Memphis needed a win in Game 3 to keep alive its hopes, and it got it. In front of a pulsating FedEx Forum crowd, the Grizzlies got up double digits early and wouldn't relinquish their lead, pushing a 2-0 series to 2-1 behind 27 points from Zach Randolph.
But their battle is far from over. If Memphis wins Game 4, the series is even and turns into a best-of-3. If it loses, it will head to Los Angeles with the Clippers needing only one win to advance to the second round.
It's a pivotal game -- Steve Perrin of Clips Nation called it a "turning point" in his preview, the Grizzlies just want to keep the ball rolling -- who gets the win? Here are three key questions about Saturday afternoon's Game 4, which is at 4:30 p.m. ET on TNT.
1. Can Chris Paul bounce back?
You don't see Chris Paul have nights like he had Thursday night often. No, seriously, you don't see it often. His five-turnover, four-assist outing was just the third time this season Paul had more giveaways than helpers, and he only had eight points a game removed from scoring the Clippers' final eight points and the game-winner. As one would expect when a player as pivotal as Paul struggles, the Clippers were down double digits most of the way and lost.
There's two possible schools of thought on Paul's bad night. One is that Paul was struggling due to the Grizzlies' vicious defense. The second-ranked squad in defensive efficiency trapped aggressively on screens, making sure a body was always on the Point God, stifling pick-and-rolls and generally making his life a grimy hell. He didn't seem to handle the pressure well, and some of his turnovers were a direct result of the physical defense.
The other is that Paul just had an off night. That's the line of thinking both Lionel Hollins and Vinny Del Negro seemed to have after Game 3, saying that the Grizzlies didn't change much defensively from the looks they showed in Games 1 and 2 -- when Paul had 23 and 24 points -- and that the Clippers' star just didn't get the rolls and the bounces he needed to be effective.
Which one is right? We'll see Saturday afternoon.
2. Who wins Zach vs. Blake?
Zach Randolph vs. Blake Griffin is in part a war, in part some sort of theological battle between two differing ideologies. Randolph is a gruff wall of muscle and a little bit of fat, seemingly incapable of jumping but somehow very, very capable of scoring, rebounding, and irritating opposing post players. And Griffin is the prototype of the high-flyer, barely noticing the gravity that weighs Randolph down, dunking recklessly and displaying a post game that gets more refined year-by-year.
They've spent basically the entirety of the first two games brutalizing each other, arms and torsos flying everywhere on the block as Chris Paul and Mike Conley watch and wonder whether it's safe to make an entry pass. Each game has seen the two players called for double fouls against each other, a rare officiating decision that's somehow perfectly suited for a Griffin-Randolph battle where it's not clear who's the fouler and who's the fouled.
The team whose power forward gets the best has the better chance of winning. In Game 2, it was Griffin, who had 21 points and eight boards. In Game 3, it was Randolph, who had 13 points in the first quarter alone -- matching his whole-game total in the first two games -- and finished with 27 points and 11 boards, while Griffin only reeled in two boards. (Required reading material: Tom Ziller on Randolph.) Who comes out on top Saturday?
3. Can the Grizzlies bench provide anything?
The Clippers have the edge in the bench matchup. They have Jamal Crawford, a sixth man of the year candidate, a solid defender in Matt Barnes, a blur of a point guard in Eric Bledsoe, and a Lamar Odom, whatever that is. Meanwhile, the Clippers have Keyon Dooling, and a prayer. Darrell Arthur is a nice up-tempo big man to provide breathing spells for Randolph and Marc Gasol, but the rest of the guys are iffy. Lionel Hollins made most of his starters play 40-ish minutes in Game 2 as he treated the bench like it had a "BREAK GLASS IN CASE OF EMERGENCY" sign on it.
In Game 3, some foul trouble and regularly scheduled breathers led to five Memphis bench players on the court at the same time, squaring off against the Clips' vaunted Tribe Called Bench. Somehow, it worked: Dooling and Jerryd Bayless drilled threes, and when the starters were ready to come back, the Grizzlies' bench had outscored the Clippers. Quincy Pondexter would finish with 13 points, including a key sequence where he grabbed his own miss on a free throw, scored, and was fouled, an extremely unconventional four-point play.
If the Grizzlies' bench can do anything -- or at least stay in the same ballpark as the Clippers' bench -- Memphis' chances of victory go up by a bunch.