This should be the best series of the first round, Lob City against Grind City, in-your-face against over-your-head. The Clippers are in the playoffs for the first time in six years, but Chris Paul did not join them just to qualify. He did that in New Orleans. The Clippers are trying to sell Paul on a long-term contract extension and the result here will help or hurt their pitch.
With Paul, the Clippers have an advantage on the perimeter, but their inconsistent post defense will be vulnerable against Memphis center Marc Gasol. The Grizzlies are a different team than the one that toppled the Spurs in the first round last year. They now have a healthy Rudy Gay to create outside offense, but Zach Randolph is still struggling to come back from his MCL tear and could be limited to a bench role.
Chris Paul vs. Tony Allen. Mike Conley is the Grizzlies' starting point guard and he will likely be defending Paul most of the time. But in late-game situations, when Paul has been particularly potent this season, expect the Grizzlies to turn to Allen, one of the elite perimeter defenders in the NBA. The Grizzlies lead the league in turnovers forced per 100 possessions, largely because of Allen's ball-hawking ways. After missing five games in early April with cuts in his mouth, Allen recorded a career-high eight steals on Monday against Cleveland, getting ready for Paul. Allen irks opponents, and by the end of the first round, he and Paul will be nose-to-nose.
Grizzlies: Zach Randolph. A year ago, Randolph was the darling of the playoffs, his career revitalized in the upset of the Spurs. Randolph has not been able to regain his rhythm since returning from the knee injury in mid-March -- he scored just three points Monday against Cleveland -- but he has plenty of motivation in this series. He is back in the playoffs, against the team that sent him to Memphis, and his guile around the basket could prove problematic for the Clippers' high-jumpers.
Clippers: Blake Griffin. This will be his first foray into the playoffs and he looks prepared, scoring a season-high 36 points Tuesday in Atlanta. However, pace typically slows in the postseason, and Griffin probably won't pick up as many easy points in transition. Against a stiffer defense, which is able to prepare for him, he also can't expect as many highlight dunks. Griffin had another stellar season, averaging nearly 21 points and 11 rebounds, but this series will reveal where he stands among the game's true stars.
The Clippers and the Grizzlies are as even as any first-round foes. Games will go down to the wire and so will the series. The Clippers have the better closer, with Paul, but the Grizzlies are able to get easier baskets inside, with Gasol. Memphis also has more experience in this setting, plus a raucous home-court advantage, significant because so little separates the two teams. This could go either way, but the Grizzlies will do just enough to limit the Clippers' running game and force them into half-court sets, with Griffin taking jump shots outside of his comfort zone. Grizzlies in seven.