NBA Playoff preview: Memphis Grizzlies vs. Los Angeles Clippers

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SEASON RECORDS


Grizzlies: 41-25 (4 seed)
Clippers: 40-26 (5 seed)

SEASON SERIES


Clippers took it 2-1, with each team winning the games on its home court. Memphis won the most recent meeting April 9, 94-85.

KEY INJURIES

Memphis: Nothing serious.

L.A. Clippers: Chris Paul is playing through a strained groin. The Clippers need him to be at his best to win this series, if he is hampered so is Los Angeles.

Chauncey Billups is out for the season and while that is not new news this is where they will miss him most.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession)


Memphis: offense 104.0 (19th); defense 101.8 (7th)
L.A. Clippers: offense 108.5 (4th); defense 105.7 (18th)

THREE KEY GRIZZLIES:

Tony Allen: He will provide some offense and three point shooting but his real value is as a defender who will be given the Chris Paul assignment at key moments. CP3 is the best point guard walking the planet, is the key to the Clippers offense (particularly in the fourth quarter) and dropped 21 on Memphis in the last meeting. You don’t stop a guy like CP3, but if you can make him work hard for it you have slowed that team.

Marc Gasol: His throwback game with some outside touch has proven difficult for DeAndre Jordan to cover — he can go to the post, draw the double and kick out, he can pick-and-pop and knock down the midrange. He is disciplined, if DeAndre Jordan is not Gasol will make him pay.

Zach Randolph: He was the reason the Grizzlies won in the first round last season over the Spurs. Since coming back from his injury it has taken a while for him to play into game shape and get his flow back, but he seems to have don that lately. If he is a force in the offensive paint and on the glass (and can get Blake Griffin in foul trouble) it will be hard for L.A. to knock off Memphis.

THREE KEY CLIPPERS:

Chris Paul: He is the heart of the Clippers, and you can bet coach Vinny Del Negro’s offensive scheme is to run him off the pick and roll about 436 times a game. He is going to have to be him at his best — scoring, setting up teammates, getting the team in the offensive flow. He has to play at an MVP level for the Clippers to advance in these playoffs.

Blake Griffin: His physical gifts are unquestioned, but his game is going to have to grow for the Clippers to develop (both in this series and long term). He has to do better than knock down 52 percent of his free throws or he will live at the line. He is going to get some dunks — and the Clippers need to get out in transition with him for some easy buckets — but in the playoffs the other team takes away your first move, you need to go to your counters. Has Griffin grown enough to do that effectively?

Randy Foye: I bring him in to represent also Caron Butler, Nick Young and the other shooters on this team. In the last meeting between these teams the Clippers got 21.6 percent of their shots off on spot up shooters — Memphis is going to work to keep Paul from scoring in the lane and lobbing to Griffin, which means the spot up guys will get looks. Knock it down and the Clippers can win this series.

OUTLOOK

This is going to be the best series of the first round in either conference — a throw back series between two physical teams. Two of the up-and-coming teams in the league who have a world of physical talent. The Clippers need a lot of Chris Paul and they need to get some of the easy buckets in transition that key them — which means they need to play defense. The Clippers have played good defense this season in spurts but not consistently, do that hear and the Grizzlies will exploit it. Memphis knows who it is — they get the ball into their big men in the paint, they have Rudy Gay attacking from the wing, with Mike Conley directing traffic. Tony Allen and Conley will be key — Memphis was average in defending the pick-and-roll ball handler this year, they need to be better than that against CP3.

Memphis is a team that wins not because of its spectacular talent but because they execute. The Clippers late in the season started to win games that way rather than just relying on their amazing collection of athletes. But Memphis is consistent at winning that way, the Clippers still seem to try and catch lightening in a bottle too much, they are too easy to knock off their game. If the Clippers play up to their potential — and do that on the road, where they have struggled this season (16-17) — they can win the series. The question is will they?

PREDICTION

Grizzlies in seven hard-fought games.

PBT Podcast: All-Star starters mock draft, picking reserves

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The votes are in, and LeBron James and Stephen Curry are your All-Star captains.

For the first time in NBA All-Star history, that means they are picking their own teams, playground style, first from the pool of starters, then the pool of reserves. Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports take on the roles of LeBron and Curry and pick their All-Star starters, from James Harden through Kyrie Irving.

Then the pair gets into who should be the All-Star Game reserves — and choosing among the Western Conference guards is brutal. Do they leave out Damian Lillard? Lou Williams? Klay Thompson? And that’s not even getting into Paul George being a bubble All-Star in a deep West.

Kurt and Dan break it all down, plus talk some Kemba Walker trade scenarios.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

Aaron Gordon forgoes desperation attempt to win, sinks halfcourt shot instead (video)

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The Magic were in dire straights near the end of their game against the Cavaliers last night. Orlando trailed 104-103 with 0.2 seconds and a jump ball to be tossed at center court. By rule, the Magic didn’t have time to catch-and-shoot, let alone recover the jump ball then shoot. Aaron Gordon had to tip the jump ball through the hoop from halfcourt – nearly impossible, but technically possible.

Instead, Gordon grabbed the jump ball – a violation – then sank a halfcourt shot. What an ironic end.

Cleveland then harmlessly inbounded the ball to seal the win.

Can Kemba Walker save the sinking Hornets? He doesn’t want to jump the ship he’s (barely) keeping afloat

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DETROIT – Around this time last year, Kemba Walker‘s reputation peaked.

