It was billed as the most important regular season game of the year, and it lived up to the hype. In a game in which neither team had led by more than six points, the Los Angeles Clippers used a 14-0 fourth quarter run to turn a five point deficit into a nine point lead, and then barely held on to defeat the Memphis Grizzlies 91-87. The win ended a 13 game home winning streak for the Grizzlies, and fittingly put the Clippers in control of the race for home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. Now tied with the Grizzlies in the standings at 54-26, the Clippers only need to defeat Portland and Sacramento in their final two games to be assured of starting the playoffs at home in STAPLES Center.
The Clippers led most of the game, but a sloppy sequence at the end of the third quarter led to seven straight Memphis points and their biggest lead of the game at five points entering the fourth. It seemed as if perhaps the momentum had swung to the home team, when two unlikely things happened.
The first was only unlikely in that coach Vinny Del Negro hasn't done it very often this season, but for the second night in a row, Del Negro played Chris Paul and Eric Bledsoe together in the fourth quarter. With 9:44 remaining in the game, Paul re-entered the game to join Bledsoe in a small backcourt. After a lucky Darrell Arthur bank shot that had no right to go in, the Clippers proceeded to run off 14 straight. And the player that opened the scoring in that stretch is the truly unlikely one: Grant Hill.
Hill's season has never really gotten started with the Clippers. He was injured in pre-season, and by the time he was healthy, Matt Barnes had cemented his place as the team's closer at small forward. With Caron Butler firmly entrenched as the starter and both Butler and Barnes relatively healthy all season, it was a challenge to find minutes for Hill after he was healthy. Del Negro tried him at power forward in small lineups and used him as a point forward while Paul and Billups were hurt, but the simple fact is that there hasn't really been a good role for Hill all season. Consequently, he's been limited to spot duty and the occasional role of defensive stopper (most notably against Carmelo Anthony in New York).
Butler started this game, but a sore knee stiffened up on him during the first half. That left Barnes as the second half starter, and thrust Hill into the rotation. It's worth noting that in a copy cat league, very few NBA coaches play a full five man second unit. Most coaches mix and match and try to keep a starter on the floor at all times. Del Negro on the other hand almost insists on playing five reserves together at some point. So while he could easily have spread the second half wing minutes between Willie Green, Matt Barnes and Jamal Crawford, instead he felt compelled to use Hill. Give Del Negro credit for following his own path on his rotations, because very few other NBA coaches do it that way.
Hill, who had played 20 minutes in the last 11 Clipper games, including nine DNPs, started the run with a corner three. He then ran the floor and grabbed an offensive rebound on a missed Bledsoe layup and scored the putback to tie the game. Later in the run he blocked a shot, and throughout his defense was instrumental in the six straight defensive stops the Clippers got. Perhaps most importantly, with the Grizzlies on a 6-0 run of their own, Hill came out of nowhere to block a Mike Conley layup that would have cut the lead to one.
The bad news is that after scoring 18 points on eight possessions in the first half of the fourth quarter, the Clippers managed only five points in the second half of the fourth -- with three of those coming as the result of intentional fouls at the end of the game. A lone Paul jump shot -- a 20 footer with Tony Allen's hand in his face, it should be added -- was the only field goal the team managed in six full minutes of basketball, and only the nine point lead they had built and a couple of timely stops preserved the win. The Clippers did what they all too frequently do in this situation and milked the clock down the stretch. Unfortunately, starting an offensive set with six seconds on the shot clock is a dubious proposition against a team as defensively adept as Memphis, and the Clippers found themselves forcing bad shots at the shot clock buzzer far too often. This is not a problem unique to the Clippers, but they absolutely have to stop doing it. The minute they start holding the ball and letting the shot clock run down, it's a sure fire sign that their offensive efficiency is going to take a nosedive.
With the offense sputtering, the defense had to get enough stops to preserve the lead. The Grizzlies had four straight possessions trailing by three inside of three minutes remaining but didn't cut the lead to one again until there were only 23 seconds left (Tony Allen gave the Clippers a gift by missing a pair of free throws in that stretch). Forced to foul Paul to get the ball back, he uncharacteristically missed one of two, leaving the door open for the Grizzlies to tie the game on a two pointer. It was at this point that the Clippers young bigs came up big on the defensive end. Memphis first went to a Conley drive, and DeAndre Jordan blocked his floater out of bounds with 12 seconds left. Down to their last possession, the Grizzlies tried to isolate Zach Randolph, but Blake Griffin stunted around the outside to deflect the entry pass to Barnes. Fortunately, the officiating crew called a clear path foul on the ensuing play, so the Clippers essentially got a do-over on the pair of free throws Griffin missed. Jamal Crawford made good on the second pair for the final margin of victory.
We've talked about the Clippers' depth all season, and it was on full display in this game. Six players off the Clippers bench scored between five and nine points, providing a bench scoring margin of 40-21 -- and that's on a night when Crawford shot just 2-7. Hill is the 11th man on this team when everyone is healthy. Green, who started and scored 10, is the 12th man. And 13th man Ronny Turiaf is a solid option as well if they need him. They don't need that deep depth in every game -- but as we saw tonight with Hill, it's nice to have it when you do need it.
We said that turnovers and offensive rebounds would be keys in this game. The Clippers held their own on the glass, allowing the Grizzlies 12 offensive boards, which is one under their per game average on the season. As for taking care of the ball, the Clippers committed just eight turnovers -- one of their best performances of the season in that regard. In fact, had the Grizzlies not hit a very uncharacteristic 6-13 three pointers the game might not have been so close.
There were heroes all over the place for the Clippers in this game. Griffin had an unspectacular game for him, but came up with the big defensive play at the end. Jordan carried the team in the first half with 16 points and finished with a 16/12 double double to go along with three blocked shots. Lamar Odom made two jump shots which he took in rhythm with confidence -- a shot that could prove invaluable in the playoffs if it continues to go in. It was a great team win in a big game in a hostile environment.
The Clippers aren't out of the woods yet of course. They can't assume that Memphis will lose either of their remaining games, and so they need to win out against Portland and Sacramento. That Sacramento game in particular looms large -- the Kings have been a very good home team lately, and beat the Clippers there just a couple of weeks ago. Not to mention that it will be an emotionally charged game, as it could be the last NBA game played in Sacramento if the league approves the sale of the team to Seattle.
But we'll worry about those games in a couple of days. For now, we'll just enjoy the win over the hated Grizzlies. Now the Clippers just have to beat them four more times.
For the Memphis perspective, visit Grizzly Bear Blues.