The Los Angeles Clippers come from behind victory of the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 1 of their first round playoff series was exhilarating, amazing, unbelievable and probably the biggest win in the history of the franchise. But at the end of the day, it's just one game. Winning Game 1 of any playoff series is always important. Winning Game 1 on the road and stealing home court advantage is a big deal. But there are six games remaining, and Memphis just has to win four of them to move on. If the remaining games go anything like the first 38 minutes of Game 1 as opposed to the final 8 minutes, the it will be the Grizzlies experiencing their second ever playoff series win and not the Clippers.
You might think that the loss of a huge fourth quarter lead in a playoff game would be an insurmountable blow to the psyche of the team that choked the game away. However history tells us this is not the case.
The last time a team lost a 21 point lead entering the fourth quarter of a playoff game was a decade ago, May 25th 2002. In Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals, with the series tied 1-1, the third seeded Boston Celtics were playing at home against the top seeded New Jersey Nets. Mirroring almost exactly the Clippers-Grizzlies game from Sunday night, the Nets built a huge lead right out of the gate, led by 20 at the half, stretched the lead as high as 26, and still led by 21 as the fourth quarter began. But the Celtics mounted a furious fourth quarter comeback and won the game, going up 2-1 in the series.
So what happened the rest of the way? Did the loss devastate the Nets leading to an eventual Boston upset in the series? Hardly. Quite the opposite, the Nets won the next three games, winning games 4 and 6 in Boston, to take the series 4-2 and move on to the NBA Finals.
So if you're expecting the Grizzlies to crumble because they gave away a huge lead, that's not likely to happen. Just as it would not have been fatal to L.A. had the Clippers lost Game 1 by 20. One game is one game, no more and no less.
One school of thought in the aftermath would be to assume that the Grizzlies proved through more than three quarters that they were the better team and that they became complacent and went away from what was working during their fourth quarter collapse. And certainly there is some truth to that. No team scores one point in 8 minutes of NBA basketball without being complicit in their own demise. Clearly the Grizzlies were too concerned with running clock rather than running their offense down the stretch. All teams tend to get too conservative playing with a big lead, which is why so many big leads tend to get whittled away. It takes a combination of factors to result in a 28-3 closing run, but the fact that the Grizzlies grew stagnant and complacent playing with a big lead is not particularly surprising.
Still, to assume that the 21 point lead of the first three quarters is easily recreatable if the Grizzlies just play their game on Wednesday is a gross oversimplification. The Grizzlies looked terrific early, and the Clippers were clearly overwhelmed by the situation at the start of the game, that much is true. But there wasn't much sustainable in that 21 point lead at the end of the third. In fact, the big lead can be explained away in its entirety in one anomalous statistic to that point: three point shooting.
Entering the third quarter, the Grizzlies, a 33 percent three point shooting team on the season, had made 10-15 threes. Meanwhile, the Clippers, a 36 percent three point shooting team, had made 1-12. Giving each team an equal and expected percentage of three point makes to that point (i.e. make the Grizzlies 5-15 and the Clippers 4-12) accounts for a 24 point swing in a 21 point game. So it's probably not as simple as saying "the Grizzlies just need to do what they did the first three quarters." Mike Conley has never shot 5-5 from beyond the arc in his career -- he's not going to do it again Wednesday.
This series is not over by any means, but you'd clearly prefer to be the Clippers than the Grizzlies at this point. As well as the Grizzlies played to begin the game, and they're not likely to play better, they lost Game 1 at home and with it the home court advantage. Going back to that Celtics comeback against the Nets a decade ago, amazing as it was, there are a couple of key differences. For one thing, the game was in Boston -- the Nets didn't blow a 21 point on their home court. For another, in start contrast to Sunday's game, Boston opened the fourth quarter on an 11-0 run. The Boston deficit was down to a very manageable 10 with nine minutes remaining. The Clippers on the other hand were still down 24 with just eight minutes left. In other words, while the fourth quarter comeback was of an identical scale, the actual comeback was orders of magnitude bigger. Let's face it: a closing run of 28-3 for a one point win simply doesn't happen -- not in the playoffs -- not on the road.
The Clippers are now 3-1 against the Grizzlies on the season. They have been not just the better team, but the dominant team, in the fourth quarter of those games, even the one they lost which featured a 19-5 run (again in Memphis) that was almost as unlikely as Sunday's comeback. And some of Memphis' most intimidating weapons -- namely Zach Randolph on offense and Tony Allen on defense -- are firing blanks so far. Randolph has simply not been the player he was last season since returning from knee surgery, and he was 3-13 Sunday, and 0-3 without coming close to scoring in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile Allen has been ineffective defending Chris Paul all season, and was again on Sunday. Allen only spent a handful of fourth quarter possessions on Paul, including the final possession when his foul sent CP3 to the line for the game winning free throws, but the Clippers had no problem scoring on those possessions, and Paul in particular seemed not the least big perturbed by Allen's defense.
I think the Clippers will win the series, as I have all along, not just because they mounted an amazing comeback to steal Game 1, but also because they are the better team. Even so, they'd be wise to remember their history and think back to that Celtics-Nets series a decade ago. As it happens, they have someone in the locker room who can provide a first hand account. Kenyon Martin was a member of the Nets team that blew a 21 point lead in the fourth quarter, but came back to win the next three games and win the series. Maybe he can provide some insights on how to avoid a similar outcome.