It wasn’t so much a third quarter as it was a bludgeoning, the kind of statement of intent that the Memphis Grizzlies — brash and unapologetic for it all season — have shouted for anyone to hear on their way to the NBA’s third-best record.
Trailing by just 12 points two minutes into third quarter in FedEx Forum on Tuesday, the Clippers were gamely hanging around despite numerous ways they’d tried to allow a Grizzlies blowout in the first half. Just eight minutes later they trailed by 30, Memphis making its move like its All-Star guard Ja Morant — fast and ruthless.
The Clippers had already lost three times to Memphis this season through a similar blueprint, with the Grizzlies perpetually tougher and playing with more physicality. But the season sweep-ensuring defeat was this matchup at its most lopsided, a 135-109 defeat that was decided in the final minutes of the third quarter.
“Just wasn’t physical enough from start to finish at all five positions,” coach Tyronn Lue said.
The Clippers’ largest margin of defeat this season, and their second consecutive defeat in which they surrendered at least 135 points, was a bitter way to enter the final hours leading up until Thursday’s noon PST trade deadline. The team that takes the floor next, Thursday in Dallas, is expected to look different from the one that trudged out of Memphis after trailing by as many as 34 points. Most conspicuously, backup center Serge Ibaka never played — the only Clipper not to see action on a night when Lue badly needed muscle inside and rebounding help, and he played reserves exclusively during the fourth quarter.
Lue indeed used a three-center rotation, only after starter Ivica Zubac and backup Isaiah Hartenstein had finished their first-half shifts, Lue turned to a small-ball lineup. Ibaka, whose $9.7-million contract expires after this season, has been widely expected to be moved ahead of the deadline.
The brightest Clippers (27-29) moments were the earliest. Norman Powell scored the team’s first eight points on a mix of pressure at the rim, free throws and a three-pointer when his defender went under the screen. Powell finished with 16 points. In his first 47 minutes as a Clipper, the guard has scored 44 points. He also erased two shots by De’Anthony Melton at the rim in the third quarter. It was the most resistance the Grizzlies felt inside the paint on their way to scoring 78 points there.
That was all made possible by 21 offensive rebounds, including eight by Jaren Jackson Jr. in the first half alone. Jackson had 26 points and 11 rebounds while Morant contributed 30 points, seven rebounds and five assists.
Hartenstein tied a career high with 19 points, but 11 were scored in the final quarter with the game decided.
By the third quarter the Clippers’ frustrations extended to officials. Reggie Jackson was raked in the face by an opponent’s palm but no foul was called. After his dribble was ruled out of bounds when it appeared another defensive foul could have been called, Jackson moved his goggles to his temples and held his hair.
Yet the Clippers had also done their part in stalling any rally. Marcus Morris Sr. threw a baffling pass that led to an over-and-back violation. The engine of the Clippers’ early offense, Powell took just one shot in six minutes after halftime, with Lue criticizing the way teammates had not looked to throw passes upcourt to Powell quickly enough.
Eight minutes after the third quarter began, Morris was ejected after fouling Morant on a fast-break layup. Morant fell hard onto his back. But it was telling that even after the foul, it was the Clippers who looked by far the worse for wear.