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April 30, 2012
Playoff Prospectus
Crazy Comeback

by Kevin Pelton

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at San Antonio 106, Utah 91 (San Antonio leads 1-0)
Pace: 90.5
Offensive Ratings: San Antonio 114.6, Utah 102.8

For the most part, this was the classic example of a top seed outclassing a less-talented opponent. The Jazz hung around deep into the third quarter, but San Antonio always seemed on the verge of a knockout run. A 13-5 stretch late in the third allowed the Spurs to hold a double-digit advantage nearly the entirety of the final period, and they ultimately won by a margin that was comfortable but not exactly a blowout.

The longest-lasting implication of Game 1 will probably be Tiago Splitter's sprained left wrist, which he suffered during the first half. San Antonio scarcely missed Splitter after halftime, plugging his spot in a 10-man rotation with DeJuan Blair, who five points and two boards in 10 minutes. Splitter's length could be more important later in the playoffs, so the Spurs will have to hope he's not sidelined for too long.

To start the game, Popovich went with Boris Diaw opposite Tim Duncan, which was a bit of an upset. Diaw responded well, scoring nine points on 4-of-5 shooting, though opposing number Paul Millsap got loose for 16 points between the second and third quarters.

The other interesting bit of strategy was when Tyrone Corbin would deploy the vaunted big lineup. Millsap, Derrick Favors and Al Jefferson played together for the first time in the third quarter. The Jazz immediately went on a 6-0 run, but San Antonio ultimately outscored the big lineup by two points during its eight-plus minutes of action. The Spurs attacked the big lineup by putting three offensive players on the weak side and trying to make it as difficult as possible for Utah to help on Tim Duncan in the post. Duncan took advantage as part of a solid effort (17 points, 11 rebounds and five assists).

The Jazz had no answer for Tony Parker, who scored 28 points on 24 shooting possessions and handed out eight assists. Manu Ginobili didn't have a particularly robust outing statistically, but San Antonio was +17 with him on the floor. With their stars clicking and getting support from their deep cast of role players, the Spurs rolled.

at L.A. Lakers 103, Denver 88 (L.A. Lakers lead 1-0)
Pace: 90.5
Offensive Ratings: L.A. Lakers 115.9, Denver 95.6

Despite rolling up 27 points in the first and third quarters, the Lakers won this game with their defense, holding the Nuggets 12.1 points per 100 possessions below their usual average. That centered on Andrew Bynum's ability to control the paint. Bynum didn't deliver the kind of offensive explosion we expected against Denver's smaller big men, but his performance was no less dominant. Instead, Bynum showcased his shot-blocking skills in recording a rare playoff point-rebound-block triple-double (10 points, 13 rebounds, 10 blocks).

In particular, the Nuggets' backcourt was neutralized by Bynum's presence. Ty Lawson and Arron Afflalo both shot 3-of-11 from the field, combining for 16 points. Between Bynum and Pau Gasol, they simply encountered too much size when they drove the paint.

Gasol's line was impressive in its own versatility. He played facilitator, dishing out eight assists to go with 13 points and eight rebounds. The Lakers' starting five clicked offensively, with Kobe Bryant putting up big numbers (31 points) on solid efficiency (29 shooting possessions), Devin Ebanks knocking down the open shot attempts he got and Ramon Sessions contributing 14 points and five assists.

About the biggest criticism to be leveled of the Lakers was that they put Denver on the free throw line too often, particularly the second unit. Matt Barnes and Jordan Hill had four fouls apiece, though in Hill's case that was a small price to pay for a double-double (10 points, 10 rebounds) that cemented his spot in the rotation.

L.A. Clippers 99, Memphis 98 (L.A. Clippers lead 1-0)
Pace: 87.4
Offensive Ratings: L.A. Clippers 113.2, Memphis 112.3

What the Clippers did in the fourth quarter Sunday, going on a 26-1 run over a stretch of 8:23 to go from a seemingly insurmountable 24-point deficit to a one-point lead, defies analysis. And it probably doesn't deserve it, either. In practice, the order in which teams score points doesn't really matter. From a psychological standpoint, however, it's second only to the final outcome in importance. So the discussion of this game going forward will position the Clippers as playing much better than they did, and the Grizzlies as playing much worse than they did.

Before the run, much of what Memphis was doing seemed unsustainable, even if it hardly pointed to a historic comeback. The difference between the two teams could be traced largely to the three-point line, where the Clippers were shooting aberrantly poorly and the Grizzlies aberrantly well. A Memphis team that finished 27th in the NBA in three-pointers was 10-of-15 beyond the arc through three quarters, which even Lionel Hollins told his team was "fool's gold" (as related by Craig Sager on the TNT broadcast).

The Grizzlies also built an early lead by harnessing the energy of a frenetic sellout crowd, opening the game by outscoring the Clippers 32-12. They may have burned too much fuel early. Late in the game, it was the Clippers who had the advantage in terms of getting to loose balls. That can also be credited to Vinny Del Negro riding his reserves. Eric Bledsoe, Reggie Evans and Nick Young supplied effort at both ends that powered the comeback.

Memphis still had its chance to win after giving up a 26-1 run, which is crazy in its own right. Del Negro played the final defensive possession well, using the foul the Clippers had to give and putting size in Kenyon Martin on Rudy Gay, who missed a difficult attempt at the buzzer. I didn't have a problem with the Grizzlies holding for the last shot after the foul was given, since they were out of timeouts and had no chance to advance the ball for a possible tying three-pointer. Memphis might have been better off running its initial play earlier, allowing the Clippers to take less time off the clock before the initial foul and ensuring more time after a potential miss. Still, I'd guess the math comes out pretty close in that scenario because it also means giving the Clippers a shot to win on a Grizzlies make.

So where does the series go from here? I'm not sure how much carries over. The energy, so crucial to Game 1's swings, should be a lot closer to even. In that case it comes down to execution. Memphis must refocus its offense on the interior, and particularly Marc Gasol. It's inexcusable that Gasol, who shot 6-of-10 from the field and handed out six assists, did not attempt a shot in the final period. Right now Gasol is the better option than a sub-100 percent Zach Randolph, who slumped after a strong start to finish shooting 3-of-13.

I'm intrigued to see whether the Clippers break out the zone earlier and more often on a night where the Grizzlies aren't scorching hot from beyond the arc. Del Negro may also need to find a replacement for Caron Butler, who fractured a bone in his left hand during the game. Young is the likely substitute in the starting lineup, but the Clippers will also want to consider some minutes for Martin at the three to match up with Gay.

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Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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