1. Throwback Threads, Forward-Leaning Clippers
LOS ANGELES -- Those who remember the American Basketball Association will regale you with stories of the league's run-and-gun style, brash showmanship and garish uniforms. Though it was billed as a celebration of the ABA, the Los Angeles Clippers' 98-91 win over the Memphis Grizzlies featured little of the first two, but a blinding overdose of the latter thanks to Memphis' school-bus yellow jerseys, which were paired with kelly green shorts.
The Grizzlies' sartorial homage to the Memphis Tams received mixed reviews -- Blake Griffin said he didn't think they were that bad but added, "I didn't know why the tops didn't match the bottoms." Griffin, his coach and his teammates were less fond of their own stylistic performance, even in victory.
Teams will often feign unhappiness after an ugly win because they want to convey an air of perfectionism, but with Chris Paul as their unquestionable leader, the Clippers' expression of dissatisfaction comes across as sincere -- all you need is 90 seconds in front of Paul's locker to believe.
"We've got to find a way to put 48 minutes together," Paul said. "Our biggest thing right now is not only do we have to play hard, but we have to play smart. That's the thing that's going to be a challenge for us."
Paul was especially peeved by the team's inability to turn a prolific first quarter into a laugher. When he took a seat at the 1:31 mark of the first quarter, the Clippers held a 29-13 lead. By the time he checked back in midway through the second quarter, the Grizzlies had shaved that 16-point lead down to three.
"That's frustrating," Paul said. "That's when you have to put teams away. In this league, when you put the pedal to the metal, sometimes they'll lay down."
In characteristic fashion, the scrappy Grizzlies refused to lay down. They controlled the glass, threw quick defensive schemes at the Clippers and were quick to the ball.
"Give Memphis credit: They work," Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. "They made us earn everything."
The win revealed the full breadth of the Clippers' strengths and weaknesses. Let's start with their most profound strength -- the Paul-Griffin combination. One night after shooting 6-for-10 from beyond 10 feet, Griffin returned to the paint, where he's most effective. Against an aggressive Memphis defense that sought to send Griffin baseline, often with multiple defenders, it wasn't easy.
"They bring a good double-team," Griffin said. "I forced it a couple times, which I probably shouldn't have. They're all over the place. It's like chaos, but it's controlled. It's rhythmic chaos."
Against Tony Allen, Dante Cunningham, then Rudy Gay, Griffin's footwork on the block was stellar Thursday night. He finished with an efficient 20 points on 8-for-14 shooting from the field. He also leveraged those Memphis double-teams to find the open guy, racking up eight assists to go along with nine rebounds.
In only his second game back from a strained left hamstring, Paul was quietly effective. He shot poorly and even missed a couple of point-blank layups, but he controlled the game in smart ways en route to 18 points, seven assists and seven rebounds.
One example: When the Grizzlies went into the penalty with 6:05 left to go in the third quarter, the Clippers were having a tough time finding shots in the half court and Paul couldn't find the bottom of the net. So he quickly went to work, seeking contact as if he were on a bumper car track. Over the course of six possessions, he helped the Clippers cling to the lead by notching six free throws.
"That's what you're supposed to do," Paul said. "You try to get to the free throw line, get some easy baskets, especially when you're struggling to score like we were."
During an otherwise clunky win, Paul still managed to offer a thrill or two. With under five minutes remaining, Paul penetrated against Memphis' stingy half-court defense and flicked a lob to DeAndre Jordan above the rim to give the Clippers a 9-point lead, one the Grizzlies would never overcome.
When Paul and Griffin sit, the Clippers' vulnerabilities are exposed and they become very easy to defend. For the second consecutive night, the Clippers couldn't buy a bucket when Griffin left the court. Whatever backup big men Reggie Evans and Solomon Jones might offer the Clippers on the glass or as large floating objects on defense, pairing the two in a second unit neuters a Clippers offense already on precarious ground when Paul is also on the bench.
After watching the Clippers' anemic second unit stagnate for the second straight night, Del Negro opted to go small when Griffin left the court in the third quarter, putting a three-guard lineup on the floor with Ryan Gomes at the power forward spot.
"I just felt we could space the floor a little bit and give our guards a little more area to work," Del Negro said. "They were putting so much pressure on us. If we could spread the court out a little bit and give our guards some areas to attack, I thought that would be a positive thing for us."
Enter Mo Williams who once again played a critical role for the Clippers in big spots. He finished with 18 points off the bench. Williams generated two key open looks for himself from 20 feet on consecutive possessions in the fourth quarter by working the pick-and-roll game masterfully with Griffin.
Against a Memphis team that has its own issues spreading the floor, the Clippers' defense proved fairly effective Thursday. Still charged by his matchup against Pau Gasol on Wednesday and tasked with far lesser assignments like Allen and Cunningham, Griffin played smart help defense to complement Jordan, who did stellar work against Marc Gasol.
Despite the W, the Clippers haven't found their offensive rhythm, even as they incorporate Paul back into the offense. There's something oddly rudimentary about the Clippers' offense, even with all the sharp tools at their disposal. Secondary actions rarely have much bite, and the ball will meander around the perimeter with seemingly no intended target.
But the top of this Clippers roster has the capacity to create shots out of thin air, and the game's decisive possession was aptly characteristic of the starters' collective competence. Up two with a little more than a minute to play, the Clippers handed it to Griffin at the top of the circle. When he encountered a double-team on the drive, Griffin kicked back up top to Paul. With only seven seconds left on the shot clock, Paul moved the ball left along the perimeter to Williams, who quickly shuttled it to Caron Butler in the left corner. Against a hard-closing O.J. Mayo, Butler drove baseline, sealed off the help, and banked the ball off the glass for a layup.
