Grizzlies avoid another meltdown, stay alive against limping Clippers
The Grizzlies nearly wasted a 24-point lead but held on for a 92-80 Game 5 win
Chris Paul and Blake Griffin got hurt in the second half; Paul didn't finish the game
Zach Randolph finally looked like the dominant player of last season's playoffs
Feelings of dread had to be welling up in the stomachs of the Grizzlies and their fans Wednesday night as an alarming pattern repeated itself. As in Game 1, the Grizzlies built a huge lead on the Clippers through great defense and crisp offensive execution. And as in 1, they stopped doing those great things, lost both their composure and the greater part of that lead. This time, though, Memphis managed to hold on for an excruciating 92-80 win, closing Los Angeles' series lead to 3-2.
Blake Griffin and Chris Paul suffered second-half injuries that may affect their statuses for Game 6 on Friday. Griffin hyperextended his left knee, the same knee that required surgery before the 2009-10 season. Griffin returned to the game in the fourth quarter, though.
Paul appeared to aggravate his right groin injury and could not finish the game. Coach Vinny Del Negro told The Associated Press both players were undergoing further evaluation after the game.
The Grizzlies built the lion's share of that lead and set the tone for the game's first three quarters with a convincing 22-5 first-quarter run. Most of that run came on the backs of Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. The Grizzlies big men, who had been so instrumental in their team's first-round upset of the Spurs last year, had been conspicuous mostly for their irrelevance to the series' previous three games.
In Game 5, though, the Grizzlies were intentional about getting them the ball in positions to score. Nearly all of Memphis' first-quarter possessions ran through either Gasol in the high post or Randolph on the low block. Gasol hit 8 of his 11 first-half shots, draining jumpers and attacking the rim. What's more, from his vantage point in the high post, he was the Grizzlies' best facilitator, hitting cutters and beautifully executing Memphis' dangerous high-low attack with Randolph.
For his part, Randolph finally looked like the dominant player of last season's playoffs. He punished Blake Griffin on the post and drained impossible-looking jumpers on his way to 15 points on 6-of-7 shooting.
Meanwhile, on the defensive end, the Grizzlies' guards sank their teeth into Chris Paul. On side pick-and-rolls, Tony Allen forced Paul toward the baseline. On high pick-and-rolls, Allen and Gasol or Randolph trapped aggressively in an attempt to get the ball out of Paul's hands and derail the Clippers' offense. Maybe most importantly, Allen doggedly denied Paul the ball, forcing time off the shot clock and forcing the Clippers into stilted possessions. The strategy worked: Paul tallied just five points (1-of-5 shooting) and one assist in the first half, and the Clippers hit just 37.5 percent of their shots.
But things began to unravel for the Grizzlies with 3:02 remaining in the third. Down 24, the Clippers offered the gift of four technical fouls in quick succession, seeming for all the world to have either conceded the game or simply lost their minds. But this strange sequence seemed to have the possibly intended effect of firing up the Clippers, breaking up the game's continuity and rattling the Grizzlies. Fueled by sloppy play by Memphis (Mike Conley banging into Randy Foye as he shot a three, in the process picking up his fourth foul, was a nice example) and a quick flurry of jumpers by the suddenly freed Paul, L.A. sprinted to a 14-0 run. Suddenly it was a game again; suddenly Grizzlies fans were not feeling so well.
This stretch of play also revealed a troubling weakness in the Grizzlies: Memphis does not have a true point guard backing up Conley. O.J. Mayo is the default replacement, and Mayo is nowhere near the ballhandler, playmaker or floor general that Conley is. The Clippers pressured Mayo relentlessly when he ran the point. Suddenly, Memphis was struggling to execute its offense. Twice, Paul stole the ball from Mayo and initiated transition offense in the other direction. Most importantly: The Grizzlies were no longer able to successfully enter the ball to Randolph and Gasol in their positions of comfort. The Grizzlies began to succumb to that same tendency for one-on-one, outside-in play that doomed them in Game 1. After dominating the first half, Memphis' big men went 0-for-7 thereafter. The Grizzlies' offense suffered accordingly, shooting just 28.1 percent in the second half.
With 6:14 left, Mo Williams hit a 13-footer to cut Memphis' lead to six at 81-75. Things were not looking good for the Grizzlies. They were scuffling on every offensive possession; the Clippers were beginning to hit ridiculous shots; Game 5 was looking alarmingly like a rehashing of Game 1. But this time the Grizzlies made just enough plays to survive. They refocused on defense, keeping Paul and Williams out of the paint and forcing L.A. into a late 1-of-10 shooting stretch. Just after Williams' jumper, Conley hit a falling bank shot. Later, up by six with just 44.1 seconds left, Randolph hit a free throw. He missed the second, but Rudy Gay swooped in for the rebound and then glided to the basket for a layup that put the game away. It wasn't the cleanest or most attractive win, but the series moves on to Los Angeles nonetheless. And the Grizzlies might even get some sleep tonight.