May 11, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers point guard Eric Bledsoe (12) defends Memphis Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley (11) in the first half of game 6 of the Western Conference quarterfinals of the 2012 NBA Playoffs at the Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-US PRESSWIRE
Through most of this game, I kept looking at the scoreboard wondering how it was that the Clippers were in it at all. They couldn't shoot, Chris Paul and Blake Griffin were clearly hurting, and their wings in particular were almost useless. But somehow, somehow, they hung close. Eric Bledsoe and Kenyon Martin had a lot to do with it, with Bledsoe taking over the primary ballhandling responsibilities for the majority of the first half, even when he was on the court with Chris Paul, and Martin making four of five shots. Bledsoe, Martin and Reggie Evans played with energy and despite a really poor half, the Clippers were down just four at the break. The Clippers shot 37% from the field, went 1 for 6 from deep, and 3 for 9 from the line in the first half -- so down four was a gift from the heavens.
Both teams played much better in the third quarter, and when the Clippers were tied heading into the fourth, I figured the game was theirs for the taking. Chris Paul has been a master at conserving his energy and picking his spots all season -- so although he was clearly less than fully healthy, my assumption was that he had yet to go all out. If you're concerned about a pulled muscle, you sure don't want to re-injure it in the second quarter. But with the game on the line, I figured he'd find a way to be himself.
Vinny Del Negro, usually likes to shorten up his bench a bit in the fourth quarter, and keep either Griffin or Paul on the floor with the second unit. But with the stars hurting and in need of rest, VDN went with an all-reserve unit to start the fourth quarter, a bold move in what was probably the second or third biggest game in LAC history. And damned if they didn't come through. Mo Williams and Nick Young, who had been scoreless to that point, each hit jumpers, the defense got steals, Bledsoe continued his great play, and the Clippers at one point went on a 10-0 run to take an eight point lead, their biggest of the game. All of this with Paul and Griffin resting!
Unfortunately, as has been the case throughout this series, the Grizzlies immediately broke back with a 10-0 run of their own to regain the lead. And once again we had a down to the wire game.
Paul came back in with about seven minutes left. Then with 5:05 left, the scored tied at 80, and a jump ball on the Grizzlies end (that is to say, about as close to a full reset as you can get), Griffin returned. The Clippers had been the better team late in games throughout the series, so you had to like their chances.
But here's the stat of the game, the line that explains everything: in the fourth quarter, Chris Paul had 1 point, 0 assists, and 2 turnovers.
Give some credit to the Grizzlies. They had a lapse during that 10-0 Clippers run, but aside from that, this was their best fourth quarter of the series. For once, they didn't forget who they were. They got the ball to Gasol and Randolph inside, they pounded the boards, and that's how they won.
As I mentioned in the preview, to me this loss is not a disaster, it is not the death knell of the season. The condition of Chris Paul and Blake Griffin is a much bigger factor in the outcome of any game in this series than the venue of the game. The Clippers can certainly win Game 7 -- but not if Chris Paul has 0 points and one assist in the fourth quarter.
Paul and Griffin have a day off to get some more treatment, and maybe that will help, assuming that today's game didn't cause any specific setbacks. Generally speaking, if you play on an injury, it will serve to make you stronger the next time, as long as you don't do additional damage, so we might reasonably expect them to be better Sunday than they were today. Will it be good enough? We'll see on Sunday.