Am I crazy for thinking that this was the Los Angeles Clippers' most impressive performance of the playoffs so far?
On a night that could scarcely have gone worse for them -- Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph went 12-14 for 27 points in the first quarter, each exceeding their per game series averages in the first stanza alone, Blake Griffin was injured in the third quarter and Chris Paul was injured in the fourth, and the refs weren't doing them any favors -- they still managed to cut a 24 point Memphis lead down to 6 with a 24-6 run spanning the end of the third quarter and the beginning of the
third fourth quarter. There's no question in my mind that the Clippers would have won this game, down six with over six minutes remaining, had Paul been at full strength. No question.
And likewise, there's no question in my mind that the Clippers will win the series still -- if Paul is at full strength for Game 6.
Griffin was injured with 91 seconds remaining in the third quarter. He tweaked his
right left knee (they called it a hyperflex, but I'm going with tweak) when he landed awkwardly after a shot attempt on which he was fouled. He made one of two free throws and exited shortly thereafter to receive treatment. He returned in the fourth quarter, and although he appeared to be moving fine, he did not score again in the game.
Paul was injured with about seven minutes left in the game and the Clippers rolling. On an offensive rebound he appeared to strain the same groin muscle that sidelined him in the final game of the regular season. He grabbed at the injury immediately and it was clear he wasn't right. After another possession or two, he signaled to the bench to take him out -- but then his hyper-competitive instincts overtook his common sense and he asked to stay in. The Clippers took him out -- and once again Paul asked to go back in. And in the worst coaching decision of his entire career, Vinny Del Negro agreed to let him give it a go (more on that later). Paul, easily the most dominant fourth quarter player of the 2012 playoffs, had zero points and one assist in his final two and a half minutes on the floor.
Obviously if either Paul or Griffin is in any way diminished for the rest of the series, it does not bode well for the Clippers. Unfortunately, the injury to Paul seems the more serious at first glance, and Paul is the more important of the two to the Clippers chances. It presents an interesting dilemma as well -- with Game 6 Friday in L.A. and Game 7 if necessary back in Memphis on Sunday, the Clippers could choose to rest Paul a couple of extra days, on the assumption that he would be closer to full strength after three full days off. But if you feel that the home game is the best chance to close out the series, then the temptation is there to try to rush him back.
My gut tells me this is not at all good. Comparing his injury tonight to what happened a couple of weeks ago in Atlanta, bear in mind that Paul did not come out of that Hawks game. He was grabbing at the injury as he was tonight, but he did not ask to come out. If he asked to come out of this one, as he clearly did before suppressing that common sense response, it tells me this injury is worse; maybe even a lot worse. They played the next night in New York, and Paul sat out -- though he did dress and said he could have gone. Obviously, the stakes were lower at the end of the regular season than they are now -- but how much worse is the injury?
Setting aside all of that, the Clippers once again dominated the Grizzlies in a late game situation. After a 10-0 Memphis run over the course of four minutes in the third that included four technical fouls handed out to the Clippers, five regular fouls called on the Clippers on 50-50 calls, zero fouls called on Memphis, and the single most laughably bad call I've ever seen, the Clippers were down 24 -- and pretty ticked off.
The Clippers defense held the Grizzlies offense to 10 points over the next 14 minutes of basketball. Meanwhile, Paul scored 12 points before getting hurt, and Mo Williams scored another 11, but with Griffin hurting, once Paul went down, Williams was left more or less alone to try to bring back the final six points, and it wasn't happening. The Grizzlies were once again dreadful in the final quarter, but with nothing from Griffin the entire quarter and nothing from Paul the final seven minutes, so were the Clippers.
There's not much more to say about this game, but clearly the loss is not the issue here. As I pointed out this morning, 72% of the time the team trailing 3-1 in a series wins Game 5 at home, but that doesn't change the fact that well over 90% of the time they lose the series. The odds were strongly in the Grizzlies favor to win this battle but still lose the war. That all changes if Chris Paul is seriously, or maybe even moderately, hurt. We'll just have to wait and see on that.
But let's get back to Vinny Del Negro.
Why oh why oh why would you put Chris Paul back into the game at that point? He was clearly injured. We already know that the home team usually wins this game, but that doesn't change the fact that the team up 3-1 still wins the series. You know how you do change that equation and risk losing a series you led 3-1? By getting your most important player hurt worse than he already is. If Chris Paul has a strained groin muscle, the worst thing to do is to play on it right away. He needed rest and ice to get any inflammation down. Which is more likely? That Paul is going to be able to limp/lead the Clippers back from six down with six minutes to go in Memphis, or that a relatively healthy Paul could lead the Clippers to victory in Game 6 in L.A. starting even on Friday night?
Look, if Chris Paul is hurt badly, to the point that he will be out for Games 6 and 7, then get Eric Bledsoe or Randy Foye into the game and see if they can conjure a miracle -- Paul isn't going to be able to help you anyway. If he's not that badly hurt, then get him out and start rehabbing the injury as soon as possible, in an attempt to get him as healthy as possible as soon as possible. Paul is ridiculously competitive, in this case to his own detriment, we get that. But someone has to be the grown up in this situation, and it's the coach.
Then again this is the same coach who almost got into a fist fight with his GM in Chicago for rushing Joakim Noah back from injury.
Maybe having Paul limp through a handful of late game possessions in a quixotic attempt to win Game 5 did no further damage to his strained groin. We may never know. But the fact that it COULD have caused additional damage is more than enough reason to know that he should never have been allowed to re-enter the game, nor to even stay in as long as he did in the first place.
According to Fox sideline reporter Michael Eaves, Clippers trainer Jasen Powell went to talk to Del Negro not once but twice before Paul was finally removed from the game for good. It's a reasonable assumption that he was advising if not imploring VDN to get him out of the game. And it follows that that was Powell's recommendation before Paul went back in.
To allow Paul to return to the game in that situation was monumentally stupid, and we can only hope that the Clippers don't pay an additional price for that stupidity.