Coach Vinny Del Negro didn’t want to do it, but Chris Paul insisted. When Del Negro relented and put Paul back into Game 1 of the opening-round playoff series between the Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies, venerable Clippers announcer Ralph Lawler openly questioned the move. The Clippers were down a whopping 21 points with less than 10 minutes remaining. The Grizzlies had led from the first basket and had maintained a double-digit lead since the score was 20-9 midway through the first quarter. Game 1 was obviously way out of reach, and Paul was still recovering from a mild groin strain suffered just five days prior. Surely discretion was the better part of valor here and the smart thing for the Clippers to do was to live to fight another day. Rest up, come out swinging in Game 2; you only need to win one of the first two to steal home court advantage, and clearly this wasn’t that one.Chris Paul thought differently.
Even Paul may not have believed that the Clippers could mount a fourth quarter comeback that rivals any in NBA Playoffs history. It was, after all, as Blake Griffin described it later “unbelievable.” But Chris Paul is as competitive as any player in the NBA, and he wasn’t about to skulk out of the FedEx Forum with his tail between his legs. In a game that had gone badly from the opening tip (seriously, if DeAndre Jordan can’t win a jump ball against Marc Gasol, where exactly is his advantage on the basketball court?) the Clippers needed to establish something positive — anything really — in advance of Game 2.
And Paul knew something, too. He knew that less than three weeks earlier, in the very same building, the Clippers had trailed the Grizzlies by 17 points with seven minutes remaining and used a 19-5 run to close to within three before finally falling. He knew that the Clippers had more victories in which they had overcome double-digit deficits than any other NBA team this season, and that he had orchestrated most of them. In the mind of Chris Paul, the game is never over.
When O.J. Mayo drained a three-pointer a minute after Paul had checked back in (Memphis’ 11th of the game, their high for the season), the Clippers were down by 24 with just nine minutes remaining. But Paul and the Clippers finished the game on a 28-3 run from that point to come away from Game 1 with a 99-98 victory. It was Paul’s two free throws with 23.7 seconds remaining that put the Clippers ahead for good.
Including the game-winning free throws, Paul scored just four points in the crucial final quarter. He finished the game with just 14 after being held to a single point in the first half. But although Paul is a very good scorer, his value to the Clippers goes way beyond the points he scores. Paul handed out seven assists in the final 10 minutes, with four of those leading directly to three-point baskets. Taking those threes into consideration, Paul had a hand in 22 of the Clippers’ final 30 points in the game.
The sequence that changed the comeback from “this will give us confidence heading into Game 2” to “holy crap, we could actually win this thing” came with three minutes remaining. Despite a solid run by the Clippers, the Grizzlies had managed to maintain half of their 24-point lead. Up 12 with so little time left, it seemed clear they were going to be able to hold on. But when the Clippers ran a nice set out of a time out to get an open three-pointer for Nick Young, Paul delivered a perfect pass and Young drained the shot — nine-point game. After a defensive stop, Paul secured the rebound and pushed up court, finding Young in the right corner just five seconds into the shot clock, and again he nailed the trey — six-point game. Another stop, another quick push, and once again Paul found Young in the same corner. Three Chris Paul assists on three Nick Young three-pointers in 60 seconds and suddenly it was a three-point game with just under two minutes remaining. And at that point you pretty much had to expect that Paul and the Clippers were going to win.
Paul has led the Clippers to some heart-stopping wins this season. He has hit game-winners against Philadelphia and Portland and Oklahoma City. He is without question among the best closers in the NBA. But to lead the team back from 24 down in his first playoff game in a Clippers uniform is uncharted territory even for Paul. The fact that the Clippers were able to steal a victory on the road in the first-ever playoff game for Blake Griffin and three other key members of the Clippers rotation is monumental. Griffin and his young teammates learned some valuable lessons about playoff basketball Sunday night.
And everyone learned that a Chris Paul-led team is never out of a game.
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