By Beth Harris/The Associated Press
LOS ANGELES — In a season of firsts for their franchise, the Los Angeles Clippers are opening the playoffs with a familiar foe.
Only this time, they own home-court advantage against the Memphis Grizzlies. Both teams finished the regular season with identical 56-26 records and tied for fourth in the Western Conference.
Game 1 is Saturday night at Staples Center.
A year ago, the Clippers opened at Memphis and fell into a 27-point hole. They rallied to tie an NBA record for largest deficit overcome in the fourth quarter and won by one point.
“That game was crazy,” Chauncey Billups, who was injured and watched from the bench, said Friday. “Safe to say that probably won’t happen again.”
Then, the Clippers won a Game 7 for the first time in franchise history in Memphis to advance.
“The biggest thing we have this year is more experience,” All-Star guard Chris Paul said.
Billups is back in the lineup after missing chunks of the season with various injuries, most recently a strained groin. Coach Vinny Del Negro said Billups will be limited to 20-some minutes.
“I’m excited to be out here and not have to watch in a suit,” he said. “We really grew up a lot during that playoff series last year.”
Especially All-Star Blake Griffin, who got 11 playoff games under his belt last season before the Clippers were swept by San Antonio.
Griffin practiced Friday and received treatment on his back for the spasms that affected him in the regular-season finale.
“It’s still a little tender, but it’s not as bad as the other night,” he said.
His back locked up while shooting before the game at Sacramento on Wednesday, but he was able to make two big plays at the end of the Clippers’ four-point win.
Griffin will need to be at his best to handle All-Star counterpart Zach Randolph, known as an agitator.
“That’s his whole M.O. is to frustrate guys, do his thing under the basket,” Griffin said. “I like to play physical, too. I don’t think I’ve lost my cool going against him yet.”
Randolph was the league’s fourth-leading rebounder with 11.2 per game. Griffin averaged 8.3.
“We need Blake to play at a high level and be smart about it,” Del Negro said.
Randolph had just returned from an injury before last year’s opening round series.
“I wasn’t 100 percent last year. I’m healthy this year,” he said. “My body feels good, and my confidence is up, so we’re going to go play.”
The Clippers won the season series 3-1 this year, including two wins in Memphis.
“It’s teams that know each other so well, it’s going to be on small details and small things in the game,” Grizzlies center Marc Gasol said.
Paul expects to see the same physical style that the teams played in the regular season.
“We got to pick up the tempo and stay out of foul trouble,” he said. “If we play the way we know to play we don’t have to worry about what they do. We can impose our will. It’s the execution. Once we get stops and get out in transition, we’re tough to stop.”
Paul is the obvious target for the Grizzlies’ defense since he orchestrates the Clippers’ offense, whether it’s alley-oop passes for dunks by Griffin and DeAndre Jordan or setting up Jamal Crawford for a 3-pointer or creating his own shot.
“We basically just want just corral him and try to force him to make tough shots,” Grizzlies guard Tony Allen said. “We know he’s an All-Star, and we’re definitely going to have to have our antennas up when he’s on the floor.”
The Grizzlies’ starting lineup is the same as last year with the exception of Tayshaun Prince, who replaced Rudy Gay after a midseason trade. Their bench is different, with the additions of Jerryd Bayless, Ed Davis and Austin Daye, along with recent pickup former Clipper Keyon Dooling.
Paul downplayed the perceived dislike the two teams have for each other.
“I don’t know too many of them personally,” he said. “I just want to beat you. I don’t care about you off the court.”