PBT NBA Playoff Preview: Memphis Grizzlies vs. Los Angeles Clippers

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SEASON RECORDS

Memphis: 56-26, fifth seed in the West

L.A. Clippers: 56-26, fourth seed in the West thanks to winning the Pacific Division

SEASON SERIES

Clippers took three of the four meetings.

KEY INJURIES

None.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession)

Grizzlies: offense 101.7 (18th in NBA), defense 97.4 (2nd in NBA)
Clippers: offense 107.7 (4th in NBA), defense 101.0 (9th in NBA)

Differential: Grizzlies +4.2 (8th in NBA), Clippers +6.7 (4th in NBA)

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES:

Pace: It’s no secret that this is essentially an offense versus defense matchup, and one that’s about as extreme as you can get. The Clippers prefer an uptempo, high-possession game where they can get out in transition and allow Chris Paul to create easy opportunities for his athletic bigs on the break. The Grizzlies prefer a grind-it-out, half court contest where it can use one of the league’s best defenses to force their opponent into low percentage shots.

The thing about it though, and what the problem will be for the Grizzlies in this series, is that the Clippers can play in the halfcourt just as well. L.A.’s fourth ranked offense comes from a team that ranked just 19th in the league in pace on the season, while the Grizzlies were second to last in the same category.

The fewer possessions the better as far as Memphis is concerned, but that will only help their cause. Against this Clippers team, it still won’t guarantee success.

For the Grizzlies: Memphis has to lock the Clippers up defensively to have any chance in this series. That means containing Chris Paul, defending the pick-and-roll action with Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan smartly as a team, and not letting Jamal Crawford get loose for too many points off the bench. That’s easier said than done, but Memphis is one of the few teams that has the personnel to make it happen.

Once Memphis gets its defense firing on all cylinders, it needs to find a way to finish the game with more than 80-something points on the scoreboard. Mike Conley has really improved in the last couple of months both offensively and as a distributor, and the Grizzlies can always go with heavier minutes for Jerryd Bayless off the bench in relief of Tony Allen if the offense is sputtering. As good as Allen is defensively, he’s a misadventure on the opposite end of the floor, and in this series especially the Grizzlies might have to go with a more offensive-minded lineup than they typically are used to.

Marc Gasol is in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation, but Zach Randolph is the one who does the majority of the damage offensively inside. Gasol is a capable scorer, however, and the Grizzlies may need to lean on him a little more this series in that area than they have throughout the season.

For the Clippers: There might not be as many transition opportunities as L.A. is used to in this series, but when they do present themselves, the Clippers need to take advantage. Getting guys like Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan going early with easy buckets on the break will be helpful, considering the bruising team defense that they’re likely to face against Gasol and Randolph in the half-court set.

The Clippers will also need to execute at least minimally offensively even if the shots aren’t falling for stretches, because despite last season’s miraculous 27-point comeback in Game 1 of the playoff series between these same two teams, digging a big hole against the defense of this year’s Grizzlies is a recipe for disaster.

As long as the Clippers execute offensively and get production from anyone in their stable of capable role players, L.A. should have a large advantage in the series.

OUTLOOK

I’ve said it all season long — the Grizzlies’ lack of offensive production and ability to consistently and cleanly execute on that end of the floor makes them extremely beatable by a team like the Clippers which has multiple ways to score. The “defense wins championships” mantra is overrated; it’s only true if you can can actually outscore your your opponent, and I don’t see Memphis doing that more than once or twice against this edition of the Clippers.

PREDICTION

Clippers in six, though if they end up winning the series in five it won’t at all be a surprise.

Thunder star Russell Westbrook scores 45, leads 25-point comeback against Jazz

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The Thunder lost three straight games, fell behind by 25 in the second half at home and looked as if they had no interest in returning to Utah.

Then, Russell Westbrook reminded everyone why he’s a superstar.

Westbrook is a singular force who can take over a game and rally his teammates – not a liability who makes everyone around him worse. His confidence and determination in the face of calamity were invaluable tonight. He kept attacking, and as shots started to fall, he and his teammates massively increased their defensive intensity.

The result: A 107-99 Game 5 win over the Jazz that looked highly improbable 21 game minutes before it ended. But Westbrook (who finished with 45 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists) singlehandedly outscored Utah in that final stretch.

The Thunder are hardly out of the woods yet. They still trail 3-2 in the series with Game 6 Friday in Utah. Teams with home-court advantage in a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6 win it just 37% of the time. Those teams win the series just 26% of the time.

But thanks to Westbrook, Paul George (34 points) and plain all-around defensive effort, Oklahoma City still has a shot. At minimum, the Thunder won’t send George into unrestricted free agency with four straight losses.

Not that Oklahoma City erased all concerns.

Rudy Gobert devoured the Thunder’s offense in the paint – at least while he could avoid the foul trouble. Utah was +7 in Gobert’s 30 minutes and -8 in the 18 minutes he sat.

