HANG TIME PLAYOFF HEADQUARTERS — The uneasy feelings started around here in Game 1, when the Hang Time Grizzlies squandered that 24-point fourth-quarter lead and allowed the Los Angeles Clippers to snatch a tone-setting victory away from the home team.
Everything that’s happened since, even the one win our Grizzlies managed in this series, didn’t produce the sort of cosmic confidence expected or even seen during last season’s magical playoff run that included an upset win over the top-seeded Spurs in the first round. The same finishing kick that paved the way for that run a year ago has evaporated.
The Grizzlies have been brutal in the fourth quarters of three of the four games played in this series against the Clippers and should not be surprised to find themselves on the ugly end of a 3-1 ledger that sets up Wednesday night’s Grind-Or-Go-Fishing Game 5 in Memphis.
“It’s a shoulda, woulda, coulda deal when you look at the film,” Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley said before Monday night’s overtime loss in Game 4. “Sometimes you just don’t know how we lost. We’ve got to find a way to correct our mistakes because we’re right there. We can still win this series.”
Forget the film young fella.
We’ll just give you the raw numbers. The aggregate score so far in this series is Grizzlies 289, Clippers 284. But the fourth-quarter scoring, on the other hand, is Clippers 87, Grizzlies 58.
The glaring defense down the stretch of these games has been Chris Paul. The Clippers have the player who rises to the occasion repeatedly at winning time while the Grizzlies can’t seem to get themselves together at crunch time.
The Grizzlies have plenty of candidates who are confident they can play the same role, everyone from Conley and sixth man O.J. Mayo to All-Star center Marc Gasol and starting forwards Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph.
But a healthy belief in self doesn’t always translate into tangible results when a game is on the line. And the fact that the Grizzlies have so many guys vying for the role as closer is one of the reasons they’ve struggled to identify the one guy to wear that cape.
The Clippers have no such quandary. They know their roles. That’s why Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins didn’t mind sharing the game plan for Game 5, telling Ronald Tillery of the Commercial Appeal:
“We’re going to try to shut down Chris Paul a little bit. Simple,” Hollins said. “He’s the problem, and we’ve got to solve the problem.”
He’s not the only problem.
The Grizzlies are on the edge right now because that’s where they live late in these games. And that’s not only because they can’t stop Paul, but also because they don’t have someone to reciprocate Paul’s late-game pressure.
As good as Conley has been (he finished with a playoff career-high 25 points in Game 4), he’s not in the same class as Paul. And to expect him to outperform the man many consider the league’s preeminent point guard, is bordering on unreasonable.
… the Griz have faltered down the stretch, partly due to poor decision-making that leads to bad shots, turnovers and defensive lapses.
“It’s mental,” Griz forward Rudy Gay said. “In close games you can’t be tired. You have to play basketball, and play the basketball you know how to play.”
Paul is also giving the Clippers something at the end of games that the Griz are lacking, and that’s leadership. Paul gives the Clippers a clear plan while the Griz look confused about what to do and who should get the ball.
Blame Conley’s curious decisions, Gay’s inability to make plays for others as well as himself, Randolph’s penchant to settle for fade-away jump shots and Marc Gasol’s lack of assertiveness.
“We’re not reacting and playing with our instincts at the end of games,” Conley said. “Last year, we knew what we were going to get down the stretch from somebody and that was Zach. This season, it’s who are you going to give the ball to? Who are you going to rely on? Rudy stepped up and did a good job, especially in (Game 3). We definitely miss that presence Zach gave us last year.”
Randolph is currently being outplayed in this series by Blake Griffin, something that few people saw coming after Griffin struggled to assert his physical dominance in the first few quarters of action.
And in a fantastic series where we’ve had four games decided by 15 points, it’s the team that can finish and the one with the superstar capable of finishing games, that prevails.
Bottom line, the Clippers have Paul.
The Hang Time Grizzlies, of course, do not.