For the second straight year, the Clippers and Grizzlies meet in the most intriguing first-round matchup as the No. 4 and 5 seeds. Again, they are stylistic opposites. The Clippers try to push the pace, with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin, while the Grizzlies try to slow it down, with Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. The Clippers play outside-in, depending on Paul to make the decisions, while the Grizzlies play inside-out, allowing Gasol to create from the post. The Clippers are in better shape than they were last spring (they beat the Grizzlies in seven games), thanks to their bolstered bench, and one would assume the Grizzlies would be worse off without Rudy Gay. But they have forged a stronger identity, based around their talented big men and rugged defense, the best in the Western Conference.
Why The Clippers Will Win
They have Chris Paul. Despite the Clippers' depth, the ball will be in his hands at the end of every game, and there is nowhere a team would rather it be. Like last year, this series will be tight, and like last year, Paul will make the decisive plays down the stretch, whether he's passing or scoring. He is relatively rested, having logged the fewest minutes per game of his career this season, and he's flanked by the supporting cast he helped put together last summer. The Clippers' defense is much improved and the Grizzlies are only ranked 26th in scoring. As long as Griffin and DeAndre Jordan can hold their own against Gasol and Randolph, Paul will make the difference again. He becomes a free agent in July, and before re-signing, he wants to see the Clippers take another step forward. He won't let them take one back.
Why The Grizzlies Will Win
You can't find a tougher team. A year ago, they turned the series into a cage match, and pushed the Clippers to seven games. They'll do it again, but this time, they won't blow a 24-point lead in eight minutes at home. The Grizzlies allow the fewest points per game in the NBA and they will upset the timing of the Clippers' high-wire offense. Fast break opportunities will be reduced. Highlight dunks will be limited. Gasol and Randolph will harass Griffin and Jordan, forcing them to earn points with free throws instead of ally-oops. The Clippers bench is superior, but in the playoffs, the bench is marginalized and starters rule the day. The Grizzlies boast two legitimate candidates for Defensive Player of the Year, with Tony Allen and Gasol. They will hound the Clippers and frustrate them deep into fourth quarters.
Keep An Eye On ...
Blake Griffin. This was his third NBA season and he averaged a respectable 18 points and 8 rebounds per game, but his numbers were stagnant or down in most relevant categories. Of course, his minutes were also way down, in hopes that he would be fresh for the postseason. Griffin was banged up in the playoffs last year, and while he still scored more than 19 points per game, his rebounding dipped. The Clippers believe Griffin is a budding superstar, but in order to validate their confidence, he must be able to absorb the punishment he'll get from the Grizzlies frontline and win the matchup with Randolph. Paul wants to see whether Griffin can eventually grow into a second franchise player. He obviously possesses the athleticism and he's getting more of the experience. For the Clippers to advance in the playoffs, Griffin needs to command double teams and help Paul by making key shots to close out games and series.