Chris Paul: The All-Star point guard that dare not speak its name.
At Grizzlies practice on Wednesday, Tony Allen was asked very generally what adjustments his team needed to make in Game 3. Allen catalogued the greatest hits -- rebounding, “X factor” Eric Bledsoe, pick-and-roll coverage and “we need to try to make someone else beat us.”
Allen wasn’t referring to the aforementioned Bledsoe, rather Chris Paul.
Reporters are in the clarity business, so one asked Allen to confirm that Paul was, indeed, the person of interest. Allen conceded that he was. “I didn’t want to say his name,” Allen said. “I don’t mind talking about it. He is who he is. He’s an All-Star point guard. He’s been a pain in our behind these last two games, and we want to go out there and try to do our best to do a better job of containing him.”
Since Allen has been fixated on Paul since the Clippers point guard banked in the game winner in Game 2 on Monday night, it bears considering whether Allen will draw Him as his primary defensive assignment in Game 3. Cross-matching is fraught with risk because the rest of Memphis’ backcourt is on the small side, which means Chauncey Billups could post up and Jamal Crawford could rise and shoot. But the alternative -- having Paul probe the middle of the court unfettered -- could be fatal for Memphis.
After battling foul trouble in Game 1, when he finished with only 10 points in 25 minutes, Blake Griffin quickly established himself as the focal point of the Clippers’ offense early in Game 2. Possession after possession in the first quarter, the Clippers fed Griffin down on the block, at one point on four consecutive possessions -- left, then right, then left, then right.
There’s still a vocal contingent that believes Griffin’s post game is nothing more than a jack-in-the-box -- a long windup followed by a random burst -- but Griffin beat Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol and Darrell Arthur with jump steps, spins to get baseline when the defender crowded him, spins to get middle when the defense was stretched. All the while, Griffin did his John Wooden Best, acting quickly but never hurrying.
The Grizzlies looked for Gasol down low, as well. Gasol drew mismatches, then dragged the likes of Caron Butler to the post. Arthur pinned DeAndre Jordan at the elbow to allow Gasol to move low a step ahead of his defender. And they had Gasol roll deeper with the intention of getting him the ball closer to the basket.
All of this highlights one truism -- the Clippers need Griffin and the Grizzlies really need Gasol to score down low.
Last season’s seven-game tilt between the Clippers and Grizzlies was an absolute slugfest. Perhaps in response, this season’s series has been officiated far more tightly, at least through the first two games. There’s some debate as to whom that favors, but the Grizzlies seem far more frustrated by the bevy of foul calls than the Clippers.
Asked on Wednesday how to avoid the kind of ticky-tack fouls that are hampering his team, a salty Lionel Hollins responded, “Stop committing ticky-tack fouls.”
Hollins has seen his team give up several points in the series by fouling 30 feet from the basket while the Clippers are in the bonus. The Grizzlies know better. They also know they’re the superior defensive team, albeit the one with less foot speed. As they come home for Game 3, the Grizzlies need to focus less on gladiating and more on what they do best as a defense -- sending opponents to destinations on the floor they have no desire to visit. Do that, and the rest will take care of itself.
The word is out on Bledsoe who, in 32 total minutes, has outrebounded the 7-foot Gasol, wreaked havoc on the Grizzlies’ backcourt and injected into the series an element of chaos. That's a quality that normally favors Memphis, but has worked to the Clippers’ benefit over the first two games.
Allen is right -- Bledsoe is the series’ X factor, the player whose speed exposes the Grizzlies’ lack thereof, and whose pressure upsets an opponent that needs a modicum of space to get what it wants offensively.
No instructions exist to contain Bledsoe, apart from waiting for him to self-combust, which will happen from time to time. Bledsoe averaged 16 minutes over the first two games, but Vinny Del Negro kept him on the floor during the Clippers’ fourth-quarter surge in Game 1. The Clippers’ coach has gradually invested a level of trust in Bledsoe, one that will continue to pay dividends when the game calls for some guerrilla warfare.
Speaking of Del Negro, a number of NBA insiders and observers have come to a similar conclusion: He’s coached his tail off over the first two games of the series.
Rather than shorten the Clippers’ rotation, the much-maligned Del Negro returned to what worked in November and December, when the Clippers played championship-level basketball for nearly eight weeks -- two well-defined units, with extended minutes for Paul and Griffin and slightly abbreviated stints for the starting wings.
So far as play calling, Del Negro still defers much of it to Paul, but has also installed a number of nifty sets that use Paul off the ball in order to get him some live catches and destabilize the Grizzlies’ sturdy defense. And watch for another pretty scheme where Paul dishes the ball off to the wing, makes a UCLA cut before reversing course to set a back screen for Griffin.
These are just a couple of examples. Each game, the Clippers show off a few new wrinkles in what’s been an otherwise rudimentary offense during Del Negro’s tenure as coach. The stuff is working -- and Del Negro and staff deserve praise.