A week ago I wrote about how getting booted from the NBA playoffs by the L.A. Clippers could lead to the end of the Zach Randolph era in Memphis. Whoops.
The Grizzlies and Z-Bo in particular have stormed back. After averaging 13 and six in Games 1 and 2, Randolph has averaged 25 and 10 over the past three. Memphis lost those first two games. It has won the past three. On Thursday, it can clinch the series at home.
So perhaps we'll put the brakes on discussing Z-Bo's future. Because all of a sudden the questions are trained on Los Angeles.
For the third straight game, L.A.'s top-10 defense was pummeled by a Memphis offense that often has trouble scoring. Z-Bo's been at the center of that. At the same time, L.A.'s typically lovely offense has struggled since Game 1 to get off the ground against the league's best defense. In Game 1 the Clippers had an offensive rating of 134, which is phenomenal against any opponent, let alone one as defensively stout as Memphis. Since then? 103, 96, 96, 107. You can win games at 103 and 107 ... but not at 96 and not when you're letting the Grizz score as easily as they did Tuesday.
It's impossible to watch a team with this much offensive talent struggle to score without thinking about Vinny Del Negro, as easy and cheap as it might feel. Likewise, it's impossible to watch the Clippers slow Z-Bo for two games, take command of the series and then watch him go nuts for three games without wondering when the adjustments are coming. The broadcast team talked about Del Negro planning to front Randolph more to keep him off the offensive glass, where he gets a lot of clean-up buckets. He had five offensive rebounds in Game 5. Memphis picked up a third of all offensive rebound opportunities as a team, which is on the high end. The adjustment didn't work.
At times this season, the Clippers looked legitimately great. Chris Paul is a wizard, and he was in command much of Tuesday. When CP3 and Blake Griffin are on, that's an unstoppable pick and roll. But the Grizzlies have stopped it, and now Blake's hurt and might not play in Game 6. In Memphis. Where the Grizzlies are 2-0 this series and 16-1 since early February.
If L.A. loses this, can both CP3 and VDN hang around? Remember, Paul is a free agent this summer, too. It would have seemed improbable that he'd leave the Clippers after turning around the franchise over two years. But losing in the first round would be a distinct step backwards. It's hard to imagine Del Negro surviving a first-round loss, even given the fact that the decision-making process in L.A. is strange, mysterious and possibly ruled via Ouija board. (The headline of the press release announcing that Gary Sacks was basically the new GM of the team last offseason read "Gary Sacks assumes role of Clippers VP of basketball operations." Assumes role? Like, did he inherit it? Was it a coup? Is he just assuming he's in charge because everyone else left for a pack of smokes and didn't come back?)
So if Del Negro gets canned, how do the Clippers cater to CP3 and convince him to stay? L.A. can offer a longer, more lucrative contract, but it also offers Donald Sterling and a distinct stench of Clipperdom. Does Sacks have the power, comfort and ability to go out and land a high-profile coach like Stan Van Gundy? Will someone like that -- a guy who can basically have his pick of the available jobs -- commit to L.A. without knowing if CP3 will be back? It's a very uncomfortable situation, similar to the 2010 Cavaliers, who canned Mike Brown in an apparent attempt to keep LeBron, and hired a coach in Byron Scott who thought he'd have LeBron for 2011 and instead had Mo Williams and later Baron Davis.
There's really no middle ground if the Clippers lose this series. VDN can't stay, and CP3 might flee. My, how the series has changed.