Nothing artful -- not even crisp -- but brutally effective. Such is the luxury of talent.
2. Beneath Indefensible Unis, A Defensive Heart
LOS ANGELES -- If you like defense at all, the Memphis Grizzlies are fun to watch -- even when they're wearing those hideous Memphis Tams throwbacks that were compared to everything from a rec league to the Australian national team.
The Grizzlies are elite in two related categories and two categories only: getting steals and causing turnovers. They're the best at steals and trail Miami by 0.2 in turnovers caused per game. It's a novel approach to winning, but it's brought the Grizzlies 10 victories so far this season and gave them a fighting chance for their 11th Monday night in Los Angeles.
They're all about long arms, quick reactions to the ball and savvy defensive rotations. They know they can't score inside easily while Zach Randolph is out with a torn knee ligament. They're not the greatest shooting squad. But if they can get steals and get transition baskets, they can stay in games.
"We need to hang our hats on the defensive end for 48 minutes," Tony Allen said.
Allen is the ringleader, the defensive specialist on the squad, part of the reason the Clippers' starting backcourt shot 7-for-21 on the night. But it's as if his defensive ways have spread to the rest of the squad.
They had nine steals Thursday night, and that was actually one below their average. But they forced seven turnovers in the second quarter, when they erased a 16-point Clipper lead and made the Clippers sweat into the final minute of their 98-91 victory.
"We practice defense, we talk about deflections, taking charges, taking away the red zone and making people shoot outside," Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said. "One of the reasons why, if you look at the stats, our 3-point defense is bad [opponents shoot 34 percent]. But you've got to give up something. I haven't seen anybody shoot 50 percent from the 3-point line yet. But they do shoot 70 percent when you start letting them shoot layups. We try to play that way. That's a part of our philosophy.
"You look at the talent you have and what they're good at, and you cater to that and try to build a team. Our defense is built around the way our team is made up. We have a lot of tough guys, a lot of aggressive guys."
They're quick to the ball. They're like the San Francisco 49ers of the NBA. That's much better than the Memphis Tams of the ABA, for anyone who saw those yellow tops and green shorts.
3. Daily Dime Live Rewind
Relive and note all the chatter, memes and Photoshops of Thursday's Daily Dime Live.
4. Extreme Behavior
The irrepressible Kevin Garnett: His postgame interview with TNT's Craig Sager sets the bar for the genre. With Jermaine O'Neal out, KG was called on to cover Dwight Howard. He succeeded, getting him in foul trouble while posting a double-double. You could say KG partied like it was 1999, which just so happened to be the first of nine straight seasons that he averaged a double-double.
Tragic finish: With a 27-point lead whittled down to 11 entering the fourth quarter, you still had to like the chances of D12 & Co. against Boston. But they took epic fail to a new level, shooting 2-of-17 in the final 12 minutes.
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
"We thought it was going to be easy after the first two quarters. We can't allow that to happen. We've got to change. We have to change what we do, and guys have to know their roles and do it. That's just the bottom line."
-- Magic center Dwight Howard, after his team's collapse at the hands of Boston.
TWEET OF THE NIGHT
I hate when I'm running and I get a text then I run into a tree. #templerunproblems— Cole Aldrich (@colea45) January 26, 2012
5. Not Your Baby
6. NBA Video Channel
7. Slack To The Future?
DALLAS -- Has Dirk Nowitzki's decline begun?
That's a question that gets asked when the 33-year-old face of the Dallas Mavericks franchise struggles mightily by his Hall of Fame standards for the first quarter of the season and doesn't play for a week so he can go through a personal training camp to get his sore right knee and the rest of his body ready for the NBA grind.
"Yeah, he's just done," owner Mark Cuban said, his voice dripping sarcasm and a dose of disgust as he dismisses the idea that the Mavs' magical run to the 2011 championship marked the end of Nowitzki's prime. "We're afraid to admit it to ourselves, but he's just done."
Nobody with a basketball IQ higher than Nowitzki's scoring average -- down to 17.5 points so far this season, the lowest since his second season -- would suggest that Dirk is done. It's silly to discredit a decade-long All-Star, who earned the Finals MVP award only seven months ago, due to a subpar 16-game stretch under uniquely difficult circumstances.
But the question is whether Nowitzki can continue being an All-NBA force, a go-to guy on a legitimate contender, much more than just a good player.
That isn't necessarily a slam dunk for the 7-footer. Just look at the two men who have been Nowitzki's peers as the game's best power forwards of this generation.
San Antonio's Tim Duncan and Boston's Kevin Garnett are still very good, but they aren't the dominant players that they were for so long. They haven't been since around the time they passed the 40,000-minute mark in their NBA careers, including playoffs, a barrier Nowitzki broke en route to finally earning his first championship ring last season.
"I still feel like I can play at this level for a couple of more years," Nowitzki said. And that's the consensus opinion for a franchise that owes him the majority of a four-year, $80 million contract he signed a couple of summers ago.
8. Comeback Trail
The Celtics overcame a 27-point deficit in their victory over the Magic. It was the largest comeback by an NBA team since Dec. 21, 2009, when Sacramento beat Chicago 102-98 despite trailing in the game by 35 points. Since then, NBA teams were 282-0 in games in which they led by at least 27 points.