Before this playoff run began, way back in the offseason, there was a time where Clippers VP of Basketball Operations Neil Olshe was asked to justify his signing of Caron Butler. Although I don’t have the quotes handy, I can almost assure you that at some point “playoff experience” and “toughness” were used in Olshey’s praise of Butler. The Clippers had long sought a grown-up at the small forward position, and it later became evident that Chris Paul had admired the same qualities in Butler as the Clippers did. He wasn’t perfect, and neither were his knees, but Butler brought professionalism alongside a mentality the Clippers hadn’t had since Elton Brand was doing his thing.
Butler was supposed to be out 4-6 weeks with his hand injury. Maybe his past should have tipped us off, or maybe you think McDonalds straws are actually infused with calcium, but either way, it’s amazing how he came back so quickly, especially when you remember he’s a Clipper. That never happens with Clippers. Chris Kaman used to sprain an ankle and be back 3 months later. Somehow though, Butler turned weeks of recovery time in to days, and just being out on the floor for Game Three definitely seemed to give the Clippers an extra motivational lift.
In Game Four, Butler did that and much more.
The Clippers struggled out of the gate, and it was up to Butler to pick the offense up. A nice pull-up on the baseline stopped the initial bleeding, and then Butler followed that with trips to the line, a dunk (!) and a layup. Motivation is nice. Production is even better.
Butler’s first quarter scoring barrage seemed to put the Clippers on a familiar path they had followed during the regular season. Griffin would soon take over the offensive reigns while Butler took a backseat, but not before he locked down the Grizzlies’ problematic scorer, Rudy Gay. After Gay had his way in Game Three and at other junctures in the series, Butler did a phenomenal job of discouraging him to work for better shots. Butler cut off Gay at one or two dribbles instead of three or four, contested his shot, and got as physical as anyone has with Gay all series. Gay’s non-fourth quarter shot chart should be treated like a work of art and framed in the Clippers’ locker room somewhere. The Clippers forced Gay to shoot 25 times to score 23 points, and blocked four of his shots for good measure.
The Clippers are widely presented around the league as patient zero for the flopping epidemic, and often deservedly so, but Butler showed as much grit as any Grizzly by grinding Gay into one of the least efficient playoff performances (that’s a challenge, Kobe) we’ll likely see this postseason.
The walls blocking Blake from really dominating in this series have been quite literal — it’s the big bodies of Randolph, Gasol and Speights that have refused to crumble when Griffin lowers his shoulder in the paint. Instead of smashing his head into the wall, tonight’s attacks by Griffin were predicated less on play above the rim and more on work between the ears.
Zach Randolph, Griffin’s primary foe, has successfully lured Griffin into a battle of machismo instead of wits most of the series. The two have wrestled for post position, only for Griffin to see himself making the catch in uncharted waters at 18-feet. Most of Griffin’s scoring chances tonight came from off the ball opportunities, but in isolation and post-ups, Griffin was gold when he didn’t leave his feet prematurely. Griffin’s ability to separate and wheel quickly often left Randolph lunging for contact, and a few sick up-and-under moves even got Randolph to leave his feet (not a noted shot blocker here, folks) to try and contest the shot. Griffin had Randolph tied up in knots at one point, visibly upsetting him to the point where Z-Bo chest bumped him right in front of the referee.
Griffin’s response to the physical confrontation? A big grin.
After all, Griffin had plenty of reasons to smile — he had finally turned the tables in the series. He was no longer the somewhat timid first-year playoff performer; the hunted man. He was now the hunter, and Randolph had shown weakness. Griffin was under his skin and in his head.
You get confidence from watching the ball fall through the net, but watching your opponent boil over works just as well. Maybe it was wishful viewing, but Griffin also appeared to set a few tough screens, make the proper rotation, and do a few other little things right in addition to his scoring onslaught. Griffin fouling out can be viewed as a negative, but I see it (and hopefully, so does he) as a positive. Griffin forced the hand of the refs on multiple calls, tried to take a few charges, and got away with as much dirty stuff under the rim as he possibly could. This performance (30 points on 15 FGA’s, 7 assists) was worth the wait.
We are a spoiled bunch, really. It’s barely being mentioned that Chris Paul had the potential game winner by getting to the rim for a layup against one of the best defenders this league has to offer. It’s a testament to his crunch time chops that the potential game winning possession at the end of regulation is under more scrutiny.
It’s hard to blame Paul for starting so late in the shot clock — this is a guy who values the basketball unlike any other, and wanted no reasonable chance for the Grizzlies to somehow have a chance to win the game. The real mistake by Paul was turning his back to the defense, which invited an immediate double team from Rudy Gay. Our knee-jerk reaction is to raise our fist to the sky and curse hero ball, but tell me you wouldn’t be sweating buckets if Randy Foye got the ball with 7 seconds left with O.J. Mayo draped all over him. Tell me you don’t see Reggie Evans clocking someone for an illegal screen call. The safety of the possession took priority.
It turned out alright in the end, because Paul made the jello jiggle. It’s pretty incredible how often Paul gets to his right hand, and once he’s there, how badly he makes big men look. Marc Gasol is a pretty darn good pick-and-roll defender, but Paul had him on ice skates in overtime and got to his favorite space on the floor — the right elbow for a step back jumper from 17-feet — virtually whenever he wanted to.
That’s what makes Paul great. It’s hard to overstate how wonderful Mike Conley played for the Grizzlies. He out-battled Paul for three quarters and kept the Grizzlies’ offense alive with his penetration. He was a monster in the pick-and-roll and was the only one initiating anything productive for the Grizzlies with Gay chucking up bricks and Marc Gasol going into Witness Protection.
But in crunch time, it came down to Gay against Paul. That’s not a fair battle.
It sounds odd to call an overtime thriller a return to normalcy, but that’s what it was. Butler started, Griffin took the baton and ran with it, and then he passed it off to Paul to finish. Just like usual, I’m sure you’ll hear a lot of static like flopping and lobbing, but everything — the game, the conversation, the narrative — should end with Chris Paul.
Now up 3-1 against Memphis, the series might end with him, too.