The Los Angeles Clippers may or may not prove to be serious Western Conference title contenders. Count TNT analyst Charles Barkley as their No. 1 doubter, having called them “fool’s gold” and compared them to a pretty girl that steals your heart only for you to discover she is “dumb as a box of rocks.”
All style, no substance is Sir Charles’ verdict on Lob City.
But the Clippers have two things the other teams in the West do not: Chris Paul, who is not just the game’s whiniest, most flop-happy point guard but also its best, and the NBA’s deepest and most athletic bench.
That’s a pretty good foundation. Especially for getting through the first round.
“As long as we’re playing the right way, we’re gonna be fine,” Paul said after the Clippers’ April 13 win at FedExForum to take the season series 3-1. “It’s really just about us and what we do.”
The fun starts with the team Grizzlies fans love to hate at 9:30 p.m. Saturday, April 20 at Staples Center. A year ago, as every Grizzlies fan knows too well, the Grizzlies had home-court advantage but blew a 21-point lead at the start of the fourth quarter in Game 1 at FedExForum and ultimately lost the bookends of a first-round 7-game series on their home floor. It was an opportunity squandered.
This time, the No. 4 seed Clippers own home-court advantage. And yes, the Clippers were better than the Grizzlies then and though some of the faces on both teams have changed, the Clippers are more talented now. Or maybe the better way to say it is that they have both a higher ceiling than the Grizzlies and more margin for error.
“Our bench has an advantage over anybody,” said guard Eric Bledsoe. Certainly over the Grizzlies’ bench, which only has guard Jerryd Bayless as a legitimate threat to score 20 points on a given night (seven times this season).
The Grizzlies have several fundamental challenges when playing the Clippers. For one, L.A. can put multiple athletic guards on the court. If, for instance, the lightning-quick Bledsoe and Paul are on the floor together, Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins has to pick which player he wants Tony Allen to hound. The other guy will have a match-up he can exploit.
The Grizzlies have the tandem of center Marc Gasol and power forward Zach Randolph, which Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro calls “as good a 1-2 front-court punch as you’re going to find.” But Blake Griffin and a motivated DeAndre Jordan can provide huge problems of their own.
“We always try to take advantage athletically with our bigs,” said Griffin, who jumps over Kias while Z-Bo leaps, well, over phone books. “They play a little more on the ground and move the ball a little bit more. We want to use our strengths against their strengths.”
Said Gasol, anticipating a physical series: “We embrace that, we love that, and we won’t go away. Especially me and Zach, we won’t go away.”
And I believe Gasol. I’m just not sure that the willingness to dig in and battle ultimately will be enough.
In last year’s playoff series Rudy Gay led or shared the team lead in points scored four times; the Grizzlies lost three of those games. Now Tayshaun Prince is in Gay’s place and point guard Mike Conley has become more of a scoring threat – the Grizzlies were 13-4 this season when Conley scored 20 or more.
“The fabric of their team is the same,” said guard Jamal Crawford, a Sixth Man-of-the-Year candidate. “Rudy’s a great player, but Tayshaun knows his role and has been a great fit for them.”
If anything, the Grizzlies have grown even tougher on defense by trading Gay for Prince. But the Clippers understand they can run at speeds and fly at an altitude the Grizzlies simply cannot reach. If the Clippers can play well enough defensively, they can dictate pace and make it almost impossible for the Grizzlies to play as the aggressors.
“When we’re out in transition, that means we’re getting stops,” Paul said. “We’re dangerous. When we get running, they almost get nervous because they know we’ve got athletes.”
Better ones, more of them, and more places from which to find points.
Hate to say it, but Clippers in 6.
Don Wade is a native of Kansas City and a former feature writer for The Kansas City Star and sports reporter for The Commercial Appeal. His column appears weekly in The Daily News and The Memphis News.