Am I excited for this Clippers-Grizzlies series? You betcha. The regular season’s been ugly, and it was best to tune out for a while, but now we have Chris Paul, Blake Griffin, and the 30-foot bricks of Mo Williams on one side, set against Zach Randolph’s shambling post game combined with Gasol the Younger’s finesse and whatever praises or curses you want to lay on Rudy Gay. There’s intrigue in Chris Paul taking on the long arms of Mike Conley and Tony Allen, suspense in the question of whether Z-Bo can run the floor. He did this time, but will he get back again?
These are not your father’s Clips nor Grizz, not even the same teams from a couple years ago. Memphis beating the one-seed Spurs last year in six games was the franchise’s first playoff series win ever, after they were swept in three straight first-round series from 2004 through 2006. The Clippers won their second playoff series ever in 2006, and are returning to the postseason for the first time since this year. Both teams are talented, with young stars, with plans in place for the future.
And yet, for all of this anticipation of Good Basketball, I feel anxiety for these two teams, much in the way a poor mother worries about her late-blooming bucktoothed daughter dating a broker at Goldman Sachs, or foreign policy wonks concern themselves with the one crazy uncle of Banana Republic Z’s most recently installed dictator-for-life: The fall back to Cold Hard Reality is only a missed step, a misfired shot away.
Maybe it’s just my basic jersey biases coming through, but it’s strange to see these two teams in the playoffs and expecting success. Becoming a winning team is a precarious process, one that must be renewed every 48 minutes, and these two teams still have two of the worst owners in the league in Michael Heisley (Grizz) and the abject Donald Sterling (Clippers). Bad ownership always trickles down, eventually. For L.A., their hopes for now and at least next season rest on the finest Carolina pulled pork shoulder currently holding together Chris Paul’s knees, and his supporting cast, besides Griffin, can’t be called stellar. In Memphis, the Grizz are creeping up the attendance standings (20th this year), and there’s plenty of precedent for the NBA doing very well in single sport cities, but it takes years of winning and likable guys to keep the building rocking. Becoming a Portland or Utah doesn’t necessarily require repeat Finals wins, but it does take the hope that it could happen this year, or the next. This core has come together nicely, but if say Gay and/or Gasol don’t take the Big Step into elite status, does a front office that sent away Kevin Love (for the admittedly alright O.J. Mayo) and drafted Hasheem Thabeet (which will, in a decade, look worse than Darko if only for the sheer volume of talent that went after No. 2 overall in 2009) have the knowhow to retool on the fly like the best organizations?
Worry, anxiety, distress about the future, though–these are not thoughts for playoff time. Not when there’s as much talent as there is in the NBA right now. The Clippers and Grizzlies are playing what should be a competitive, important playoff series: what more evidence do you need for the State of the Game than that?
A Possibly Important Variable That’s Not So Obvious To You, Common Observer
If this incarnation of the Clippers is to compete for a championship, DeAndre Jordan has got to play more than 27 minutes a night, and he’s got to be a true $10 million big man. Blake Griffin is a pretty terrible on-ball defender, and Jordan isn’t so hot, either, but the latter has to play defense out there–his 7.2 ppg isn’t exactly off self-created offense. Jordan has rebounded well this year on both ends of the court, and blocks shots well from the weakside; none of that matters in the playoffs if you can’t keep the opposing big man from scoring on the block. Memphis will be throwing it down low to Gasol and Randolph a lot.
Grizz in 6. Chris Paul’s pretty great at his job, and there’s been times when it has all come easy for the Clips this year, but not enough so that I think they can get by this Memphis team. San Antonio will be thrilled to see them, I’m sure.