At long last, the NBA playoff matchups are set in stone, and as always, the Western Conference figures to hit the ground running with the better entertainment.
All four West first-round matches should provide excellent entertainment, and it would be especially surprising if the 4-5 matchup between the Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies proved an exception.
With that series kicking off Saturday night at Staples Center in LA, here are five issues to be mindful of once the ball is jumped.
1. The Key Matchup: Chris Paul vs. Mike Conley and Tony Allen
To say the Clippers’ fortunes are largely dictated by Chris Paul’s play would be a massive understatement. Beyond being their best player, he also exercises more control over contests than anybody on the roster.
Not that this is a bad thing, of course.
There’s no point guard better at keeping a game on a string until he sees what he wants. But by definition, CP3 out of rhythm throws the Clippers’ offense for a loop, and Memphis’ backcourt is among the most disruptive in the NBA.
With the possible exception of LeBron James, there’s no better wing defender in the league than Tony Allen. Whether or not he starts games on Paul, I guarantee he will be the finisher. Between his fast hands, clairvoyant anticipation and leeway allowed by referees to play physical D, Allen is well equipped to make Paul work exceptionally hard.
Conley isn’t Allen’s equal as a defender but is rapidly improving. And what really sets the tandem apart is the ability to induce turnovers. Both are top-10 ranked in steals per 48 minutes, and Conley in particular does a nice job swiping without picking up fouls.
Paul averaged three turnovers a game in three contests against Memphis this season, which is on the high side for him. Where that figure shakes out in the playoffs could be the difference between advancement and elimination.
2. There is genuine animosity between the Clippers and Grizzlies
For the second straight season, these teams will square off in the first round. And for the second straight season, I will go out on a limb and predict the series will feature palpable animosity. The Grizzlies play a grinding, physical, ugly brand of basketball that gets under the skin of many opponents. On a related note, the Clippers have a lot of players (Blake Griffin, Matt Barnes, Ryan Hollins chief among them) whose skin is easily gotten under.
The power forward matchup between Griffin and Zach Randolph is an especially volatile game-within-the-game. Expect these uneasily intimidated big men to tussle, bark, glare and refuse to concede the other an inch of ground.
Each regular season game this season has featured a playoff-like atmosphere and chippiness. A playoff rematch will only ratchet up those bad vibes.
3. How critical a role will the benches play?
It’s a common school of thought that once the postseason begins, depth becomes less important. Rotations generally shorten. Coaches lean heavily on their most trusted players. The ability to go nine or 10 deep isn’t necessarily relevant. However, the Clippers may provide an exception to the rule. All season, their reserve unit has arguably been their biggest strength beyond All-Stars Paul and Griffin and have periodically stolen minutes from many a starter.
It is also hard to recall a bench not just this effective, but with so many facets at a coach’s disposal.
Jamal Crawford, a strong Sixth Man Award candidate, can put up 20 points in his sleep. Barnes, who in any other year would garner solid Sixth Man buzz himself, is a demon in transition and on the offensive glass.
His game has regressed since its 2011 Sixth Man Award career peak, but Lamar Odom can still be relied on to hit the glass and run a mean break. Eric Bledsoe, while perhaps not utilized to his fullest potential, provides a tenacious change of pace from CP3. Hollins does the dirty work. And collectively, their defense often exceeds the first five’s work.
As for the Grizzlies, beyond Jerryd Bayless, no reserve stands out as dynamic. Granted, Memphis also boasts one hell of a starting unit, so it remains to be seen how deep it needs to go beyond Bayless, plus Darrell Arthur and/or Ed Davis. But in series that promises to be physically taxing, the Clips may benefit from confidently keeping players fresh without missing a beat.
4. Whose pace will dictate this series?
The Clippers like to get out in transition, toss alley-oops to Griffin, DeAndre Jordan and Barnes, and rack as many quick, easy points as possible. The Grizzlies look to muck the game up, play inside-out through Marc Gasol and Randolph and grind opponents to a pulp via suffocating defense. In theory, something has to give, and whichever team is more successful at imposing their preferred tempo will likely advance to the second round.
5. Will Memphis Hack-a-DeAndre and how will this affect his minutes?
Jordan owes Lakers center Dwight Howard a steak dinner as a way of saying thanks for Bogarting all the “big man who can’t sink a free throw to save his life” attention. Howard may be bad at the stripe, but at least he shoots 49.2 percent, which which makes the center essentially a coin flip when fouled.
Jordan would kill to be a coin flip. Instead, he has been hitting a miserable 38.6 percent, and since the All-Star break has only grown worse.
In April, dude’s shooting 11.1 percent. Seriously. 11.1 percent. That’s only 11.1 percent more than our pet cat.
Lionel Hollins will certainly be tempted at times to intentionally foul DJ and make him earn points at the line. Should Jordan clang, I expect Memphis’ coach, who regards grimy, disjointed games as a positive, to double down. And this creates a dilemma for Vinny Del Negro.
On one hand, Jordan is a legitimate liability at the line. On the other, without him, the Clippers’ basket instantly becomes vulnerable. Nobody else in red, white and blue comes close to protecting the rim with the same tenacity and effectiveness. Creativity on Del Negro’s part may be necessary to counter an inevitable pitfall.
SHERIDAN: Grizzlies in 6.
HUBBARD: Clippers in 6.
HEISLER: Clippers in 6.
BERNUCCA: Clippers in 7.
HAMILTON: Grizzlies in 6.
PERKINS: Clippers in 6.
SCHAYES: Clippers in 6.
ANDY KAMENETZKY: Clippers in 7.
BRIAN KAMENETZKY: Clippers in 7.
ZAGORIA: Clippers in 6.
PARK: Clippers in 6.