So here we are. The Grizzlies are down 3 games to 1 against the Los Angeles Clippers. The team fought so hard to get home court advantage in the playoffs. And what happened?
Game 1? Blew a massive lead with poor fourth quarter execution.
Game 3? Blew a not-so-massive lead with poor fourth quarter execution.
Game 4? Took the game into overtime, only to have Chris Paul take over the OT for the win.
While this is somewhat shocking to Grizz fans, it shouldn’t be all that surprising. I mean, let’s be real: The Clippers LOST home court advantage more than the Grizzlies actually WON it. The Clippers beat some really good teams during that “tougher” stretch of games in the regular season, including a five-game win streak with TWO victories over OKC. The Grizzlies scrapped out some wins against non-playoff teams, but again, let’s be real: The Grizzlies, overall, were NOT playing better basketball than the Clippers in the run up to the playoffs.
This is not what any of us had in mind a few weeks ago. I was swimming in the Kool-Aid, almost putting some money down in Vegas, with the Grizz 30-1 odds to win the championship. For the record, I still think the Grizzlies have a championship-caliber squad. But they are NOT playing championship-caliber basketball right now in the first round. The question is: Why? What happened to derail the Grizz’ momentum?
Gimmie Some Mo?
There’s an old phrase, you’ve heard it: If it ain’t broke, don’t break it. And here is a harsh, nearly incomprehensible fact about our beloved and recently wobbly Grizzlies:
Marreese Speights should be starting at power forward. Zach Randolph should be coming off the bench.
I can’t believe I just typed that. But it’s true.
Technically, we shouldn’t be learning this now, seeing as we learned it when Zach first returned to the bench. And yet, there’s no disputing: The Grizzlies were on a fearsome tear when Mo lined up with Gasol while Zach was out. The dynamics of it are pretty simple:
Mo isn’t the low post banger Zach is. He doesn’t command as much attention. Meaning that the perimeter/pick & roll game that evolved in Z-Bo’s absence became pretty effective — especially since Mo Speights is money from 15 feet. That’s why he can (and does) score mostly in the first quarter, giving us a solid offensive boost from the opening tip. THEN, Coach Hollins had the luxury of bringing scorers like Zach & O.J. off the bench. That formula worked for most of the compacted season — until the team’s first effort to return ZBo to the starting lineup.
Even though Zach rumbled for 25 points and 9 boards in his return against Toronto, the team lost that game — and three of the next four (including the L.A. Beatdown against the Clippers) — as Coach Hollins tried to figure out how best to ease Zach back into the lineup. NOTABLE: After the Clipper beatdown, Mo Speights returned to the starting lineup — and the Grizz put the beatdown on the Lakers, leading from wire-to-wire. Also NOTABLE: Even as a reserve, Zach had more minutes than Mo. The team went on another tear in April, closing out the season with a 15-4 record — including a 94-85 victory over these L.A. Clippers in which the Griz led comfortably from the first quarter to the final horn.
Zach returned to the starting lineup in the final game of the regular season, against Orlando — a game which the Grizzlies likely would have won anyway, given Dwight Howard was out for the season, and Stan Van Gundy played much of his bench. Zach has started at Power Forward all four of the Round 1 games against the Clippers.
With the Grizzlies once-palpable on-court chemistry now seemingly in full meltdown, I think the unspoken culprit is quite obvious: the team — the Coach — went away from the lineup that was working. And now, what we’re witnessing — in all of the iso plays, the discombobulation, the disappearing Gasol — is the team trying to figure itself out. It’s admirable, but they picked the absolute worst time to try to do it.
The next obvious question is this: Should they go back to it? Should Mo Speights be back in the starting lineup? Or would trying to go back only throw the team into further disarray? One thing is for sure: If the Grizz can’t solve their issues in Game 5, the team will have all summer to wonder why they broke something that didn’t need fixing.
Chris Paul is the Problem. Is Mike Conley The Answer?
“We’re going to try to shut down Chris Paul a little bit. Simple. He’s the problem, and we’ve got to solve the problem.” — Lionel Hollins after Game 4
Chris Paul has dominated the series, particularly in the fourth quarter. One may legitimately wonder whether the Grizzlies have an answer for him, and they must — MUST — slow him down. But the longer this series goes, this much slips into focus:
The Clippers don’t have an answer for Mike Conley either.
Compare their stats at NBA Stats Cube if you like. Of course, Paul’s numbers are higher, but not by much. I’d say that’s more a function of the fact that Chris Paul is more willing to take on the role of scorer than Conley is.
(Interesting stats: Chris Paul’s scoring and plus/minus go up drastically when Mike is on the bench. In contrast, Conley seems to play better across the board when Chris Paul is in the game, and go down when Paul is sitting.)
But forget the stats for a second. I’m going on what I’ve seen, mostly in Game 4. Conley’s quickness, his perimeter shooting, that blink-and-you-miss-it hesitation move that often precedes a drive into the lane for a layup . . . The Clippers defense couldn’t keep up with him. Add in his reliability from the free throw line, and well . . . I’d have to say the main difference between Conley and Paul is Paul’s killer instinct vs. Mike’s instinct to defer to his more heralded teammates.
We’ve assumed that the Grizzlies “take over the game” player would be wearing No. 22, No. 50, or No. 33. And that may indeed be the case in future series, if the Grizzlies make it that far. But for this series? It’s Mike Conley.
Conley (25 points, 7 assists, 8 boards in Game 4) has shown that he can go toe-to-toe with Chris Paul (27 points, 7 assists, 9 boards in Game 4). And I think for the team to succeed, Mike needs to be thinking “30 points/12 assists” offensively. Even if he doesn’t hit those numbers, if he’s willing to play to that level, it’ll unlock the game for the rest of the team.