1. Clippers Bench Stars In Game 7 Win
MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- There are big postseason games marked by a brilliant strategic adjustment, exploiting a defensive weakness or attacking a mismatch at the perfect moment. The winning team's playbook comes alive on the court while every pass, shot and screen are guided by purpose.
"On the whiteboard, all the X's and O's didn't even matter," Clippers forward Kenyon Martin said. "You didn't have to write any of that. It wasn't about any of that -- schemes, what they were going to run."
In many ways, Game 7 was the quintessential Clippers win. They've never relied on tactical prowess to down their opponents, nor do they have a coach steeped in the dark arts of basketball stratagems. Their defense isn't governed by a system and their offense can best be described as ad-hoc.
Fewer than one in five road teams has won Game 7 in the NBA postseason, and if the Clippers were going to overcome probabilities, injuries to their two best players and their own organizational history, they weren't going to do it with style points -- not in a hostile arena against a Grizzlies team that's made disruption its trademark.
Despite all that, Chris Paul never doubted the Clippers, at least not monetarily. As he got round-the-clock treatment on his strained right hip flexor, Paul bought plane tickets to San Antonio for his wife and son under the assumption the Clippers would pull out a Game 7 win on the road.
"I came in here expecting to win," Paul said.
Few others outside the Clippers' camp did. In addition to Paul's hip flexor, Blake Griffin was still hobbled with a sprained left knee. The Clippers coughed up an eight-point lead in the fourth quarter of Game 6, the kind of event that can break a team with an opportunity at home to close out an opponent. Memphis had regained its defensive edge and dominance of the paint.
Yet there the Clippers were, grinding with Memphis. Like most Clippers wins, it wasn't elegant. Neither team shot above 37 percent in the first half and the Clippers were subsisting on their usual steady diet of improvisation and Chris Paul -- usually both.
But in other respects, Sunday's win was a vast departure for the team. The book on the Clippers coming into the playoffs was that they had some fatal deficiencies: defense, depth and free throw shooting. The Clippers' starting units posted strong results all season, but their bench tallied a net negative. Likewise, the Clippers had the NBA's fifth-ranked offense in the regular season, but their defense was well below league average. At the foul line, only Orlando was less proficient than the Clippers.
On Sunday, the Clippers were lifted by their defense and their bench, and hit their free throws at a 78 percent clip.
Martin, who didn't play his first game with the Clippers until Feb. 8, marshaled the Clippers' second unit known internally as the Goon Squad. A lineup of Martin, Eric Bledsoe, Mo Williams, Nick Young and Reggie Evans took control of the game during a fateful stretch to open the fourth quarter.
"This win goes to those guys, Eric Bledsoe, K-Mart," Paul said. "I was back [in the locker room]. I was back here getting stretched and loose. I come out there and we're up eight."
While Paul was on the treatment table, the Goon Squad patrolled the floor for the Clippers for nearly the first six minutes at the start of the fourth quarter, during which the Clippers turned a one-point deficit into an eight-point lead. Martin hit a face-up jumper to give the Clippers the lead. As Evans stole a pass on the next possession, Young leaked out and drained a 3-pointer.
The Grizzlies promptly called timeout, but the Clippers' bench unit never relented when the action picked up. Martin anchored the defense. Young hit timely shots. Evans performed the dirty work. Williams recorded a steal and a big 3-pointer. But the energy was generated on both ends of the floor by the second-year point guard, Bledsoe.
"He's a pit bull out there," Young said. "Hard-nosed, driving. Strong little man, and he gets the job done out there. You need that type of player on the court with you."
Bledsoe is often described as raw, a player with boundless athleticism and a motor that never shuts off, the kind of 6-foot-1 guard who draws goaltending calls. At times, he can lose sight of game situations, but in the seven games against Memphis, Bledsoe provided the Clippers with incomparable on-ball defense on Mike Conley and O.J. Mayo and a change of tempo from Paul's more controlled pace.
"He is a pest defensively," Paul said. "We just try to get him to control it. At times, you can be aggressive, but then you have to lay off. Because I tell him all the time, if you're guarding me, I'm going to go right by."
Bledsoe might have had the game's most pivotal bucket inside the three-minute mark with the Clippers leading by six. On a broken set, the ball landed in his hands along the right sideline. Bledsoe used a screen by Evans to drive right against a backpedaling Zach Randolph then finished along the baseline with what can be described as a reverse floating layup that give the Clippers a 75-67 lead with 2:40 remaining.
