LOS ANGELES – On the night it supposedly became all about Sunday afternoon in Memphis, a final Grizzlies-Clippers showdown to decide who advances to the Western Conference semifinals, it actually became about April and May of 2011.
To move forward to face the Spurs, the Grizzlies know they have the benefit of going backward while the Clippers do not. They know they have the benefit of the experience of last season and having played through tense moments, even a Game 7, and that this Clippers roster has not.
That fact was not lost on Memphis players after their 90-88 victory Friday night at Staples Center tied the first-round series 3-3 and forced a deciding Game 7 in less than two full days at the FedEx Forum, and with good reason. In a matchup that has been delightfully ungrounded – a historic L.A. comeback followed by a Grizzlies win followed by consecutive Clippers wins followed by consecutive Grizzlies wins – Memphis at least has the dependability of having been there before.
It doesn’t really matter now that the Grizzlies lost Game 7 of the second round to the Thunder on the road on May 15, 2011. It matters that Memphis got there in the first place, to the conference semis and then to the very end against a quality opponent while playing without an injured star, Rudy Gay. The Grizzlies, with most of the same players back, know about beating the Spurs in six games in the first round and know about coming back on short rest to win the opener in Oklahoma City and, most of all, know the unique emotions of one contest that decides advancement or vacation.
This Clippers roster knows only the last six games.
“It helps to know each other and trust each other,” Marc Gasol said after a game-high 23 points, along with nine rebounds. “We’ve been through it before. We fell a little short last year in Game 7 against OKC. We felt like a big reason was we were on the road, so it feels good to be at home for the Game 7, even though we know it doesn’t mean much because the game still has to be played and it’s going to be a real tough game.”
Said Zach Randolph: “It helps us. We’ve been through the storm before.”
The Clippers, not surprisingly, don’t see past experience as a major factor – “We didn’t want to go back to Memphis, not until next season sometime, but what can we do about it?” Chris Paul said. If nothing else, it will be interesting to see how they handle the moment, just as their comeback for the ages in the opener at the FedEx Forum quickly answered any question of their playoff toughness and resiliency.
Sunday back in Memphis is another chance for L.A. to overcome. And for the Grizzlies to build on 2011.