It was supposed to be different this time.
The Clippers had brought in a defensive-minded, championship coach. Their superstars had gotten better. Their team was deeper, more agile. They had moved ahead while Memphis had slipped back. It was supposed to be different.
And still, a full-strength Memphis squad took them to the parking lot and beat them up, stole their lunch money, drank their milkshake, and left a mark. This is still the same Clippers' interior defense that couldn't stop Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. The two beasts down low combined for 38 points and 21 rebounds on Friday in a win over the Clippers, the Grizzlies' fourth in a row and their ninth in 10 games.
Memphis is one game out of the 8th seed, and two games out of the sixth seed. It's not at all improbable that the Clippers could see this team in the playoffs, and that could be bad news for a team with huge expectations this year.
The Clippers walked into Memphis in December and destroyed a depleted, discombobulated Grizzlies team. Struggling with effort after a long playoff run and decimated by injuries, it looked like the Clippers had left the Grizzlies behind. But like some mutant, blue-collar pack of zombies, the Grizzlies have gotten back up to shamble back towards Chris Paul's title chances. Or maybe they're more like a cyborg, using spare parts to repair themselves.
The addition of James Johnson gave the team a huge spark off the bench, something Mike Conley said in January "changed everything" for the Grizzlies. Tony Allen returned Friday night, and the combination of Johnson and Allen was spastic, uncontrollable, undisciplined and frightening. It's organized chaos on the floor with those two, only now, Memphis has Mike Miller and Courtney Lee to spread the floor. The Grizzlies hit just five threes vs. the Clippers Friday, but Miller's triple late in the fourth was a killer.
There's something beyond the X's and O's though. LeBron James can dismiss rivalries all he wants and Brooklyn and New York can both play it too cool for school. But the Clippers brought the Grizzlies back down to Earth in a stunning first round upset two years ago, and Memphis returned the favor in a beatdown last year that resulted in the firing of Vinny Del Negro roster changes, and the hiring of Doc Rivers.
These two teams hate one another. Memphis has genuine disdain for the showboating act the Clippers put on for years, as well as their notorious so-called flopping. The Clippers don't like the in-their-mind excessive physicality of Memphis and the constant jawing. The Clippers went to the line 43 times vs. Memphis ... and lost. The more foul calls went against Memphis, the more the Grindhouse raised its volume. The game took on an "us vs. the world" vibe.
And the Grizzlies are never more dangerous than when they're at home with their backs against the wall.
It's almost as if the better the Clippers get, the better Memphis matches up with them. More and more, the Grizzlies look like the Clippers' monster under their bed. It's reaching "they have to avoid them at all costs" levels. This isn't about attitude or regular season wins. It's about matchups, and the fact that Memphis, no matter who's coaching or what roster moves are made, play better and harder against the Clippers than they do against any other opponent. It's hard, and they like that about it.
Forget about getting your defense to match up with San Antonio's execution levels, or trying to keep up with the Thunder's athleticism, or even containing the Warriors and Rockets' three-point attacks. If the Clippers want to become a title contender, they have to find a way to be the kind of team that can beat Memphis. To get to that level, you have to fight like your life depends on it.
Memphis grinds that way.
The Clippers are still trying to fly.