It wasn’t especially difficult to predict a Clipper loss to the Grizzlies in Game 5. Their regular season records suggested that the two teams were evenly matched to begin with, and despite a 3-1 Clippers lead going in, the point differential in this series backed that up — before last night, the Grizzlies had actually outscored the Clippers by one.
After losing Game 4 at Staples, there were plenty of reasons why the series might return to L.A. after a Grizzly win. As it turned out, home court advantage, combined with a reemergence of Marc Gasol and an awakening of sorts for Zach Randolph led to just that — a series-tightening victory.
But even for those of us that foresaw the ultimate outcome, it’s impossible to look past the way it played out. Not only were the Clippers beaten early and often by a more aggressive, and smarter, Memphis team, but they once again beat themselves.
In what has become something of a trend for a team loaded with talent, they simply could not resist complaining to the officials. After every single play.
Put aside for a minute the discussion of “flopping,” because it’s not really about that. It’s about a culture that has permeated the team that has gotten out of control. The Clippers were called for five technicals last night, in a game that could have ended the series and put them into the second round of the playoffs. Five. And by my count, not one of them was necessary.
Sometimes in baseball you see a manager argue with an umpire in defense of a star player when he thinks that a message needs to be sent. In many cases, getting tossed from the game is an accepted result, if not the intended purpose. Either the ump made a bad call or the skipper simply perceives a need to support the player or rally the team. Because baseball managers have very little impact on individual games, it’s a card they can keep in their back pocket to be played when deemed necessary.
But this was different. Fist of all, in baseball, the opposing team gets no scoring opportunity from such a move. And in the case of the Clippers, no one was actually wronged. Each and every one of the five technical fouls was deserved. Sure, the Grizzlies were called for six fewer fouls than the Clips, but guess what? That’s what happens when one team spends the night attacking the basket and the other settles for jumper after jumper.
No, there was no reason for Eric Bledsoe, Caron Butler, Chris Paul, Mo Williams or Vinny Del Negro to voluntarily give the other team extra points and possessions. Beckley Mason suggested that Paul’s, which came after an appropriate no-call, and Del Negro’s, which followed that for no good reason, might have served to disrupt a pace that was clearly in the Grizzlies’ favor. And he may be right. I’m in no position to tell if Paul or any of these guys had such an intention in mind, but what I’m talking about is a bigger issue.
The effects of this cultural practice of a team that has now earned 12 technical fouls in five playoff games are greater than just the foul shots. When it becomes so widespread, you leave yourself vulnerable to taking that extra split second — or more — that take your focus off the game. And in a series this close, that could be all a team needs to turn a 3-1 deficit into a come-from-behind ticket to the second round.
You see Marc Gasol out-running Blake Griffin to the rim for easy buckets, or key perimeter players wasting energy fighting with refs, rather than dedicating themselves to working off the ball or fighting through screens. In general, when it’s the first instinct of the majority of the team to play to the officials, that’s just bad for business.
We can hold off on judging Vinny Del Negro’s performance as coach until the offseason, when his contract will be up — there will be plenty of time for that and plenty to say when the time comes. But at its core, behavior like we saw in Game 5, in which his team so obviously lost its composure at a most inopportune time, reflects squarely on its leader. Not only did we see them handle frustration by self-destructing, but he, himself, contributed to the collapse.
When Eric Bledsoe showed frustration about an early foul and started the T-train a-rollin’, Del Negro’s response was to teach him a lesson by playing him for only six total minutes? If it wasn’t that, had he decided his best perimeter defender no longer had a place in the rotation? And as he watched Paul cross the line over a play that rightly goes uncalled 99 percent of the time, he decided that it would serve a positive purpose to get rung up, himself?
It made no sense, although in many ways, it made perfect sense. Pardon the pun, but the inmates have been running the asylum all season. And frankly, when you have Chris Paul and Chauncey Billups, among other veteran leaders, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But what we saw last night left no doubt that the success of this team will continue to hinge on the ability of the players, themselves, to perform, in the absence of any leadership from the bench. They certainly have the talent, and perhaps even the makeup to do it, but it will be a constant battle against these habits they’ve developed — ones that, by nature, are prone to interfere when the stakes are highest.