What made the Clippers’ massive comeback Sunday night in Memphis even more amazing was how slowly it came at first, how impossible it seemed with about four minutes to go, and then how fast it actually happened. The Clippers were still down by 24 with eight minutes remaining, and they turned the ball over three straight times between the 4:20 mark and the 3:16 mark of the fourth quarter, seemingly blowing whatever chance they had of completing the rally against the Grizzlies in Game 1.
To pull off a comeback while playing such imperfect ball requires just about everything else to go exactly right, pretty darn quickly. A dozen little things added up to one historic rally. The Grizzlies’ offense collapsed, in part because coach Lionel Hollins sat Zach Randolph for nearly four minutes down the stretch, an understandable move (Randolph is still trying to get back into game condition and he looked shaky for much of the night) that nonetheless allowed Blake Griffin to guard Marreese Speights while Reggie Evans battled Marc Gasol for every inch of territory. Speights, never a “plus” defender, couldn’t handle Griffin down low on the other end. Tony Allen missed a put-back and was improbably exposed on defense when finally given the go-ahead to take Chris Paul. Other horrible things happened for Memphis.
But if you had to pick one factor that made the game winnable, it was this: The Clippers made a bunch of three-pointers in a really small span of time. Two-point buckets simply wouldn’t do; they needed threes, and they got them, thanks to a complicated mix of factors. Let’s take a look at the Clippers’ last four three-pointers, starting with Eric Bledsoe’s seventh three of the entire season:
It’s fashionable to mock Griffin’s unrefined post game, but doing so ignores how effective he is, and how much attention that unrefined post game draws from defenses. Here, Griffin catches on the right block, with the capable Gasol defending him. And yet, look at how fascinated the rest of the Grizzlies are:
Every Memphis player is paying attention to Griffin. Look especially at Mike Conley and Rudy Gay on the weak side, sagging off Bledsoe and Nick Young, respectively, in order to clog up the middle. You can see Bledsoe (right in front of the dot in “Grizzles.com” along the sideline) beginning his cut from the left side to the right corner. Here’s what the world looks like when Bledsoe is halfway through that cut, under the rim:
Whoops. Both Conley and Gay have rotated out to Young on the left wing, leaving Bledsoe uncovered. Young is the more threatening shooter, of course, but no defensive coach would recommend what happens here. Bledsoe made just six three-pointers all season, but this is a practice shot, and nearly every NBA player looks like a shooting genius in practice.
Three minutes later, Young’s barrage begins with this play out of a timeout:
This is a nice play from maligned coach Vinny Del Negro. The Clippers have been good all season at using back screens away from the ball to free shooters, and Griffin here nails Young’s guy (Gay) with one at the left elbow while Gay has his eyes on the Paul pick-and-roll on the right side of the floor (Paul is driving by Gasol in this still):
Gay appears unprepared for the play. He’s late reacting and takes a long route around the pick once he realizes he’s been had. But he runs hard and manages at least a so-so contest of this shot. Also note: Young is the only perimeter player on the left side of the floor (Bledsoe is near the top of the arc), meaning there is no easy rotation for a Memphis guard to make. That little nugget of design really matters.
A little more than 30 seconds later, Young appears to victimize Gay again:
At first glance, Young punishes Gay (under the rim here) for crashing the offensive glass — a Memphis staple — instead of retreating on defense. (Young is in the block-charge circle here, breaking into a run):
But the floor is not so poorly balanced for Memphis. Mike Conley is already off the screen here, back on defense. Gasol is ahead of all five Clippers, and Mayo, on the right wing, isn’t far behind. This play, to me, is more about the genius of Paul and the fear he inspires. Paul senses a chance to grab a rebound in the lane, and before he even hits the ground, he’s already turned his body toward the Grizzlies’ basket, thoughts of a transition bucket in his steps-ahead brain. Paul in transition is a major threat, and he draws everyone the Grizzlies have back:
Paul is too fast for Gasol, forcing Conley to make the painful decision of leaving Young. Do Gasol and the trailing Speights have a chance here to at least make this Paul layup difficult? How difficult? Would it have been a 70 percent shot? A 50 percent shot? Would it have made more sense for Conley, knowing his team held a nine-point lead with just 2:20 to go, to stick with Young, who made 48 percent of his corner threes this season, per NBA.com? Do you trade a very probable two for the prevention of a 50-50 three?
Good luck making that kind of calculation in an instant. But if you think Paul would have had a pretty easy look here, the math is basically a wash. This is just a great player, making a great play.
And finally, the Young triple with 1:47 to go that brought the Clippers within three and placed the outcome in serious doubt:
There is so much going on here:
1. Paul does a nice job of fighting through the Gasol screen and staying attached to Conley’s right hip.
2. Griffin, a shaky defender in general, does a nice job here sliding off Speights and positioning himself so that he can both challenge Conley’s shot and stay in the potential passing lane to Speights:
3. It’s hard to see in the video, but when the shot goes up, Evans absolutely nails Gasol in the back, sending Gasol flying underneath the hoop, into a pile with Speights and Bledsoe. The play is probably a foul, but it’s a veteran move that won’t often draw a whistle in crunch time, and it clears space for Evans to grab the board and throw a nice, quick outlet to Paul.
4. Perhaps most damaging, Gay is doing this in the left corner:
Young, playing with appropriate urgency, is already sprinting up the court while Gay watches the scrum underneath, accomplishing nothing. With Conley shooting in the lane, only Mayo, on the right side, is positioned ahead of all five Clippers when Evans snares the rebound.
Gay immediately breaks into a full sprint, but it’s too late. Paul is off on a 3-on-2, another pick-your-poison situation that goes badly.
The aftermath of this disaster will focus on the Grizzlies’ sputtering offense, especially the game’s final stagnant possession. But a collapse of this level requires a pile of mistakes on both ends of the floor, and the Grizzlies obliged. The blame here, too, will focus on Gay, particularly his inattention to transition defense. But it also reveals a dozen other little things — a nice play design from Del Negro, a well-executed shove from Evans, a brilliant push or two from Paul, a decent shot challenge from Griffin, a bit of confusion between Gay and Conley and some interesting lineup choices from both sides.