The Los Angeles Clippers fought the Memphis Grizzlies to the wire for home-court advantage. The Clips came out on top by virtue of winning their division, but they could not have been more even with the Grizz if they tried.
The teams finished with identical 56-26 records. They both went 32-9 at home and 24-17 on the road.
But beyond their records, the two squads are as different as southern California is from southern Tennessee.
One way to conceptualize their difference is style versus substance. While the Clippers style with soaring soliloquies, Memphis plays substantial defense to say the least.
So as the two teams clash in the opening round of the playoffs, will they finally put to rest the style over substance debate?
Well, they'll put to rest at least one debate by proving the following resolution: This league holds that the stylish Clippers are superior to the Grizzlies. Again.
What Wins Championships?
The Clippers have the Lob City label firmly affixed to themselves, solely because of the spectacular lobs from Chris Paul to Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan on a nightly basis. But on those possessions that don't end with an alley-oop, CP3 can still play defenses like a fiddle.
Meanwhile, the gritty Grizzlies scored a conference-low 93.4 points per game this season, nearly eight points fewer than the Clips.
Of course, Memphis compensates for their deficiencies on offense with absolutely smothering D. They allowed just 89.3 points per game, the lowest in the league.
But the Clippers were no slouches on defense either, yielding 94.6 points on average, the second lowest mark in the West.
The advanced metrics bear this out as well; Memphis finished second in defensive efficiency while the Clippers were ninth (via ESPN.com).
Oddly, after the Grizz traded away their leading scorer, Rudy Gay, they got even better. They were 29-16 when the trade occurred and went 27-10 over the final 11 weeks.
Somehow they're still winning games without Gay's scoring, but that void could turn into a chasm in the playoffs.
Those Who Don't Learn from History...
Last season, the Clippers and Grizzlies engaged in a first-round prize fight that started with a bang. CP3 and company trailed by 27 points in Game 1 only to storm back to seize a 1-0 lead (see video above, unless you're a Grizz fan).
Memphis forced Game 7 after trailing 3-1 but fell to L.A. in the end. This year's meeting is more than just a rematch; it's a grudge match.
The Clips took the season series 3-1 (as well as 2-1 last season), and Memphis has yet to prove they can beat L.A. over the course of a series.
Just as with last season, Lob City finished with the league's fourth most efficient offense (measured by points per 100 possessions, via ESPN.com).
That's not just the difference between runner-up and division champ, it's the difference between 40 wins and 56.
...Are Doomed to Repeat It
Since the Grizzlies only hold a marginal advantage on the defensive end, they must narrow the gulf in offensive production. The Grizz rank in the bottom third of the league in true shooting percentage (which accounts for free throws and three-pointers) while L.A. finished fifth.
Memphis can't run with the Clippers, so it will be important to control the pace of play.
The Grizzlies averaged 2.5 fewer possessions per game than L.A., so they'll need to pour some molasses on the ball to keep CP3 and his band of high-flying acrobats at bay.
Marc Gasol has usurped his brother Pau this season and left no doubt as to the NBA's best Spaniard. His stats were flat out MVP-caliber: 14.1 points, 49.4 field-goal percentage, 84.8 free-throw percentage, 7.8 rebounds, 4 assists, 1.7 blocks and 1 steal.
It will be crucial for Gasol to excel against the Clippers' formidable frontcourt and buoy the offense.
And the rest of the roster will need to score in bunches to hang around with Lob City. Mike Conley's production has gone up and down more than the value of the Euro, but he finished the regular season with a solid April—17 points, 50.8 field-goal percentage and 4.8 assists.
The Grizz are a solid rebounding team, but their dominance faded as Zach Randolph couldn't keep up his domineering average of 12-plus rebounds from the first two months of the season.
Memphis averaged 42.7 rebounds per game, good for 11th in the league, but the Clippers posted a respectable mark of 41.6.
The Grizzlies were better on the offensive glass (12.9 boards per game to 11.4 for L.A.), which creates more second-chance opportunities, but the Clips averaged slightly more defensive rebounds (30.2 to 29.8).
So without a significant advantage on the boards, turnovers will be a key factor in the series. Memphis committed the fourth fewest turnovers in the NBA, which deserves kudos.
It's just too bad that the Clippers led the league in opponents' turnovers and had a slightly better turnover differential than the Grizzlies.
I'm already on record saying the Clippers will win this series in seven. I'm sticking to that, although seven games might be a bit generous. Two weeks ago, I wrote that the Clips would win in six, and my gut may have been more accurate.
At any rate, Game 7s are extremely difficult to win on the road.
The grisly toughness Memphis displays on every possession will keep them in games. However, they have no way of generating enough offense to match Chris Paul and Blake, not to mention Matt Barnes and the bench mob.
The Grizz lack a significant advantage over Lob City in defense, rebounding and turnovers, and they would need a stellar output from their middling offense to prevail. Maybe Ed Davis will post five double-doubles off the bench, but that almost certainly will not occur.
That's comparable to the immense power of two lasers.
When the Clippers win, it will settle the specific debate regarding them Clippers over the Grizzlies.
But the more general debate of hard-nosed defense (see the 1993-94 New York Knicks) versus flashy style (see Don Nelson's "Nellie Ball" or Mike D'Antoni's "Seven Seconds or Less") will rage on for many years to come.
The only sure answer?
Play with both.