After everything the Los Angeles Clippers had done over the past six months to change their perception and transform the culture of the team, they were right back where they started before the biggest game of their season.
Going into Sunday’s Game 7 against the Memphis Grizzlies, the history and numbers were stacked against them, a position the Clippers have become all too familiar with in their star-crossed history.
The Clippers had never won a Game 7 in franchise history and had won only two playoff series, the last in 2006. In the history of the NBA playoffs, the road team had posted a 25.5 winning percentage in deciding games of a playoff series.
As has been the case for most of this season, Chris Paul ignored the history and the numbers that were stacked against him and led the Clippers to their second playoff series win since 1976 with an 82-72 win over the Grizzlies that will surely go down as the biggest in team history. The Clippers now advance to the second round of the playoffs against the San Antonio Spurs.
There were questions looming around Paul’s availability, or at least his effectiveness, heading into the game after he suffered a strained right hip flexor in Game 5 that limited him in Game 6. The same was true for Blake Griffin, who suffered a sprained left knee in Game 5 that made it hard for him to stay on the floor in the fourth quarter of Game 6 and again in Game 7, as he played 1:39 of the final period.
It was Paul’s toughness through the first three quarters of the game that put the Clippers in position to win. He had team highs with 17 points, eight rebounds and four assists heading into the fourth quarter, while no other Clippers player had reached double figures in points. But when the fourth quarter -- a time Paul has always referred to as “winning time” -- rolled around, it was the Clippers’ bench that propelled them to victory.
The Clippers' bench scored the first 23 points of the fourth quarter and took the Clippers from a 56-55 deficit to start the final period to a 71-61 lead with 6:17 left before Paul returned to the game and assumed his “closer” role. The Clippers' bench scored 41 points, the same number as the Clippers’ starters.
Reserves Eric Bledsoe, Nick Young, Mo Williams, Kenyon Martin and Reggie Evans sparked the Clippers’ historic comeback from 24 points down with 7:55 left in Game 1, and the same second unit gave the Clippers a double-digit cushion in the fourth quarter of Game 7. The bench was one of the deciding factors in this series, outscoring the Grizzlies in five of the seven games, including a 41-to-11 advantage on Sunday.
Before the fourth quarter, Martin gathered the Clippers’ second unit and told them: “We’re going to be aggressive on the defensive end. We’re going to trap O.J. [Mayo] and we’re going to trap Rudy [Gay]. It’s on us right now. Don’t wait. This is what it’s about. This is what we’re here for. We’re in a great position, so let’s go out and take it.” Martin had been in these situations before as one of three Clippers who had played in a Game 7 -- and the only active Clipper who had advanced to the NBA Finals.
“This isn’t the first situation I’ve been in,” Martin said. “I’ve been in bigger situations than this one.”
After the game, the news conference podium belonged to Young and Martin, two players who joined the Clippers in the midst of the season. Young, who came to the Clippers in a trade on March 15, finished with 13 points. Martin, who signed with Clippers on Feb. 3 after playing in China, finished with 11 points and 10 rebounds. Evans, who was signed by the Clippers before the season opener and didn’t make his debut until Jan. 7, finished with nine rebounds, seven coming in the fourth quarter.
“K-Mart brings that intensity, he’s always going to be ready to play,” Paul said. “But defensively what he and Reggie Evans do for us you can’t measure it by points.”
For all the talk about the Clippers adding Paul, Chauncey Billups and Caron Butler in the offseason, it was the less-talked-about additions of Young, Martin and Evans that helped solidify the Clippers' bench and gave them a certain toughness (Evans and Martin) and swagger (Young) they didn’t have before.
After the game, Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro gathered the team together in the locker room and said: “We outrebounded them and we won the game. The bench, everybody that came off the bench in this series and this game, we played together and we won together as a team. I’m proud of you guys.” As good as the win was, however, Paul already began thinking about the next round, as he followed Del Negro by saying, “As soon as the wheels hit that ground in San Antonio we got some work to do.”
Memphis was the one city no team in the West wanted to visit in the playoffs. The Grizzlies had discarded the top-seeded Spurs in the first round last season and took Oklahoma City to seven games in the next round. This was not a group any team wanted to face in the first round, especially not the Clippers -- who had three starters making their playoff debuts. The Clippers, however, beat the Grizzlies twice in Memphis with bookend series wins that will, until further notice, be thought of as the high-water mark of the Clippers’ franchise.
Before this magical run, most Clippers fans pointed to a couple of first-round series exits under Larry Brown and one overachieving postseason under Mike Dunleavey as the franchise highlights. Those days seem like a distant memory now as Paul and these new-look Clippers rewrite the franchise history book, one playoff win at a time.
Markazi reported from Los Angeles.