The season prior, he led Charlotte to its first playoff-game wins since the franchise reemerged as the Bobcats. The Hornets were on pace to make the playoff again, which would have been their first back-to-back postseason appearances in the second Charlotte era. And Walker made his first All-Star team.

While basking in his personal and team success, Walker found one downer: The NBA moved the All-Star game from his home arena to New Orleans due to North Carolina’s anti-gay law.

“It would have been really special if this had been in Charlotte,” Walker said.

The Hornets have gone south since.

They stumbled in the second half and missed the playoffs last season. They’re even worse this season, 18-25 and 11th in the Eastern Conference. As a result, Walker’s stock has tanked. He’s treated as a fringe All-Star candidate at best.

Yet – as trade speculation emerges – Walker has come to a conclusion similar to his a year ago: His experience would be more special in Charlotte.

“I would definitely be devastated if I was to get traded,” Walker said. “I do want to be here.”

Walker is one of the most intriguing cases as the trade deadline approaches. The 27-year-old is earning $12 million this season and is due the same salary next season before his contract expires. It’s not clear the Hornets would trade him. It’s not clear they should trade him.

Charlotte is bad around Walker, not because of him. The Hornets have played better with Walker on the floor (+5.2 points per 100 possessions) than the Cavaliers have with LeBron James (+0.3), Bucks with Giannis Antetokounmpo (+3.7) and Pelicans with Anthony Davis (+5.1).

Put another way, using Pythagorean win percentage, Charlotte has played like 55-win team when Walker plays and a 12-win team when he doesn’t. That 43-win-pace drop is the fourth largest league-wide (minimum: 20 games):

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The Hornets have struggled with Michael Carter-Williams at backup point guard and even more with rookie Malik Monk (a natural shooting guard) in the role while Carter-Williams was hurt. Backup point guard was a glaring weak spot last season, too, and Charlotte signed Carter-Williams to stop the bleeding.

But he was a budget choice. The Hornets’ mid-level exception sits mostly unused as they duck the luxury tax.

Using starting shooting guard Nicolas Batum as the primary playmaker when Walker sits has worked better than most alternatives. Staggering those two more often could right Charlotte.

However, even if Batum is the solution to the micro problem, he’s central to the macro problem.

The Hornets’ payroll has become bloated with prohibitive long-term deals. Several players are owed major money after this season:

With those constraints, it will be difficult to build a winner around Walker without paying the luxury tax, which Charlotte has never paid.

Walker is the Hornets’ most valuable asset, and trading him could make their second-most valuable asset – their upcoming first-round pick – even more valuable. Charlotte also use Walker as enticement to unload a bad contract, a tactic Adrian Wojnarowski reports is being explored. Still, the Hornets are in so deep, it’d be difficult to escape salary-cap purgatory, even while shedding Walker.

Because he signed his rookie-scale extension before the national TV deals carried the salary cap into the stratosphere and before he rose into stardom, Walker has a low salary for his status. That could open the door for trades not possible with other stars, especially if the Hornets want to attach an albatross.

Only Isaiah Thomas has a lower salary among reigning All-Stars:

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Of course, teams looking to upgrade at point guard for the stretch run – Pistons? Pacers? Jazz? Nuggets? Cavaliers? Spurs? – would be interested in Walker. But because he has an another season left on his contract, other teams – Knicks? Magic? Suns? – could trade for him as a head start on next year. The best analogue: The Jazz getting out ahead by trading Deron Williams to the Nets before his contract entered its final year.

A team must also prepare to pay Walker in 2019, when he’ll be 30 years old. Though the $48 million over four years he’s earning now is nothing to sneeze at, free agency will be his first opportunity to really cash in on the new TV money. In the extremely likely event he doesn’t make an All-NBA team next season, the largest extension he could sign (starting July 1) would be four years, $64,512,000. That probably won’t cut it. So, Walker’s team – unless it has cap space to renegotiate-and-extend his deal – will likely have to ride out his unrestricted free agency.

“Of course, it would be nice to get a big contract like a lot of the guys around the league are getting,” Walker said. “But, at the same time, I just try to take it one day at a time.”

All these discussions have thrown Walker for a loss. Charlotte drafted him and built around him. He’s not quite sure how to handle this.

“I’ve never really been in trade rumors like that, like I’ve been hearing lately about myself,” Walker said. “But I mean, I don’t know. I don’t even know. I don’t know.

“This is very new, and I really just don’t know.”

Walker said management hasn’t told him anything, and he won’t ask. It’s easy to read the writing on the wall: Walker is a good player on a losing team, and those players are always ripe to get dealt. On the other hand, a team owned by Michael Jordan is probably less inclined to enter rebuilding voluntarily.

“I’m here,” Walker said, “and I’m just trying to play and trying to win and trying to do what I can for this organization and try to get back in the playoff hunt. That’s the main priority.”

The Hornets have won two in a row, and head coach Steve Clifford is back. A surge into playoff contention isn’t out of the question.

If it happens, it’ll probably be on Walker’s shouldeers.

“We put so much pressure on Kemba to do so much,” said assistant coach Stephen Silas, who served as acting head coach in Clifford’s absence.

Too much pressure?

“At times, it can be,” Silas said. “But that’s what he signed up for, and that’s how we’re built.”

For now, at least.

Joel Embiid whacks Jaylen Brown in face while celebrating basket (video)

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Joel Embiid‘s antics – the Instagram victory laps, trash-talking and taunting – can rub people the wrong way.

With Jaylen Brown last night, literally.