Los Angeles Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro, scratching the five o’clock shadow he has been growing since before the playoffs, smiled as he talked about his team’s lack of postseason experience before Sunday’s game against the Memphis Grizzlies.
“Guys think they're ready, but they're not,” Del Negro said. “It will be a different level. It will be a different intensity, and when you're in a series and teams take away certain things, your weaknesses show more.”
Well, for three and half quarters, Del Negro was right. The Clippers weren’t ready. In fact, they looked like a team that wasn’t even ready to play a high school team, let alone the franchise’s first playoff game in six years.
The Clippers were down 27 points with about two minutes left in the third quarter and down 95-71 with less than eight minutes left in the game. Del Negro was all but ready to grab one of the white T-shirts that the team handed to Memphis fans and wave it at the officials to put an end to the game before Chris Paul begged him not to.
“At the end of the third quarter Coach took me out and I went nuts,” Paul said. “I said, 'Coach give us a chance! Give us a chance!' He puts us back in there and [Eric] Bledsoe got going, Nick Young was amazing and Reggie Evans gets the game ball, he was unreal.”
Del Negro had already seen Caron Butler fracture his left hand late in the third quarter and watched his former player Derrick Rose tear his ACL in the final minute of Chicago’s playoff opening win on Saturday. He wanted to sit his starters down but he listened to Paul and gave them a few more minutes. Suddenly, Memphis’ 21-point lead was whittled down to 16. Then 10. Then, well, you know.
The Clippers closed out the game on a 28-3 run to beat the Memphis, 99-98, and complete the greatest comeback in NBA playoff history and the greatest win in Clippers history.
“It’s a shame when you see how we can play at the end of the game,” Paul said. “We’re going to look at the tape and see how we came out so lethargic at the beginning of the game but it’s a good win for us. It got a little emotional out here because of that but we have to get our composure back and get us ready for Game 2.”
If Del Negro could have conjured up the worst possible start for the Clippers, not even his own nightmarish scenario would have matched the disastrous opening of the game for the Clippers. Not only did the Grizzlies jump out to a 34-16 lead in the opening quarter but Paul and Blake Griffin each picked up two fouls in the first quarter. Even as the third quarter rolled around, Paul (two fouls, one point) and Griffin (three fouls, two points) had more fouls than points.
All the questions about playoff inexperience and how the Clippers weren’t ready for this moment were beginning to show up on the court. This is why no one wanted to play the Grizzlies. This is why the Clippers were in trouble; playing with three starters with no playoff experience. This is why the Clippers needed to get home-court advantage in the first round if they had any chance of advancing.
In one magical, eight-minute stretch of basketball, however, the Clippers regained home court, made playoff history on the road and in the process gained probably a year’s worth of playoff experience in one night.
The Clippers’ fast-tracking the process for learning how to win in the playoffs and become a contender falls in line with what this team has tried to do during this lockout-shortened season. Much of this roster was put together beginning in December when Paul, Butler and Chauncey Billups were added in the offseason. A new piece was seemingly added to the puzzle every month up until the trade deadline. They have been a work in progress all season but for eight minutes on Sunday, they showed everyone how amazing the final product can look.