LOS ANGELES -- Starting any story with a description of the Los Angeles Clippers' trophy case seems like the beginning to a played-out joke about the franchise's star-crossed history.
This time, however, it might serve as a window into a newfound rivalry that could help the Clippers grow into the contenders they aspire to be.
Situated in the Clippers' practice facility among trophies and certificates given to Clippers owner Donald Sterling over the years for his charitable work, and the four NBA lottery balls that led to the Clippers' drafting Blake Griffin, rests a single game ball. The painted ball, placed in a square glass case, is from the Clippers' Game 7 win over the Memphis Grizzlies in last season's first-round playoff series. It was easily the biggest win in the franchise's short playoff history. It could also be argued that the second-biggest win was the Clippers' historic comeback from 27 points down in Game 1 of that series in Memphis.
After completing the greatest regular season in franchise history, the Clippers didn't think they would have to see the Grizzlies again. They had won too many games (56) and played too well down the stretch (seven straight wins) to be paired against a team that is still is regarded by some as a dark-horse pick to get to the NBA Finals. In fact, since the NBA instituted the current playoff format in 1983-84, only one other first-round playoff series featured two teams that won at least 56 games each during the regular season, and that happened 15 years ago.
Yet, there they were again Saturday night, opening up the first game of what could turn out to be another classic seven-game series.
The Clippers won Game 1 112-91, this time in Los Angeles and this time without the need for an historic comeback. The Clippers actually dominated the game, going up by as many as 21 points in the second half, and never trailed.
It wasn't exactly the bruise-fest we expected it would be. The officials didn't really allow for that, calling 57 fouls and four each on Blake Griffin and Zach Randolph well before the end of the third quarter. It seemed every time Griffin and Randolph were about to go at it, one was called for a foul that led them to the bench.
Griffin eventually fouled out with 3:32 left after scoring only 10 points and grabbing five rebounds. Clippers center DeAndre Jordan had an equally subpar game, scoring three points, grabbing eight rebounds and sitting out nearly the entire fourth quarter.
Despite those performances, the Clippers not only dominated the game but dominated the boards, outrebounding the Grizzlies 47-23.
"It's going to be physical every single game, that's the way he likes to play and that's the way you have to play him," Griffin said. "As long as at the end of the game we're winning that rebounding battle and we're up, I'm cool with it."
While Game 1 lacked the WWE feel of last season's series opener, it showed flashes of why the Clippers are better than they were last year and seem to be growing up each time they take the floor against the Grizzlies. Young teams on the rise, learning to become contenders, need a nemesis. They need a rival to measure themselves against; a team they genuinely dislike but also quietly keep track of.
Whether they want to admit it or not, that team has been the Grizzlies the past two seasons. Sure, the Clippers want to be compared to the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder, but as Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro has said ad nauseam, "it's a process."
When the Clippers defeated the Grizzlies last year, everything was so new to them. It was the first postseason for Griffin, Jordan and Eric Bledsoe. The Clippers' core group had been together for only 66 games during a lockout-shortened season in which they were essentially thrown together a couple of weeks before the season opener, with no real training camp and hardly any practices during the season.
This time, the Clippers look like a different team, largely because they are. There are nine new players on this team who didn't play in last year's playoffs, not including Chauncey Billups, who played in his first postseason game in two years Monday and had 14 points. Not only is the Clippers' bench completely revamped, but gone are the playoff beards they grew last year as a team. They might be a staple in hockey, but it screamed of a team simply happy to be in the postseason last year.
Last year's playoffs were a coming-out party for Bledsoe, who has since matured into arguably the best backup point guard in the league and a player who can change the complexion of a game every time he touches the ball. On Saturday, he had 15 points, six rebounds and four assists, with all but two points of that stat line coming in the fourth quarter. His performance highlighted the play of the Clippers' bench, which transformed from the "Goon Squad" last season led by Kenyon Martin and Reggie Evans, to "A Tribe Called Bench" this season. The group, as has been the case the season, was led by Bledsoe, Jamal Crawford (13 points) and Matt Barnes (10 points).
"We're used to that," said Chris Paul, who had 23 points and seven rebounds. "I think we have the best bench in the league. I stay in Bledsoe's ear because he's the catalyst that leads that ship. He's the guy that's a game changer. When he's playing with that aggressive mentality on both ends of the court, we're tough to beat."
After the game in the locker room, there was a message written on the Clippers' dry erase board: "9 min. left 77-76. End game on 35-15 run!"
It was a champion-like sequence from a team looking to become a championship team. It might be only one game, but if the Clippers can continue playing this way, maybe their trophy case will soon hold something more than just a game ball from a first-round series win.