Los Angeles-The Los Angeles Clippers had their first playoff series win since 2006, in their grasp. Holding a mounting eight-point lead with 8:31 remaining in the fourth quarter, thanks to the spectacular play of some of the reserve players off the bench, the Clippers could sense imminent victory.
With the score knotted at 68 at the beginning of the final quarter, Eric Bledsoe scored six of the game’s next eight points as the Clippers surged to what looked like a commanding 76-68 lead nearly four minutes into the final period. The sellout crowd of 19,060 at Staples Center surged with energy after each made basket.
Clippers Nation could feel a win coming down at the end of the dark postseason tunnel they’d been mired in for years.
Los Angeles was ready to celebrate. Then what appeared like a sure-fire victory slipped away just about as quick as a rattler can strike its prey. In a last-gasp desperation rally, the Memphis Grizzlies roared back from that eight-point deficit to put the Clippers’ celebration party on hold-at least for one game-hold on to a tough 90-88 win Friday night.
With Chris Paul and Blake Griffin both coming into Game 6 of the best-of-seven first round playoff series ailing and nursing injuries, the Clippers failed to come up with the type of big plays at the end of the game that propelled them to a 3-1 series edge.
Both Paul and Griffin came up short of their normal dominant play. Except for one or two highlight-reel plays, Griffin took just 11 shots to score a quiet 17 points. Paul was even more off his game, scoring a mere 11 points off of nine attempts from the field.
As a result of Paul and Griffin’s drop off in productivity, the Clippers now have to travel to Memphis to play Game 7 on Sunday, knowing they have dropped the last two games in the series, a series that have been amped up by the physical play exerted unabashedly by both teams.
Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro acknowledged that the injuries sustained by Paul (hip) and Griffin (sprained knee) in Game 5, affected both players to do what they normally do on the court.
“I think both Chris and Blake were limited,” Del Negro said. “I knew they would play, although I did not know how much they would play until they got out there and started moving. Blake was hobbling, and Chris was tentative, but as the game progressed, they both began to loosen up. When fatigue sets in, you worry about reinjuring yourself. I give those guys a lot of credit for fighting through it. Unfortunately, we could not pull it out at the end.”
Paul and Griffin weren’t able to pull off their usual late-game heroics because Memphis refused to quit. After falling behind those eight points at the beginning of the quarter, Memphis then went on a 12-2 run to take a 80-78 lead, barely over two minutes after they had fallen behind in a deep hole.
From there the game teetered back and forth until several key turnovers and some missed shots by the Clippers gave Memphis the cushion it needed to survive another game.
“We just kept battling,” Memphis coach Lionel Hollins said. “We went to the offensive glass a few times, and made big plays. Marc (Gasol) got going, Zach (Randolph) got going and Rudy (Gay) had a couple of big baskets. Then we really started collapsing, closing down and did not give them anything.”
It was evident early in the game that both Paul and Griffin’s effectiveness would be a problem down the stretch as both players were slow to get anything going in the first half. Paul’s explosive ability to wrecked havoc in the paint with his dribble penetration was lacking.
Griffin didn’t have that usual bounce to his game as both players wound up with just 12 points combined through the first two quarters of play, a vivid sign that pointed to the Clippers falling behind at the half, 42-38. Now Game 7 looms. All the marbles are on the table. Nobody has to tell either team that win or go home is no longer an option. It’s a reality for both squads.
For the Clippers it may mean a little bit more. The onus is now on Paul and Co. to deliver. Paul was grabbed by the Clippers in a trade before the regular season to bring his basketball mojo to the team and lead the former league doormats to NBA prominence. In one season, Paul has already transcended the Clippers from also-rans into a team to be reckoned with.
The other expectation of Paul is that he would take the Clippers to the next level-in terms of postseason success. Paul understands the moment at hand.
“We’ve got to win!” Paul said. “This is it. Game seven is going to be exciting. It’s in Memphis and we showed the ability to win there. We have a couple of more days to try and get as healthy as possible. It would be my second game seven ever. I can’t wait!”