We’re continuing here with the third quarter, where the Clippers would prove that momentum from halftime isn’t actually a real thing, especially when your starters are at a disadvantage against the opponents starters (Rudy Gay and Marc Gasol really came alive after struggling in the first half).
Speaking of which, the Grizzlies’ Conley-Allen-Gay-Randolph-Gasol lineup was +4 in ~5 minutes against the Clippers starters to open the third. Mike Conley calmed down in the pick-and-roll, Marc Gasol (and the Grizzlies quick swarm on the catch) forced Blake into more tough shots and turnovers, and both teams began to attack early in the shotclock. Of course a +4 stretch from a lineup isn’t that big of a deal (it can happen by more or less blind luck, let’s face it, even in such a hotly contested series).
But as the Grizzlies continued to force turnovers with their paint overload/lane-jump stuff (How else can you describe it?) while simultaneously scoring well via Rudy Gay drives (pick-and-roll and iso and even some screen-and-pop), Del Negro stuck with his starters. Again, this makes sense, because a +4 advantage isn’t anything huge. A key problem was that Chris Paul was inexplicably being used off-ball more than he was on-ball, which just really led to a lot of bad Randy Foye action. Defensively, it’s pretty simple: the Clippers don’t have anyone who can consistently contain Rudy Gay if the Grizzlies are mixing up the kind of touches he’s getting.
Then Memphis went to OJ Mayo rather than Tony Allen, and the lead only continued to grow. Memphis entered the final 3 minutes of the quarter +9 following the Clippers’ inability to make up ground on the run with a Kenyon Martin insertion (replacing DJ, which helped defensively on the inside more than I thought it would), nor with a late switch to the Paul-Foye-Young-Martin-Evans lineup. Try going back to the formerly effective CP3-Mo lineup (with the same SF-PG-C combo as earlier)? Again, not a dent, even though it was rolled out against Conley-Mayo-Gay-Cunningham-Speights. Admittedly that last group got some good offensive looks, but the main idea of this quarter is that the Clippers couldn’t make a run to answer the Grizzlies’ strong D and good use of matchups on offense.
And now we have the polar opposite of the third. The Clippers starting lineup played 0 minutes in the fourth. Tony Allen would play 0 minutes in the fourth as well, finding his time cut off permanently when he left the floor midway through the third with Lionel Hollins deciding to roll with his recent closer shooting guard, OJ Mayo (despite his inability to hit a shot throughout the night), and later with Quincy Pondexter. Late in the regular season, Hollins’ favorite fourth quarter lineup was Conley-Mayo-Gay-Randolph-Gasol.
However, closer lineup I just mentioned wouldn’t see the floor until after midway through the 4th, with an ineffective grouping of Conley-Mayo-Pondexter-Cunningham-Speights allowing a quick 5-0 run to the Clippers’ Paul-Williams-Young-Martin-Evans group. Defensively the Griz made Chris Paul shoot a contested 3 over the top, but with no post-up threat, the Grizzlies were forced to work off the dribble. The Clippers absolutely swarmed their pick-and-roll and iso dribble attempts, resulting in a Nick Young layup and Lionel Hollins replacing OJ Mayo with Rudy Gay, who the team could lean on offensively (with mixed results, until his double dose of last-minute 3-pointers). Vinny allowed the same Clippers lineup to ride it out (or perhaps slog it out, as Chris Paul’s attack was stifled, but the defense held firm) before Lionel Hollins replaced Cunningham with Zach Randolph to make for a Conley-Pondexter-Gay-Randolph-Speights group, which the Clippers responded to with a more defensive lineup while trying to get Chris Paul some rest for the stretch run (Williams-Bledsoe-Young-Martin-Evans).
At this point, we’re looking at a 4-point Memphis lead and the last thing you want to see is Not Chris Paul at point for the Clippers. Yet this lineup would hold its own while only hanging around for 1.5 minutes of play, producing a nice side pick-and-roll assist for Eric Bledsoe (who dished to Kenyon for a dunk), as well as some overaggressive fouls and one ugly Nick Young possession. Its replacement would not fare quite as well, with Randy Foye replacing Nick Young for 2 minutes and the team struggling mightily with turnovers and allowing the Grizzlies to take a 73-79 lead on two Zach Randolph free throws as Chris Paul and Blake Griffin entered the game.
Now, if you don’t mind, let me take this time to commend Vinny Del Negro for not fooling around with the starting lineup (or a traditional lineup at all), even with Caron Butler back, for the stretch run. After getting the key starters a short rest, he went straight to Paul-Bledsoe-Foye-Griffin-Evans, a modified version of a successful 3-guard lineup that the Clippers have used in all 3 games of the series, and a lineup that has been especially effective in the fourth quarter (reminiscent of Paul-Williams-Young-Kenyon-Evans, but it’s also similar to a 5-man we saw in Game 1 — the Paul-Bledsoe-Young-Griffin-Evans lineup). This closing crew drew Marc Gasol’s fifth foul (resulting in Lionel Hollins sitting him for several key minutes), and closed out the game with a 13-1 run.
And with this exhaustive recap coming to a close, let’s discuss that 3-guard Paul lineup with Foye at small forward and Reggie Evans at center. How exactly was it (as well as other Bledsoe at SG/undersized SF lineups) been so effective, coming into the game trailing by 7 and taking the Clips (narrowly, following some big threes and missed free throws) to a 2-1 series lead?
Well, here’s what we’ve been leading up to. The final, key piece to an ultra-rare win for the Clippers that was powered by defense.
The lineup above that the Clippers stuck with down the stretch obviously isn’t going to space the floor, and Chris Paul can only do so much with all that traffic to maneuver. However, defensively, the group can gamble but still recover and really battle on the inside. This isn’t to say that the team wasn’t hanging on for dear life at a few points, scrambling after sloppy turnovers, getting bailed out by missed free throws and questionable offesnive execution by Memphis, and bailing itself out with ridiculously lucky plays on the offensive end (Chris Paul missed contested fadeaway, crazy rebound and and-1 for Bledsoe, Reggie Evans putback on missed free throw, anyone?). Never the less, the Clippers’ leaned on that weird, mismatched lineup and pulled out another 1-point win — forcing the Grizzlies into long-2s, bodying the Griz bigs from picking up extra possessions or space on the low block — that’s how the game was won (and Chris Paul was there).
Going forward, I suppose if Caron Butler is going to continue to, simply, miss shots and not defend at a level high enough to make up for his lack of offensive production, the answer may be more Nick Young at small forward (or even Bobby Simmons again), more 3-guard lineups, and more Reggie Evans at center to guarantee strong rebounding and a shockingly effective one-on-one defensive presence.
And I realize that might be a little too high on the numbers and short positive spurts down the stretch, but I really think that those adjustments are the answer, and I feel that they don’t just have to be used after the traditional lineup gets a fairly lengthy run and fails.
Either way, this series has been wildly intense and whatever adjustments are made won’t change that. Happy playoffs, everyone.