For just the third time in franchise history, the Los Angeles Clippers have won a playoff series, and they prevailed over the Memphis Grizzlies in a brutal Game 7 in Memphis, 82-72. But although the Clippers/Braves have just three wins in 41 years, the more relevant ratio is this: they're one for one in the Chris Paul era.
You have to give the Clippers a tremendous amount of credit in this game. I've said all along that the type of game the officials call would have a big impact on this series -- the tighter they call it, it favors the Clippers more, the looser they call and more contact they allow, it favors the bruising style of the Grizzlies. Well, this was probably the most physical game of what has been a very physical series, drawing continually commentary from Mike Breen and Jeff Van Gundy in the ABC broadcast, yet the Clippers came out on top.
It's unfortunate for the Grizzlies that Mike Conley, who was having a tremendous series to this point, had his worst game of the series. And it wasn't just bad -- it was pretty terrible. Seven points, five assists, 2-13 from the field. It wasn't his night. Likewise Zach Randolph struggled, shooting just 3-12 from the field. In Memphis wins in Games 5 and 6, Randolph was terrific, beginning to regain the form that had made him one of the great stories of the 2011 playoffs. He wasn't that guy tonight.
Both teams came out tight, the Clippers missing nine of their first ten shots, and the Grizzlies looking just as futile. Credit tough defense for some of it -- but Game 7 jitters seemed to play a role as well. There's no question that the Clippers won this game on the defensive end, forcing Memphis to shoot below 33% shooting on the night with zero three pointers, and holding them to quarters of 13 (first), 18 (third) and 16 (fourth).
Want proof that the Clippers won with defense? For the first time I can remember in two seasons, a (relatively) healthy Blake Griffin was NOT on the floor to close the game. Vinny Del Negro has been known to play hunches, and any number of players might be on the floor at the end of a close game -- but always (at least before today) Chris Paul and Griffin were among the closers. In the playoffs, in Game 7, on the road, the Clippers went with Paul and four backups (primarily Kenyon Martin, Reggie Evans, Eric Bledsoe and Nick Young) in crunch time. Aside from Paul, the other Clipper starters played less than four minutes combined in the fourth -- 2:11 for DeAndre Jordan, 99 seconds for Griffin. It was a ballsy move by VDN -- and you have to give him credit because it worked.
As you might imagine given the fourth quarter lineup, the Clippers bench was huge. Most teams shorten the rotation -- usually a lot -- when the playoffs roll around. The Clippers have actually opened theirs up. Some of that is injuries (Caron Butler's minutes are down because of his broken hand, VDN had to rely on the bench in Game 6) and some of that is matchups (the toughness of Evans and Martin was essential against the the likes of Randolph and Marc Gasol) but it's still pretty amazing that the Clippers won a playoff series playing long stretches without a starter in the game. Teams simply don't do that.
The injuries to Chris Paul and Griffin that loomed so large in Games 5 and 6 were largely forgotten in Game 7. Maybe all of the shots they were taking made them forget the pain of their earlier injuries. You know the old saying: when you're being punched in the face, you forget about your sprained knee (or something like that).
There's some indication that the injury struggles of Game 6 were as much mental as physical -- Paul and Griffin being tentative on their injuries, worrying about what might cause further injury, afraid to push themselves. It's impossible to know to what extent that was the case, but one big difference in the two games may be telling -- in Game 6, from the opening tip and throughout the game, Paul did not defend Conley, and steadfastly refused to do so, even in transition when a switch was the appropriate play. It became a distraction at times, with Paul so intent on telling Foye to pick up Conley that he missed Tony Allen in transition. Today, Paul was on Conley from the start, and judging from Conley's line, did the job.
Paul finished with 19 points, 9 rebounds and 4 assists -- not his best game, but on a day when every player on both teams struggled to score, it was huge. The Clippers made a nice adjustment in the half court, setting high screens for Paul early in the shot clock, forcing the switch and allowing Paul to go right at bigs like Gasol and Hamed Haddadi. Of Paul's seven made field goals, five were jumpers in the free throw line extended area, most of them coming off of this high screen action. Well played, VDN.
Griffin struggled, making just 3-11 from the field and finishing with 8 points and 4 rebounds. But he worked as hard as I've ever seen him work on defense, actively challenging shots and battling hard for position. His extended rest for the first eight minutes of the fourth quarter was really about one thing -- the guy was gassed. He'd been carrying Randolph all game (literally at one point) and he was truly exhausted.
But the bench was huge. Martin was 5-7 and even made a free throw. He finished with an 11-10 double double. Evans had nine rebounds, helping the Clippers win the battle of the boards for the first time in a while. Nick Young scored 13, second on the team, including five straight early in the fourth quarter as the Clippers were taking control of the game. Mo scored 9, including a killer three pointer to give the Clippers a 10 point lead, their largest until the final seconds. Memphis never again got closer than six.
So it's a huge win, a rare Game 7 road win, the first Game 7 win in franchise history, and they avoid the ignominy that would have come with squandering a 3-1 series lead. The Clippers lost home court advantage in the first round by losing their final two regular season games -- and then they went 2-2 in four games in Memphis, winning Games 1 and 7 on the road. That's clutch.
On to San Antonio for the Western Conference Semi-finals. Game 1 is Tuesday night.