First and foremost, I’d like to say that Vinny Del Negro sticking with Caron Butler rather than going to more Nick Young (or Bobby Simmons, or some other lineup that had been more effective so far in the playoffs) paid off in Game 4. The Clippers won, sure, on the backs of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, but also on the wave from a strong first quarter from Caron Butler. 11 points in 10 minutes of playing time in the first from Caron (and efficiently, too) gave the Clippers their only effective quarter of the game. The Clippers would either tie or lose every other (non-OT) period of the the game outside of that key first quarter. I didn’t think you had it in you any longer, Mr. Butler. Nicely done offensive work, and nicely played defense on Rudy Gay as well.
And I was certainly not prepared to be saying this. The Clippers’ starting lineup had not come out scoring more points than its opponent all series until this past first quarter. To be clear, the starting lineup was not perfect. In its usual lengthy third quarter stretch it would give back the positive ground it made in the first quarter. But we’ve seen progress! Neutral is better than negative!
Moving along to some other adjustments we saw on both sides in Game 4, I think Mike Conley’s minutes are pretty telling. Lionel Hollins was not willing to go down in a similar style as he had before, and he rode his starting point guard to the tune of 46 minutes, and even if we subtract his ~5 minutes in the overtime period, that’s about 6 more minutes than Conley had been playing so far in the series. And remember, this guy is only getting one day of rest. We might see a very limited Conley (who the team has leaned on in two games for a large amount of offense this series), and if Rudy Gay is also weary after his nearly 48 minutes in Game 4, the Clippers could have a big advantage in terms of the Griz’s inability to go to their two biggest offensive creators/mismatch exploiters (Conley’s exploitation generally coming in the Clippers’ inability to get over ball screens, rather than in isolation, to be clear).
At the same time, it isn’t a definite disadvantage for the Griz if they can’t ride Conley again in Game 5, as their OJ Mayo-Pondexter-Gay-Randolph-Gasol lineup was extremely effective in the second quarter of Game 3. I was intrigued to see Lionel Hollins not try that lineup out again, instead riding Conley’s hot hand (though Mayo has admittedly been quite bad throughout the series, outside of that single second quarter).
On the Clippers side, I think the biggest move from Del Negro was to bring back Blake Griffin much earlier than normal in the fourth quarter when Chris Paul wasn’t in, and then to let Mo Williams ride it out rather than bringing Paul back in at the usual time. That was a great decision, as Hollins had Dante Cunningham in at PF and Haddadi (with Gasol playing poorly and in foul trouble) at C, and Mo Williams hasn’t exactly handled the Grizzlies’ ball pressure well. I wasn’t a supporter (and despite the solid results, I am still not a supporter) of riding a hot hand like Del Negro did with Mo Williams over Chris Paul. Williams ended up hitting a couple of key shots, but he also forced some jumpers and had an ugly turnover along with one or two other bad decisions that helped the Grizzlies stay in the game, in my eyes. It was an excellent (and obvious) move, however, to roll with Eric Bledsoe at SG with Mo running point for that fourth quarter stretch, however. Also, to be fair, we saw Paul suffer his own struggles when he did make his return in the fourth, so if you want to judge things only by the results (which I do not recommend), Del Negro made the right move sticking with Williams. Also, we can never know what the ‘right’ decision really is. Who knows, maybe if Trey Thompkins had gotten 20 minutes tonight he would have gone off for 15 and 10. Such is the unknowability of existence.
Another interesting move, in my eyes, was leaving in Kenyon Martin with Blake in the 4th and replacing Reggie Evans with Blake. Kenyon (and Blake as well) were not very good on the boards, and Reggie could have been useful down the stretch, though Kenyon had some key blocks and generally strong defense as well. I imagine that was a tough call from Del Negro’s point of view. A more confusing move to me was replacing Eric Bledsoe (who was +10 with that Williams-Bledsoe-Young-Blake-Kenyon Martin lineup in the 4th) with Chris Paul, rather than replacing Mo Williams. Then again, there may have been a look towards possible intentional fouls if Bledsoe was allowed to remain in.
At some point in the middle of the game, I got into a bit of an argument on Twitter with HoopIdea/HoopSpeak/HoopEverything’s Beckley Mason about Lionel Hollins being outcoached by Vinny Del Negro. I don’t agree that Hollins has been outcoached at all, especially looking at some of the decision-making with lineups (as best as I can. Again, we can never know what the best decision is. We can only use different levels of hindsight) on each side, but when you see how long Hollins stuck with Haddadi and Cunningham as the bigs after Del Negro brought in Blake Griffin in the fourth, you can see where the argument that Hollins made some bad decisions can be made. As well, leaning on Rudy Gay for bigger minutes despite him having his worst game of the series (credit to Butler, Young, and Foye for continuing to do a good job contesting Rudy, but this time holding off on the fouls as well), rather than really forcing the ball into Gasol or using some more varied offense to get Gay going, was certainly iffy. But then again, Hollins recognized that Pondexter and Mayo were ineffective at the SG position late, and went to Tony Allen in the fourth quarter for the first time in ages. It can be really intriguing to watch some of the decisions coaches have to make when a series has seen so many close games.
I mean, the Clippers have obviously made some key late runs to have this 3-1 series lead…but the Grizzlies had their own key run in the fourth to force overtime in Game 4. And they’ve had key first, second, and third quarter runs to put the Clippers in positions where they had to answer. From a coaching perspective, it has to be hard to know how big of a move to make in regards to lineup or gameplan shifts when every game has been a coinflip away from having a totally different result.
And now for a cheesy closer and a Queen embed, because that’s how we do things around here: We’ll see if the coin comes up heads or tails for the Clippers tonight, as they try to close out this ridiculously contested series in Memphis.