With about 5:40 left and the Clippers leading the Grizzlies by seven points in Game 4 on Monday, Memphis forwards Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph ran a pick-and-roll on the right side of the floor. The pick held up Gay’s defender, Nick Young, forcing Randolph’s man, Kenyon Martin, to slide onto Gay and chase him above the three-point line. Randolph rolled wide open into his sweet spot on the right wing. Randolph’s partner in bruising dominance, Marc Gasol, flashed toward the foul line, putting Gasol’s defender, Blake Griffin, in a terrible position, stuck as the only defender left to monitor two very good, very large players.
Gay took one lefty dribble backward, and with his momentum still moving him slightly toward mid-court, he threw a long bounce pass toward Randolph. The pass was a beat late, thrown with too little pace, and it bounced high off the ground. The play unfolded slowly enough for Griffin, an allegedly poor defender, to read it, dart over to Randolph, slice in front him and steal the ball.
On the ensuing possession, the Clippers went to Griffin on the left block against Randolph, hoping Griffin could use his allegedly unrefined post game to create offense while Chris Paul continued an extended stint on the bench. Griffin turned to face Randolph, brought the ball down to his knee level and faked a lefty drive to the baseline. Randolph leaned that way, and Griffin exploded back to his right and dribbled into the foul line area, drawing Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley off Mo Williams at the top of the three-point arc for some crisis management. Griffin flicked a pass to Williams for a three-pointer, dishing the last of his seven assists (to go with 30 points) during an important stretch in which the Clippers built a lead, on Griffin’s back, as Paul rested up for his late-game heroics.
The Clippers lead the first-round series 3-1 for a million reasons, big and small, including Paul’s crunch-time brilliance; Grizzlies starting guard Tony Allen’s knee issues and his somewhat related reduction in crunch-time play; Los Angeles’ ability, especially that of Reggie Evans, to rebound missed free throws (even if the veteran power forward got away with a two-handed shove on the last of those rebounds Monday); the Grizzlies’ inability to punish the Clippers’ ultra-small lineups; Memphis’ usual problems spacing the floor; Martin’s late-game defense on Gay; and random luck.
But one overarching key is this: Memphis’ young star, Gay, just hasn’t been good enough, while the Clippers’ young star, Griffin, has battled against one of the league’s toughest teams and finally rose to the occasion with a superstar performance Monday. That effort should close the book on the silly notion that the 23-year-old Griffin lacks toughness or an effective post game.
Griffin has turned off some people with the way he flops and preens. But the justified criticism of his antics has in some circles led to Griffin’s being viewed as an unskilled dunk machine who doesn’t want to battle the league’s toughest big men and can’t understand defense at the NBA level. The caricature has never been true, as anybody with League Pass (or, this season, basic cable) could have told you long ago. Monday’s postseason breakout merely cemented it.
It’s true that Griffin’s post game lacks a certain polished footwork, but that doesn’t really matter as long as it’s effective. Style is nice; points are better. Griffin has the quickness to blow by almost any big man in the league, and his spin moves, simultaneously awkward and athletic, often work well enough to give him space for one of his strange one-handed shots. Opposing coaches have been double-teaming Griffin all season, or at least having an extra defender stunt in his direction. Coaches don’t do that unless they sense a real threat.
Griffin has always made them pay with passing skills that were elite the minute he stepped onto an NBA floor. He assisted on 18.6 percent of the Clippers’ baskets last season. Among big men, only Brad Miller posted a better assist rate, according to Basketball-Reference. The second-year player nearly held his assist rate steady this season (16.6 percent), even though his team traded for the best point guard on the planet. Ask Grizzlies guard O.J. Mayo about Griffin’s passing: During a play late in the first quarter Monday, Griffin held the ball on the left block, drew the attention of every Memphis defender, noticed Mayo’s head on a swivel in the paint and rifled an impossible one-handed pass just inches over Mayo’s head — and right on target to Mayo’s man, Randy Foye, in the opposite corner for a three-pointer.
Griffin still has serious limitations. The concerns about his defense are real, though the back-line rotation he made to steal Gay’s pass on that fourth-quarter play is the kind of thing he does fairly regularly now — minus the steal, anyway — but rarely pulled off early in the season. He can be a liability on the pick-and-roll, and he doesn’t have the long arms or fanatical hunger to develop into a game-changing defender. It was alarming how willingly Griffin surrendered on one Gay cross screen for Randolph in the middle of the third quarter, not even attempting to fight through as Randolph broke free under the rim. And though Griffin has generally fought hard in his wrestling matches with Randolph, the Grizzlies’ star has overpowered him or dribbled right around him for a few key baskets.
But Griffin is growing on defense. And on offense, he’s already a well-rounded monster learning to work good defenders and destroying overmatched ones like the Grizzlies’ Marreese Speights.
That’s where Gay has faltered a bit in this series, though it’s easy for his and the Grizzlies’ issues in general to be overblown. Gay has posted a solid 17.5 Player Efficiency Rating through four games, and Memphis’ offense, the team’s weaker half, has scored at a rate that would have ranked in the top five overall for the full season, per NBA.com.
The offense, however, has stumbled in key stretches. And Gay, who is paid like a superstar creator ($15 million), just hasn’t filled the role. He’s an uncomfortable passer on the pick-and-roll and passed up chance after chance to create off the dribble Monday after the Clippers switched mismatched defenders onto him. His reluctance to make tough entry passes is one of many reasons the Grizzlies are having trouble just getting the ball into the post; Griffin had more post touches Monday than Randolph and Gasol combined, per Synergy Sports. The Clippers’ big men are doing good work fronting Memphis’ big players, and the L.A. guards are playing off their counterparts in order to sag back and challenge over-the-top lobs. Clippers center DeAndre Jordan, mostly a disappointment on both ends in this series, has at least been effective as a lurking threat to the high-low pass.
There are ways around all of these defensive strategies, and not all of them involve Gay. As Sebastian Pruiti of Grantland pointed out on Twitter, the Grizzlies could run more of those cross screens under the rim to free up one of their big men, or have Randolph duck into the post while Gasol rolls to the hoop on pick-and-roll plays, a core action in their offense last season. But some of the remedies also involve Gay’s just being awesome in the way stars are supposed to be — attacking mismatches, finding seams off the dribble, tossing creative passes and (in a typical NBA antidote to fronting) dribbling right at the post-up players, knowing the fronting defender is in no position to slide off and help on the drive.
Gay, who shot only 8-of-25 in Game 4, has had his bright moments. He has hurt Nick Young in the post and on curl plays, and he made a monster game-tying jumper over Griffin — a mismatch! — in the last minute Monday. But he hasn’t done enough to carry a team that has needed periodic carrying.
He also hasn’t brought superstar-level focus on defense. If Gay paid as much attention to transition defense as he does to leaking out for potential fast-break dunks, the Grizzlies might be up 3-1 in this series. Young ran by him in Game 1 before nailing a series of corner threes, and the issue has popped up now and then since. He has lost both Young and Caron Butler repeatedly in the half-court while ball-watching.
Every player has flaws. Even a relentless competitor like Kobe Bryant gets caught gazing at his own shot while his man runs out in transition; Danilo Gallinari burned Bryant twice like this down the stretch of Game 4 in Denver on Sunday. Nitpicking Gay like this is a borderline unfair exercise you could perform on film with any player. But the pile of nits to pick has gotten too large in these playoffs, and in a series decided by the thinnest of margins, that has been damaging enough.