Comebacks don't get bigger or more exciting than the one the Los Angeles Clippers pulled off against the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 1 of their opening round playoff series. Behind by 24 with eight minutes remaining, the Clippers scored 26 of the next 27 points to take a one point lead, their first lead of the game, on a Reggie Evans layup off a Chris Paul feed with 50 seconds left. On the subsequent possession, the Clippers got caught in a switch with the 6'1" Paul defending the 6'8" Rudy Gay and Memphis got their only bucket of the final nine minutes to regain the lead. But Tony Allen fouled Paul on the Clippers next possession and he hit both free throws to put the Clippers up 99-98 with 23.7 seconds left.
The Clippers defended the final Memphis possession perfectly. Kenyon Martin entered the game for Nick Young to defend Gay. The quintet on the floor consisted of Paul, Eric Bledsoe, Martin, Evans and Blake Griffin. The Clippers had a foul to give, which they used with 9.8 seconds left as Gay started his move. When the Grizzlies inbounded for the final time, they went straight into an iso for Gay. Martin played him tough, stayed in front of him and forced him into a contested 18 footer. Gay is certainly capable of making that shot, but Martin did everything short of blocking the shot and Gay came up well short. Griffin grabbed the rebound and the Clippers had a most improbable victory.
Improbable for so many reasons. The way this game started was the Clippers worst nightmare -- every single narrative for what was wrong with the team was coming true all at once.
- They lacked playoff experience and wouldn't be able to handle the moment -- Griffin missed his first shot badly and dropped a pass early, DeAndre Jordan dropped a pass out of bounds and threw an outlet pass away, etc.
- Their late season stumbles would prove costly since home court advantage was likely to decide this series -- the Grizzlies handed out white T-shirts and yellow towels to every fan in attendance and the FedEx Forum was electric from the opening tip. The team soaked up the energy, making their first five shots 65 percent in the first quarter.
- Defense wins in the playoffs and Memphis is the better defensive team -- the Clippers struggled to get open looks early, making just 31 percent of their first quarter shots. They also turned the ball over five times in the first quarter, and Memphis thrives on turnovers.
Memphis built a 20 point lead in the first quarter at 32-12 and it was looking like the Clippers would need to start preparing for Game 2 Wednesday if they wanted to get out of town with a win on the road.
The Clippers second unit of Bledsoe, Evans, Young, Martin and Mo Williams had much better energy, and began to get some defensive stops in the second quarter. A couple of min-runs got the 20 point lead down to 11 at 50-39 -- and then an 8-0 Grizzlies run to end the half put it right back up to 19.
But even as the Grizzlies maintained and built on their lead, stretching it as high as 27 in the third quarter, their was something unsustainable about their success. It never occurred to me that the Clippers would come back and win Game 1, but at the same time I was feeling pretty good about Game 2. Memphis, the fifth worst three point shooting team in the league at less than 33 percent on the year, made 10 of their first 13 three pointers and finished the game 11 of 16. Their season high in three pointers made had been nine. Mike Conley was 5-5 from deep, making all four of his threes in the third quarter and tying a career high for three pointers in a game. When Conley pulled up behind a screen for the second consecutive time and drained a three, an exasperated Chris Paul turned to the Clippers bench as if to say "The scouting report says go under the screen, that's what I'm doing, where did this come from?"
To their credit, the Clippers stuck to their coverages, and they started working. I would not say the Clippers made major adjustments in the fourth quarter, though they clearly did go with a defensive-minded lineup. Basically, the law of averages caught up with the Grizzlies, and all the tough shots they were making in the first half they began to miss. In fact, they also missed easy shots (Zach Randolph missed the rim completely on an uncontested put back at one point).
The Clippers tried a zone for a couple of possessions early in the fourth, and when O.J. Mayo hit Memphis' 11th and final three pointer, the Grizzlies had the aforementioned 24 point lead at 95-71 with 9:12 remaining in the game. The Clippers went the rest of the way until the final possession with starters Paul and Griffin joined by reserves Bledsoe, Evans and Young. With defensive specialists Bledsoe and Evans wrapping up Conley and Randolph respectively, the much-maligned Clippers defense completely shut down Memphis the rest of the game. By my count, on their next 16 possessions, the Grizzlies scored one point -- they missed 12 straight field goal attempts and the Clippers forced four turnovers.
