The Los Angeles Clippers held off the Memphis Grizzlies and a late offensive onslaught from Rudy Gay yesterday to earn their first home playoff victory in six years. Despite missing some key free throws down the stretch, the Clippers beat the Grizzlies 87-86 in Staples Center and grabbed a 2-1 series lead. But for Memphis, a couple of bonehead plays were the biggest difference between winning and losing a game that came down to a missed shot at the buzzer.
Then again, if the Clippers had taken care of business at the free throw line, it wouldn’t have even been a close game. Los Angeles shot a paltry 43 percent from the line and missed 17 of 30 free throws, including Eric Bledsoe’s two attempts that would have given the Clips a three point lead with less than ten seconds to go. Rudy Gay had just hit two threes in a row to pull the Grizzlies within one, so missing those free throws with the game on the line was almost an extremely costly mistake and would have been one of the worst last-minute collapses I’ve ever seen if Gay’s double pump jump shot at the buzzer had gone in. That being said, even though the Clippers’ free throw shooting hurt them, the Grizzlies’ inability to finish a game out and a few poor decisions gave Los Angeles momentum and ultimately, the win.
The first mistake that made the difference in this game (from a simple scoreboard perspective, at least) was Marreese Speights’ horrible decision to throw a soft past to half court with 2.3 seconds left in the first half. Blake Griffin easily intercepted it and slammed it home right over Speights, who offered no resistance and actually tried to get out of the way. The pass was bad enough, but Speights compounded his poor decision by not fouling Griffin and making him earn the two points that ultimately mattered in a one-point game. The second poor decision on Memphis’ part was made by Mike Conley at the very end of the game. I’ve been stressing all year how important it is to attack the basket with the game on the line, which makes Conley’s decision to pull the ball back and pass it over to Gay for a contested jumper at the buzzer questionable. In his defense, Conley isn’t a prolific scorer and Rudy Gay had just hit two incredible, contested 3-pointers to keep his team in the game. So I understand his thought process and at least he didn’t do a few crossovers before pulling up for some ridiculous fadeaway 3-pointer like we see from so many superstars today. But after Bledsoe missed that second free throw, there were about eight seconds left and the Clippers’ defense was in transition. Had Conley attacked the basket and tried to get to the rim or at least the free throw line, Memphis could have pulled off the incredible last-minute comeback. But instead, Gay had to double pump his contested jump shot with the game on the line (after already missing a game-winning attempt in Game 1) and it rimmed out.
Moving forward, both teams need to alter a few things to increase their chances of winning. On the Clippers’ side of things, they have to shoot better from the line. While it was a good sign to see Caron Butler playing despite the broken hand (he played in a splint) and the bench finally contributing, they’ll have an even bigger advantage if they make their free throws and take better care of the basketball. LAC also needs the bench to continue to produce on the offensive end to take the burden off Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Aside from Mo Williams and Nick Young putting up some points, Randy Foye dropping 16 after scoring just nine in his last two games was a very welcome sight. And despite going just 2-for-8 from the free throw line, Reggie Evans has taken over DeAndre Jordan’s minutes by outperforming him on the offensive end and grabbing rebounds, evidenced by his four points and 11 rebounds compared to Jordan’s zero points and three rebounds in Game 3. For the Grizzlies, O.J. Mayo, Marreese Speights, Tony Allen and Mike Conley all disappeared offensively, even if Quincy Pondexter had a surprisingly elevated offensive night. Zach Randolph seems to be distancing himself from Speights now that he’s moved back into the starting lineup but the Grizzlies will still need him to be productive coming off the bench. Memphis also needs to learn how to bring the same effort and energy for a full four quarters, as they’ve surrendered two fourth quarter leads and should be up 2-1 (at least) in this series. This playoff matchup is still very much up in the air, but if the Clippers improve where they need to, they’ll ultimately benefit from having home-court advantage in two of the next four potential games and have a greater chance of winning the series.