LOS ANGELES -- Sometime over the past five years, the NBA evolved into a Lilliputian's league, filled with jitterbug point guards who are better off pounding the ball up top than dumping it down low. The image of a couple burly 260-pounders, perched on opposite blocks with their backs to the basket, became as antiquated as short shorts. Teams today prefer to run, and if they can't, then they space the floor with three-point shooters so their chosen dervish can drive or dish. The style is especially prevalent in the Western Conference, where Oklahoma City, Golden State, Denver, Houston and the Clippers treat games like 90-foot dashes. Even the Spurs, after a decade of Tim Duncan, caught on. The Lakers did not and they're already out.
There remains, however, one successful holdout to the little man revolution. The Memphis Grizzlies played at the second-slowest pace in the NBA this season. They attempted the fewest three-pointers in the league. They also made the fewest. They employ a top point guard, Mike Conley, but the offense does not run through him. His main responsibility is feeding a pair of 260-pounders, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol, stationed in the post with their backs to the basket. What the Grizzlies lack in blazing speed they make up for in brute force. They cannot run with most teams in the West, but they can certainly body-slam them. The Grizzlies prove that games, and even playoff series, are still occasionally decided by the giants in the paint.
Memphis bludgeoned the Clippers for the third straight time Tuesday, 103-93 at Staples Center, and is one win away from sending Chris Paul into free agency on a bitter note. The Clippers' trapeze act, which filled the highlight shows for the past five months, may soon be floored. They trail the Grizzlies 3-2, with Game 6 on Friday at FedEx Forum, and they have no idea if their principal flier will even be able to elevate. Blake Griffin suffered a severe high right ankle sprain at practice Monday, landing on Lamar Odom's foot after shooting a lay-up during a drill, and he underwent therapy overnight to reduce swelling. Griffin started, but scored only four points in 19 minutes, and hobbled to the locker room midway through the third quarter. "He was struggling to move," said Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro.
Paul and Griffin were both hampered by injuries in the playoffs last year, prompting the Clippers to revamp their bench over the summer. The front office built arguably the best second unit in the league, which spared Paul and Griffin heavy minutes. They were as fresh as any star duo, but with one awkward landing, they became the latest contender to lose a headliner. The Clippers may be brimming with perimeter talent, but Griffin is their only interior anchor who can match up with Randolph or Gasol. In Griffin's absence, the Clippers are desperate for DeAndre Jordan to emerge, but he scored just six points in Game 5 after netting two in Games 3 and 4.
The Clippers posted 56 victories this season, captured the Pacific Division title for the first time and swept the Lakers, but they could be facing a franchise-altering moment in Memphis. Del Negro's contract is set to expire, and more important, so is Paul's. Those close to Paul still expect that he will re-sign with the Clippers, but if the team falls to the Grizzlies in the first round after ousting them last spring, it is harder to gauge what he will do. At the very least, Paul will take a long look at his supporting cast. Asked about the stakes, Paul replied: "That's not my job. My job is to go out and perform and try to win games. All I'm focused on is Game 6 and what we've got to do to win it."
Paul is one of those captivating point guards around whom the NBA now revolves. He helped usher in the small-ball movement. On Tuesday, he was as unstoppable as ever, pouring in a playoff career-high 35 points. But it wasn't enough against the Grizzlies' immovable front line. "They beat us up again," lamented Paul, his left wrist wrapped in ice. "Every time we come down, Marc is standing in the lane. We have to get him out of the lane." The Clippers edged Memphis in seven games last season, when the Grizzlies still had Rudy Gay, and this time around the Clips' roster appeared more potent and Memphis' less so. But in losing Gay, a dynamic but inefficient wing, the Grizzlies solidified their inside-out identity. "We play hard," said Randolph. "We play together. We play the team concept."
The Grizzlies make every possession a pain, forcing the West's many up-tempo outfits deep into the shot clock, where they appear uncomfortable. The Clippers have grown frustrated, and if the Grizzlies advance, the Thunder will feel the same way. "They're bulls out there," said Del Negro. In the modern NBA, bulls cannot keep pace, which is why they're put to pasture in favor of gazelles. But there they were Tuesday at Staples Center, muscling Griffin, flummoxing Jordan, enraging Paul, and snatching the advantage in a series of attrition. If Memphis wins Friday, it will serve as a throwback victory, one for the paint over the perimeter, the post move over the alley-oop, the big man over the little guy.