Meanwhile, aside from a bad sequence of three turnovers in four possessions, the Clippers were scoring every time they got the ball, and frequently more than two at a time. The 26-1 run began with a four point trip, when Evans was fouled as he made a layup and then Griffin rebounded his missed free throw and scored. More importantly, the Clippers, who entered the fourth quarter just 1-12 from beyond the three point line, suddenly starting making their threes. Bledsoe, a 20 percent three point shooter on the season, made one, and then Young hit three in a row in a period of 60 seconds to cut the lead from 12 to 3. All three Young threes were assisted by Paul, with the first coming on a set play out of a time out, and the next two coming in transition as the Clippers took a page from the old Phoenix Suns seven seconds or less playbook -- Young sprinted to the corner, Paul found him, Young nailed the shots. Scoring 16 points on five possessions can definitely help fuel a big comeback.
Had the Clippers lost this game by 20-something, I would have been telling you that it's still only one game. But it's hard to imagine how Memphis must feel after relinquishing a 24 point fourth quarter lead in Game 1 after battling so hard to secure home court down the stretch of the regular season. Basically, the Grizzlies threw everything they had at the Clippers, they had everything going right, and the Clippers stood in, took the punches and said "Is that all you got?"
Looking at the box score, you still wonder on the Clippers won this game. Paul had 14 points on 12 shots, Griffin 17 on 15 shots, and the Clippers don't win a lot of games where neither of their stars tops 20 points. But the bench came up absolutely huge. Young was the leading scorer with 19, and did so on a hyper-efficient 9 shots. Evans, who figured to potentially fall out of the rotation altogether as the bench gets shorter in the playoffs, came up huge with 7 points and a game high 13 rebounds. Bledsoe scored 9 to go along with 4 rebounds and 2 assists. But it was really the defense of Evans and Bledsoe, and yes Young also, that made the difference, as evidenced by their plus/minus numbers for the game -- Young was +28 in 24 minutes, Bledsoe +24 in 20 minutes and Evans +23 in 21 minutes. Wow. Just, wow.
Despite the win, there was bad news in the game for the Clippers, as starting small forward Caron Butler broke a bone in his hand. He suffered the injury in the third quarter and tried to play through it, but got an X-ray during the game which showed the fractured metacarpal. Butler is out four to six weeks -- which likely rules him out for the first two playoff series at least.
Aside from Butler's injury, it's all positive in Clips Nation. Chris Paul seemed unhindered by his groin injury in a masterful fourth quarter performance that saw him score four points and hand out seven assists in the final ten minutes. When you consider that four of those assists were on three pointers, Paul had a hand in 22 of the Clippers final 30 points, including the game winning free throws of course. And the big bad Tony Allen was a non-factor when he switched over to defend Paul down the stretch -- in fact, Paul was much more effective against Allen than he was against Conley, though that might just be fourth quarter Chris Paul not caring who is defending him. The Clippers, the worst free throw shooting team in the league, also made a higher percentage of the free throws than the Grizzlies, including four straight down the stretch. Blake Griffin hit the two biggest free throws of his pro career to cut the lead to one with 90 seconds left in the game. It doesn't mean he's now a great free throw shooter, but he did pass a major test by making important ones in a pressure-filled situation. And Randolph, the postseason difference maker for the Grizzlies a year ago, was just 3 for 13 in the game. When he made his first shot, it seemed as if maybe he was going to be trouble, but on the whole it seems he still is simply not back to his old self after missing most of the season with a knee injury. Without Randolph in difficult situations, the Grizzlies will be prone to long droughts on offense -- as we saw tonight.
Game 2 is Wednesday, and after taking the Grizzlies best shot and coming away with a win in Game 1, the confidence will be sky high.