No, seriously. Don’t call it a comeback. Because as valiant as it was for the Los Angeles Clippers to find a way to rally from being down 21 in the fourth quarter, Memphis lost this game more than the Clippers won it. After an appalling first quarter, the Clippers played the Grizzlies pretty even for the next two quarters. But despite the fact that they were down by as much as 27, the Clippers roared back in one of the greatest playoff comebacks/worst playoff collapses in NBA history.
Give credit where it’s due; Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and most especially, the Clippers’ bench, never gave up and did what they needed to to pull off the improbable win on the road, which was especially impressive after losing Caron Butler to a broken hand. Griffin rallied from an absent first-half performance to finish with 17 points and 7 rebounds while CP3 managed to rack up 14 points and 11 assists despite a poor shooting night. But it was the Clippers’ bench that surprised everyone and stole Game 1 from the Grizzlies. Nick Young had 19 points on 6-for-9 shooting. Mo Williams and Eric Bledsoe had nine points apiece. Even Reggie Evans got involved, scoring seven points and making a huge layup that first gave LAC a late lead. If the Clippers can keep this kind of bench production going, they’re going to be dangerous in this series and moving forward. There are definitely areas that need to improve (actually showing up in the first half, Randy Foye only scoring three points, turning the ball over 17 times), but a win like this has to feel good, especially considering they got a crucial road victory.
But as fun as it was to watch as an Clippers fan or someone rooting for the underdog to get the improbable win, it was absolutely miserable to watch as a Memphis fan or someone who understands what it takes to win a basketball game. There’s only one word to describe the Grizzlies down the stretch last night: choke. There are no excuses to dominate a game for three quarters and completely fall apart like that. The Grizzlies played extremely well and couldn’t do wrong: Mike Conley was outplaying Chris Paul, Zach Randolph and Marreese Speights were functioning as an effective 1-2 combo, O.J. Mayo was putting on a show off the bench and the Grizzlies were hitting all their 3-pointers. But then everything fell apart. They turned the ball over, kept taking 3-pointers long after they stopped falling, didn’t get to the free throw line, were out-hustled, and displayed extremely poor transition defense (someone probably should have guarded Nick Young for those back-to-back corner 3’s. Just a thought). All while looking completely terrified and shocked.
When you have your foot on a team’s throat in a playoff game, these guys are taught to step on it. But tonight, Memphis took their foot off, helped the Clippers up, gave them a lozenge and apologized profusely for the whole affair. The biggest case-in-point: When Rudy Gay hit a huge shot to put the Grizzlies back on top with under 30 seconds to play, Memphis cheered for about two seconds before the air in the building completely dried up again. No one was surprised a dumb foul sent Chris Paul to the line, no one was surprised he made both free throws to take the lead back and no one was surprised when Rudy Gay missed the buzzer beater to win it. At that point, everyone in the building and watching at home knew the Grizzlies didn’t deserve to win anymore and the Clippers were going to make them pay. The entire arena was shocked that their blowout had rapidly turned into a competitive game, let alone an upset. So when LAC took the lead for the first time and the impossible thought of actually losing entered everyone’s minds, the tension in the arena was palpable. When an entire arena full of rabid Memphis fans doesn’t go ballistic for a Rudy Gay-go-ahead shot with less than a minute to play in a highly anticipated playoff match, you know that there is a reason for the stunned silence. Everyone lost faith as soon as the Clippers took the lead on a Reggie Evans layup. There was no way the Grizzlies were winning that game, everyone could feel it and the game played out that way exactly.
Memphis is still a dangerous team and they have home-court advantage in this series. But a loss like this definitely shook up this team’s confidence and composure. Marc Gasol looked absolutely terrified in the game’s final minutes, bobbling a few passes and committing a costly turnover that sent Blake Griffin to the line (he made both). Rudy Gay could barely show any emotion other than being stunned, even after he made the shot to reclaim the lead. And the look on his face after missing the potential game-winner said it all: He looked regretful about missing the shot, but he almost looked like he had already accepted the fact the Grizzlies weren’t going to win. Basically, he was nowhere near as emotional or upset as you’d expect someone in his position to be. The Clippers should be concerned about losing Butler and about their overall performance, because they really only played well for one quarter. But Memphis should be even more concerned, because LAC now knows it can compete no matter what the scoreboard says.