by Nima Zarrabi / @NZbeFree
Following a record breaking season for the franchise, nut-cutting time has arrived for the Los Angeles Clippers. All season long, stars Chris Paul and Blake Griffin insisted the team had much bigger goals than winning the Pacific division, a record win streak and back-to-back winning seasons. Their sights have been set on the Playoffs and making a serious run for the title and that road will begin with a very tough Memphis Grizzles team on Saturday night at Staples Center. Both teams finished with a 56-26 record, the Clips awarded the No. 4 seed and the Griz No. 5.
Memphis also set a record for franchise wins this season and many players have noted that they still feel the burn from their first-round Playoff loss to L.A. last year. The Grizzles had the League’s best team defense this year, allowing 90 points per game and have never lacked confidence thanks to veterans like Zach Randolph and Tony Allen. Their team D will be difficult for the Clippers in halfcourt and I expect they will look to run and shift momentum as often as possible. This matchup will likely be one of the most entertaining in round one.
Here’s a look at the battles at each position:
Point Guard: Chris Paul (16.9 pts/9.7 assists/2.4 steals) vs Mike Conley (14.6 pts/6.1assists/2.2 steals)
CP3 put together another phenomenal season in L.A., leading the squad and his teammates to new heights. As one of the best PGs in the League, expect the ball to be in his hands late in games, controlling tempo and strategy. Eric Bledsoe will get some good minutes at PG as well, he can serve as a dangerous bolt of energy for the Clippers from time to time. Conley had a fantastic season as well, continuing his progression as a young PG, shooting 44 percent from the field. He finished the season strong and will be spelled at times by Jerryd Bayless.
Shooting Guard: Chauncey Billups (8.4 pts/2.2 assists) vs Tony Allen (8.9 pts/4.6 rebs)
Billups appeared in only 22 games this season and has worked back into the lineup slowly, replacing Willie Green who has filled his spot most of the season. Even though he has played in two games during the month of April, he appears to be healthy and ready to go for the Playoffs—his basketball IQ and toughness will be critical for L.A. It will be interesting to see what Mr. Big Shot can do in this series against one of the best defenders in the League in Tony Allen. Allen has a swag like no other in the L, believing he can defend anyone. His D will be needed when L.A. goes to its bench for the League’s best sixth man, Jamal Crawford. Crawford—one of the Clippers’ leading scorers—is one of the most dangerous players in the L when he’s hot. There will be no break for Allen.
Small Forward: Caron Butler (10.4 pts/2.9 rebs) vs Tayshaun Prince (10.4 pts/4.4 rebs)
Butler was his steady self this season, a stable rock in the Clippers lineup all season long. He was slowed by a knee injury late but he seems to be fine and ready to go for the Playoffs. Prince has played a similar role for Memphis since joining the squad after being dealt from Detroit mid-season. Expect Lamar Odom to get minutes here—he has worked himself into good shape after starting slow early in the year and can be relied upon at this point. Quincy Pondexter will spell Prince off the bench.
Power Forward: Blake Griffin (18 pts/8.3 rebs) vs Zach Randolph (15.4 pts/11.2 rebs)
The matchup everyone is looking forward to will be on the blocks with these two unique talents. Griffin continued his progression as an all-around player this season and the team limited his minutes to save him for the postseason. He will face a major challenge on D against Randolph who can be a monster on the blocks with his array of moves. Griffin will keep pressure on Randolph by trying to outrun him in transition. These two do not like each other much, so expect it to get testy at times. Can’t wait.
Center: DeAndre Jordan (8.8 pts/7.2 rebs/1.4 blks) vs Marc Gasol (14.1 pts/7.8 rebs/ 1.7 blks)
This will be a big matchup on D for L.A. Gasol has put together another impressive season and is likely a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. Jordan had a good season in his own right, but will have his hands full trying to defend Gasol and staying out of foul trouble. Jordan will look for his standard alley-oops that usually get the crowd going. Jordan isn’t much of a factor in the halfcourt but he will try to consistently get out in transition and could be dangerous when not blocked out.
Prediction: Expect a series filled with highlight reel plays and balanced scoring from their stars. The bench will be critical for Memphis as coach Lionel Hollins has made it clear they will need to match the Clippers bench prowess. The Clippers’ depth within their second group will make that very difficult and ultimately, I think L.A. will be too much to handle.
Clippers Win 4-1.