the absence of Caron Butler, who missed the game with a broken hand.
Once again, the schedule seemed to work against the Grizzlies as well. The three days off between games meant that some series had already played their third game before the Grizzlies second game tipped off. That extra time gave the team ample time to reflect on their failure. It also gave the team time to dissect what had happened and work on a plan to prevent it from happening again.
The Grizzlies opened the game tight and therefore sloppy. The Clippers scored early and took an early lead as the Grizzlies’ shooting woes continued. The Clippers opened the game on a 10-3 run before the Grizzlies started to finally hit their shots five minutes into the game. The Grizzlies did wake up, however, and despite trailing 26-23 after one quarter, the Grizzlies looked to be regaining their game.
O.J. Mayo and Mo Speights led the team in the 2nd quarter, scoring 6 apiece with Gasol, Gay, Conley, and Allen chipping in 4 points each as the Grizzlies built a four point halftime lead. Chris Paul looked like he was fully recovered from his groin injury with 16 points on 6-8 shooting in the half. However, no one else was able to mount a consistent offensive threat.
The 3rd quarter was a battle, as Rudy Gay and Blake Griffin each scored 10 points in the quarter. The game ebbed back and forth with neither team able to mount a consistent run. At the end of the quarter, the Grizzlies led by 6 points. Blake Griffin (16) and Chris Paul (23) led the Clippers while the Grizzlies showed their overall team depth with 5 players already scoring in double figures, led by Rudy Gay’s 18 points.
The fourth quarter opened similarly to Game 1 with the Clippers’ defense leading a charge. Backups Bobby Simmons and Mo Williams each scored 7 points in the fourth but the Grizzlies fought back, thanks to O.J. Mayo’s 10 fourth quarter points. He single-handedly outscored the entire Grizzlies fourth quarter in Game 1. Mike Conley chipped in 9 points and the Grizzlies pulled away late for the 105-98 victory.
The Grizzlies had shaken off the cobwebs from the fourth quarter collapse in Game 1 and the series was now on.
Game 3: Late Game Collapse Again
Game 3 moved to Los Angeles. The Clippers had dominated the Grizzlies in L.A. during the regular season, winning both games by double figures and, with the return of Caron Butler to the lineup, appeared confident that they still controlled the series. Memphis, on the other hand, was confident that the first game collapse was behind them and a win in either game would give them the advantage again.
Both sides came out ready to play. The crowd in L.A. was pumped up. The players, understanding the significance of the game, were pumped up as well. Both teams played physical. The Grizzlies looked to be satisfied with a halftime tie until Chris Paul, who finished the game with 24 points and 11 assists, scored a tough shot with seconds remaining. Mo Speights tried to advance the ball with a half-court pass to O.J. Mayo, but it was picked off by Blake Griffin who threw down a dunk at the buzzer giving the Clippers a 4 point lead . That play would come back to haunt the Grizzlies. Quincy Pondexter and Zach Randolph led the Grizzlies in the first half with 11 points each. Rudy Gay shook off a scoreless first quarter to score 6 points in the second.
The second half opened with more physicality as the Grizzlies and Clippers traded tough play. The Grizzlies, more familiar with physical play, took advantage of the opportunity to build a 7 point lead after three quarters. Rudy Gay scored 9 points in the quarter hitting both of his shots and being aggressive enough to get to the line 6 times making 5 of his attempts. Marc Gasol and Mike Conley each chipped in with 5 points, while the Grizzlies defense denied any Clipper player more than 3 points in the quarter.
The 4th quarter once again proved to be the Grizzlies’ undoing. The seven point lead vanished quickly as Chris Paul nailed a three point shot to open the quarter and, following a Grizzlies’ turnover, Nick Young hit a shot in the paint. The Clippers picked up the defense after that holding the Grizzlies to only 15 points in the 4th quarter. The Grizzlies fought hard, but the Clippers kept the pressure up. With 3:49 seconds remaining the Grizzlies still led 80-77. The Grizzlies failed to score another point over the next 3 minutes, and the Clippers scored on every possession taking an 86-80 lead with just 23 seconds remaining.
Then two things happened that nearly changed the outcome of the game. First, Rudy Gay started hitting 3-point shots and second, the Clippers stopped hitting their free throws. Gay drained two three-point shots while the Clippers missed 5 of 6 FTs down the stretch. After Bledsoe missed his second FT, the Grizzlies had the ball with 8 seconds remaining needing only one point to get to OT and two to win. Unfortunately, during the timeout before the last two free throws, Hollins had assumed Bledsoe would make both free throws and called a play for Rudy to attempt a 3rd successive 3-point shot. Mike Conley had the ball and it appeared a lane to the basket, but pulled up and ran the play instead. Rudy’s contested shot hit the back of the rim and bounced out, giving the Clippers their 2nd one-point victory and a 2-1 lead in the series.