That a Clippers opponent would have only 67 points in 45 minutes was a testimony to Martin, Bledsoe, as well as the starting unit. Randolph and Marc Gasol had wrested control of the series in Games 5 and 6, but encountered strong defense in the first quarter from DeAndre Jordan and Griffin. Help was quicker to arrive and the baseline rotations were prompt all afternoon.
"Both teams played a hell of a defensive game," Jordan said before appropriating Memphian lingo. "It was a grind game. Our defense was going to win us this game."
The Clippers' locker room was a festive place after the win. Clippers reserve forward Bobby Simmons had snagged an enormous cardboard cutout of Paul's head -- which Grizzlies fans had been waving -- with Paul wearing a baby's bonnet and sucking on a Clippers pacifier.
"A keepsake," Simmons said.
In the far corner, Griffin was in good spirits, but gingerly put on his clothes. He was clearly suffering from his sprained left knee after turning in a gutty effort in 28 minutes.
"There are movements I wanted to do that I couldn't do," Griffin said. "I'm in a situation where, physically, I can't do what I need to do."
When the conference semifinals begin on Tuesday in San Antonio, the Clippers will be long shots -- a position compounded by Griffin's condition. Paul and others could be heard already talking about the Spurs with reverence. "High basketball IQ" was a phrase that had obviously been released in the Clippers' water supply because three different members of the Clippers' roster used it to express their upcoming matchup -- Paul among them.
"I think that might be the team in the NBA I respect the most," Paul said. "They just know how to play."
Paul dispenses admiration very carefully. It's generally reserved for family and teammates, and almost when there's nothing to lose by vulnerability. As Paul praised the Spurs and Gregg Popovich, the suggestion made all the sense in the world:
This is why Chris Paul is in Los Angeles with the woebegone Clippers. He's there to teach them how to play basketball.
2. Around The Association
Recap | Box score
MVP: Kenyon Martin. With an injured Blake Griffin struggling on offense and defense, Kenyon Martin turned out to be the answer. He battled underneath against Zach Randolph, pulling down 10 boards (four offensive) and hit some key shots when left open (11 points).
X factor: "Grit and Grind." It's the Grizzlies' mantra, but the Clippers won the battle of the boards and their bench created havoc in the fourth. In the end, it was the team from L.A. that won ugly.
That was fitting: In a series where key spurts won games for both teams, Eric Bledsoe lifted the Clippers' late run. He played excellent perimeter D over his 14 minutes on the floor, attacked off the dribble (six points) and also found teammates in transition (three assists).
Recap | Box score
MVP: LeBron James scored 16 of his 32 points in the fourth quarter and had a season-high 15 rebounds the day he accepted the Most Valuable Player trophy from commissioner David Stern before the game.
LVP: The Pacers badly needed some scoring from the perimeter and Danny Granger did not deliver. He finished 1-of-10 shooting in 40 minutes.
X factor: Chris Bosh went down with a lower abdominal strain in the first half, putting the rest of his series in question. Joel Anthony stepped up, however, providing nine points and seven rebounds.
3. Sunday's Best
The Clippers' bench: You might expect CP3 heroics or Blake Griffin rim-rattlers to deliver a Game 7 win. Try Kenyon Martin, Eric Bledsoe, Mo Williams, Nick Young and Reggie Evans wresting control from Memphis in the fourth to send the Clippers to their third playoff series win in 41 years.
4. Sunday's Worst
Danny Granger, Pacers: Yes, the Pacers are no longer in Orlando anymore. Having to mind the newly minted MVP LeBron James on defense is no easy task, and it took a toll on Granger. After averaging 21.4 ppg against the Magic, Granger went 1-for-10 with seven points in the Game 1 defeat.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
8. Down Goes Bosh
9. Stats Check
LeBron James led the Heat with 32 points, 15 rebounds and five assists in Miami's Game 1 victory against the Pacers. It was the 21st playoff game of James's NBA career in which he was his team's outright leader in each of those three categories, the most such postseason games, by far, for any player in NBA history. In fact, the only other players to do that in half as many playoff games as LeBron are Larry Bird (13 times) and Tim Duncan (11 times). James's teams are 17-4 in playoff games in which he was their outright leader in points, rebounds and assists (Cleveland 13-4 and Miami 4-0, including 2-0 this year).
10. Dunk Of The Night