By Vincent Bonsignore
With the Clippers opening the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, here are five quick things to keep an eye on:
1. CAN THE CLIPPERS HEALTH HOLD UP
The Clipper’s have battled through injuries all season, some big, some small, but a constant issue all year. They come into the postseason relatively healthy, although Chauncey Billups is still battling leg problems and Caron Butler’s knee has been a sore spot for some time. Billups, especially, is a concern early on and his minutes will be monitored as he works his way back into shape. He returned after an eight-game absence Tuesday against the Portland Trailblazers, and it will still take time to round into form. The Clippers have shown they can win without their veteran leader – remember, the beat the Grizzlies in seven games last year without Billups playing a game – but they are a much better team with him healthy and playing well, especially this time of year.
2. CAN THE GRIZZLIES SCORE ENOUGH TO KEEP UP
Yes, Memphis benefited from the mid-season trade that sent leading scorer Rudy Gay to Toronto and brought Tayshaun Prince to the Grizzlies. Defensively, they are a better team and the ball moves better offensively. Putting it in the basket has been a challenge, though, and as they showed in a loss to the Clippers at home last Saturday, their lack of firepower is a major issue. Gay, for all the concern about how much he was getting paid, was a consistent scorer and the Grizzlies might learn the hard way his production isn’t easily made up for in the playoffs.
3. CAN DeANDRE JORDAN MATCH UP WITH MARC GASOL
The Clippers big man had one of his most efficient games of the year against the Grizzlies last Saturday with 16 points, 12 rebounds and three blocked shots. If the Clippers can get that kind of production from him in the first round, they should soar into the semifinals. The problem is Jordan hasn’t reached the point where he can string together performances like that on a consistent basis, too often playing well one night but then vanishing the next. The Clippers have won a franchise-best 56 games dealing with those inconsistencies, but can they win four out of the next seven against the Grizzlies is he falls into that trend?
4. CAN THE CLIPPERS PLAY SMALL BALL?
We all know Lob City leads the league in highlight plays. Between the dunks of Blake Griffin and Jordan and the cross-over moves of Jamal Crawford and the all-oop passing of Chris Paul, they are a television sports producer’s dream. And while that’s all well and good in the regular season, winning playoff games comes down to focus, execution and an ability to make the most out of every offensive and defensive sequence. Do the Clippers have the maturity and fortitude to grind out each possession, execute their sets precisely and take care of the ball? Conversely, do they have it in them play after play after play to communicate, rotate and help each other defensively? If so, they should win this series easily.
5. IS BLAKE GRIFFIN READY FOR PRIMETIME?
We all remember Griffin limping around last year as the Clippers beat Memphis in seven games before falling to the San Antonio Spurs in a four-game sweep. It didn’t take a doctor to understand Griffin was playing at less than 80 percent capacity, and that is pushing it. This year he goes into the playoffs as healthy as can be, and presumably ready to another step on his way to stardom. Standing in his way are the physical, aggressive Grizzlies, who like to muck games up and take opponents out of their game. Griffin has made strides keeping his emotions in check this year; especially when it comes to his issues with the physical liberties opponents take on him and what he perceives as indifference from the referees. That maturity will be tested big time against the Grizzlies, who will try to get into his head. If he can rise above it he and the Clippers should be fine. If not, the edge goes to Memphis.