LOS ANGELES, CA - MAY 05: Chris Paul #3 of the Los Angeles Clippers shoots against Dante Cunningham #44 of the Memphis Grizzlies in Game Three of the Western Conference Quarterfinals in the 2012 NBA Playoffs on May 5, 2011 at Staples Center in Los Angeles, California. The Clippers won 87-86 to take a two games to one lead in the series. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
In an NBA post season that has featured a whole bunch of blowouts, the Los Angles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies seem determined to make sure that every game is close and exciting. After a Game 1 that saw the Clippers rally from 24 points down in the fourth quarter for the win, and a Game 2 that saw the Grizzlies hang on for a seven point win, Game 3 was as thrilling, and almost as unlikely, as the first two.
This time it was Memphis' turn to try to mount the impossible comeback. A pair of Chris Paul free throws with 23 seconds on the final game clock made had the fourth quarter scoring at 22-9, as the Clippers had gone from seven down at the end of three to leading by a seemingly insurmountable six. On the Grizzlies inbound play, Rudy Gay hit a deep three against good pressure to cut the lead in half. The Clippers inbounded the ball to Eric Bledsoe, a 64% foul shooter. Bledsoe made the first, which one would think would have calmed his nerves, but he missed the second. Happily for the Clippers, Reggie Evans snuck past Marc Gasol for the rebound, and drew a foul. Unfortunately, Evans is an even worse foul shooter than Bledsoe, and he missed both. Memphis called time out with 12 seconds left to set up another play.
Once again, Gay caught the inbound pass and rose for a three against a closing Kenyon Martin, and once again he nailed it. One point game. The Clippers wanted to get the ball into Chris Paul's hands on the inbound play, but Paul was covered and they again passed to Bledsoe who was again fouled. This time he missed both, and Memphis had the ball, with a chance to win, with 8 seconds left. They didn't have any more timeouts, and Mike Conley pushed the ball up the court, looking for Gay of course. He came off a screen and rose for the jumper, but Randy Foye closed on him well and forced him to alter the shot. Gay made an amazing adjustment in mid-air to avoid Foye's swipe at the ball, and got a good looking shot off -- but it rimmed out. The second time in three games that the Clippers have escaped at the buzzer as a Gay shot missed.
In the big picture, the Clippers must surely count themselves lucky to escape with a win in a game in which the missed 17 of 30 free throws. Only four Clippers actually went to the line, and Paul was 7 for 8, so the other three (Blake Griffin, Evans and Bledsoe) combined to make 6 of 22 attempts. Yikes. It's really hard to imagine this team making a deep playoff run when free throws are almost certainly going to cost them wins in the post season. Games are too tight, opponents are too good. You can't get away with this crap. Happily today they did.
It's an amazing feeling to know that Chris Paul is on the team heading into the fourth quarter, I'll say that. If the Clippers are within striking distance late in the game, I tend to assume that Paul will manufacture a win. Which he did today. He hit a three on the first possession of the fourth to cut the lead to four. And with the score tied at 80, he first hit a short jumper to take the lead, then found Griffin for a dunk to make it four, and finally hit the free throws that stretched it to six. He also had several steals and deflections in the fourth, as for the second time in three games the Clippers defense really clamped down in the final stanza. Gay's three pointers aside, the Grizzlies struggled to score in the fourth. In fact, prior to those last 20 seconds, they had made only one field goal.
I think all the games in this series are going to be tight. Game 4 will be huge. The Grizzlies broke back in Memphis after the Clippers won Game 1, so neither team has been able to put together back to back wins so far. If the Clippers manage to do so, they take a commanding 3-1 lead in the series. If the Grizzlies win, the regain home court advantage.
But whoever wins, it seems like it's going to be close. And if it's close, the Clippers are the team with Chris Paul.