It can be frustrating sometimes when fans and media give into easy narratives in explaining what happens in a complicated game involving 10 players interacting at a fast pace over 180 possessions. And then there are times when one team really does “impose its will” and its physicality on an opponent. The Grizzlies’ season-saving 92-80 win in Game 5 was one of those times, especially during the first quarter, when they ran up a big lead they would never surrender, despite the late-game scoring hiccups that are coming to define this series.
Don’t get me wrong: Lots of things contributed to this Memphis win — some fun Xs-and-Os designed to get the ball inside, the brief appearance of 2011 Zach Randolph, stifling perimeter defense that shut off the Clippers’ pick-and-roll attack and late-game injuries to the Clippers’ star players. But at a basic level, the Grizzlies committed themselves to outworking L.A. inside. Randolph fought harder against Reggie Evans’ fronting defense, and the Memphis bigs ran the floor hard, got into Blake Griffin’s chest early and overpowered him in the post.
Let’s look at some of the ways this happened:
• More screening action
One way to beat a fronting defense and generally open lanes for entry passes is to get big guys moving around screens in the half-court offense. Here is the first Memphis possession of the game:
The play starts with Rudy Gay whiffing on a pick for Randolph, but the intent is good. The meat of the play comes with a big-big cross-screen in which Marc Gasol, after pretending as if he were going to post up Griffin, turns and hits Randolph’s man (the hugely disappointing DeAndre Jordan) with a pick. The screen doesn’t hit flush, but it takes Jordan off his path and unnerves the Clippers’ young defensive back line:
Griffin basically switches onto Randolph while Jordan keeps pursuing his own man, leaving Gasol to flash for an open jumper.
Memphis’ offense featured this kind of stuff on lots of successful early possessions. You can look at another Randolph-Gasol cross-screen that freed up Gasol here, and this play throws Tony Allen into the mix in a scrum of screens around the foul line:
• Be physical behind the pick-and-roll
Here’s where we get into Memphis simply targeting what it believes is a weak link in the Clippers’ defense and being as physical as the officials will allow in the process. Let’s take a look a two straight Mike Conley/Randolph pick-and-rolls from the first quarter:
The Grizzlies were confident Conley could turn the corner against Jordan, and they were right. They were also confident Gasol could use his strength, smarts and well-timed rule-bending to prevent Griffin from helping. Check out Gasol in the middle of the paint grabbing Griffin’s arm here as Conley penetrates:
Jordan, like a lot of young and athletic defenders, works under the idea that he can use his length and quickness to make up for shaky positioning at the point of attack. He wins that gamble here, stuffing Conley and igniting a Chris Paul fast break, but the Grizzlies liked what they saw and went right back to it:
Jordan again offers little resistance at the top, and holy cow, does Gasol just level Griffin with a first-rate shoulder check. Is it a foul? Maybe. But Gasol is smart in the way that he uses his body and not his arms to move Griffin around, and Griffin may do a bit of acting here to exaggerate the impact. Then again, Gasol is a very strong guy, and the officials let a lot of hip/chest contact go on the block when the big guys are inflicting it upon each other.
• The duck-ins
It’s typical in the Memphis offense for Gasol to set a high screen while Randolph takes care of business on the back line, often by darting into post-up position as Gasol rolls to the basket. Randolph’s cuts on these plays have the dual effect of making him into a scoring action and occupying his man so that defender cannot help on Gasol. We saw more of this kind of thing in Game 5:
Jordan does well here to contain Conley’s first move, but when Conley crosses back over to his left, burning Chris Paul, the Los Angeles big men can’t find a path to Conley through the Grizzlies’ brutes.
A word on Jordan: He just hasn’t been good enough in this series, forcing coach Vinny Del Negro to give heavy minutes to the Kenyon Martin/Evans pairing that destroyed the Clippers’ offense in the regular season. Fortunately, those two — especially Evans — have fared decently on both ends of the floor, minimizing the pain. Del Negro has also done well as the series has gone on to limit the time in which both Griffin and Paul sit, and playing Paul heavier minutes will help any offense.
But the fears we all had that the Jordan/Griffin combination — so young, still — would wilt on defense have mostly come true. Jordan has shown flashes — a nice block here, a quicker-than-you expect rotation there — but for the most part, he has been out of position on pick-and-rolls and late on rotations. He and Griffin continue to have the communication issues most young big-man pairings experience at the start.
Del Negro can afford to sit Jordan, since he is such a non-factor on offense. He cannot afford to sit Griffin, and Game 5 was perhaps Griffin’s most discouraging performance of the series on defense. As I wrote on Tuesday, Griffin’s all-around game has steadily improved, and he has generally fought hard against, perhaps, the toughest front line in the league.
But he faltered on Wednesday. Gasol outran him in transition for an early dunk, and both Memphis bigs outworked him for precious space on the block and stood up him with back-down moves and pump-fakes. It’s one thing for Gasol to hit a jumper or a sweeping hook over Griffin; Gasol is just too tall for him. Possessions like these two, though, are another thing:
Griffin battles early here against Randolph but ultimately surrenders. Note also how aggressively Randolph and (in this next clip) Gasol ran the floor Wednesday night. One way to get good post position and get clear of help defenders is to just beat everyone down the floor. Here’s Gasol:
Two major questions going forward:
1. Can Memphis commit to playing this way for entire games? It’s tempting to blame both coach Lionel Hollins (play-calling) and Gay (shot selection) for stretches in which Memphis doesn’t get the ball into the post, but you have to wonder if fatigue and health are factors. Randolph is clearly not 100 percent after knee surgery and has not shown he can be a dominant presence over a full game. Only five players logged more minutes this season than Gasol, and you can up the fatigue factor if Hollins is going to continue to have Gasol work as Griffin’s primary defender, as he did in Game 5.
2. How healthy are Griffin and Paul? That’s obviously the biggest question looming over this series. The Clippers cannot win if one or both players is even a little bit limited, and if Griffin is indeed limited, you can bet we’ll see more post possessions like the above two in Game 6.