The Thunder made most of their comeback with Carmelo Anthony on the bench. They continued to play well once he returned in the fourth quarter, but by then, the Jazz had lost all rhythm.

Utah – led by Jae Crowder‘s 27 points – looks deeper. Anthony was still Oklahoma City’s third-leading scorer with just seven points.

And the Thunder haven’t won in Salt Lake City this series.

But they’ll make another trip there. Considering where this game and series looked midway through the third quarter tonight, that’s a heck of an accomplishment.

Another massive third quarter lifts Rockets past Timberwolves into second round

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We saw this movie just a couple of nights before, but Rockets fans love the ending and would gladly pay to see it 12 more times this postseason.

Much like Game 4, the Rockets were down at the half in Game 5 Wednesday after having played disinterested defense and with cold shooting from their stars (James Harden and Chris Paul combined to go 3-of-16 from the floor). Minnesota was up 59-55 and had hope.

Then the third quarter the Rockets flipped the switch. Again.

Harden had 15 points in the third — matching the Timberwolves as a team. Minnesota started to double Harden and take the ball out of his hands (especially late in the shot clock), but he often moved the rock and it led to open threes — the Rockets were 6-of-10 from three in the quarter. Houston won the third 30-15, not as overwhelming as the 50-point quarter the game before but once again enough to comfortably pull away from Minnesota and cruise in for a 122-104 win.

With that, the Rockets win the series 4-1 and now await the winner of the Utah vs. Oklahoma City series.

In that series, the Rockets will need to play with more consistent focus than they brought against the Timberwolves — they can’t just play a couple of good halves in the next series and expect that to be enough. Unlike Minnesota, those teams in the next round will make Houston pay a steep price for a lack of focus.

Houston got a massive night from Clint Capela, who led the Rockets with 26 points and 15 rebounds, running the rim hard in transition and making plays inside while the rest of the Rockets launched threes over the top.

Harden finished with 24 points and 12 assists, and Eric Gordon had 19 off the bench in the win.

Minnesota had 23 points from Karl-Anthony Towns and 17 from an energized Jeff Teague.

For the Timberwolves, a team with elite young talent, this was a glimpse of what it will take to reach the heights they envision. This was a good step — the franchise’s first trip to the playoffs since 2004 is not to be diminished. It matters. But there are higher levels this team can attain. Defensively they have to be better, offensively they need to feed Towns more and play to their strengths better. It’s a work in progress.

Houston just showed them where they want to be.

Hawks, coach Mike Budenholzer agree to part ways

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This was expected.

It was pretty obvious Mike Budenholzer didn’t want to stick around and lose a lot of games with the Atlanta Hawks as they rebuild the next few years, especially after he had been stripped of his GM powers. Budenholzer went well down the road with the Phoenix Suns about their open coaching position before thinking better of it. Since then he has set up a meeting with the Knicks about their coaching vacancy, a job he reportedly wants badly.

At this point there was no need for the Hawks and Budenholzer to continue their sham marriage, so they have agreed to amicably separate, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and since confirmed by the Hawks.

Budenholzer said this to Wojnarowski of ESPN:

“I am grateful for the five years that I spent as coach of the Atlanta Hawks, and will always cherish the incredible contributions, commitment and accomplishments of the players that I was fortunate enough to work with here,” Budenholzer told ESPN on Wednesday night. “From ownership to management, support staff to the community, I’ll look back with great pride on what we were able to achieve together with the Hawks.”

For Budenholzer, the long-time Spurs assistant and a strong Xs and Os coach, look for him to both push for the Knicks job and be in the running if/when the Milwaukee Bucks job opens up whenever their season ends. In both cases he’s a fit — those are teams that need a culture and system reset, and Budenholzer proved he can bring that to Atlanta (that was a good team before they let Al Horford and Paul Millsap walk for nothing).

With Atlanta, they likely will turn to a top assistant coach who will get a chance to develop young players on that team (and not cost Atlanta as much as an established coach). Stephen Silas of the Hornets is a rumored name, but there are others.

LeBron James overrules controversial finish with game-winning 3-pointer (video)

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LeBron James‘ turnover with the game tied late looked like a bad call. LeBron’s block of Victor Oladipo on the ensuing possession looked like a goaltend.

Did the Cavaliers get robbed of a crucial possession? Did the Pacers get robbed of two go-ahead points?

LeBron nullified those questions with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give Cleveland a 98-95 win and a 3-2 series lead. The game-winner capped a great game by LeBron (44 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists) and moves the Cavs to the verge of advancing.

When a team with home-court advantage can close out a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6, it has 52% of the time. It has won the series 92% of the time.

The odds are even better with LeBron. LeBron has won 11 straight closeout games, nine of them on the road. He’ll have another opportunity Friday with Game 6 in Indiana.