HANG TIME PLAYOFF HEADQUARTERS — Now you know why the Lakers were in such an uproar when that Chris Paul trade fell through.
With a playoff series on the line in a Game 7 on the road in Memphis, a beat up and worn out Paul dragged the Los Angeles Clippers to the finish line against the Hang Time Grizzlies by sheer force of will. Then, the Clippers’ bench gave the final push Sunday at the FedEx Forum in the 82-72 win that sealed their date with the San Antonio Spurs in one Western Conference semifinal.
Through three quarters, however, it was all Paul. It was his toughness and relentless attacks on both ends of the floor that set the tone for the visitors and kept the home crowd from overwhelming the moment.
“I felt like we should have won earlier,” the always confident Paul said after leading the Clippers to just their third playoff series win in 41 years. “But it doesn’t matter. As long as you win, I think it is a step in the right direction for our franchise.”
He was so confident he bought plane tickets to San Antonio for his wife and son on Saturday. You don’t operate with that kind of confidence unless you know your will to win is greater than that of your competition. And time and again in this series, Paul showed himself as the superior competitor to anyone else on either side.
Much like he did in their miraculous Game 1 comeback win, Paul led the Clippers back from a double-digit deficit in a hostile environment and snatched the game away at “winning time” (with a huge assists from Nick Young, Eric Bledsoe, Mo Williams, Kenyon Martin, Reggie Evans and the bench, which outscored the Grizzlies’ subs 41-11 Sunday).
And there are only a handful of players in the NBA you’d want on your side at “winning time” — Paul, Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade head up our short list.
In an environment where stars are lauded more for what they can do in the waning seconds of a close game than they can at perhaps any other time, Paul always seems to find his mark at the most opportune times. He finished with 19 points, nine rebounds and nine assists while playing with a painful right hip flexor.
“I haven’t worked that hard in my life,” an exhausted Paul said.
The Grizzlies will bellyache for days about missed opportunities and what should have been. But they gave the Clippers the opening twice on their home floor and both times, Paul and the Clippers did what they were supposed to do and took those games away.
Instead of playing to their obvious strength, inside through All-Star big men Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph and then out, the Grizzlies allowed this game to become a jump-shooting contest between perimeter players for most of Game 7. The Clippers won down the stretch thanks to Paul, those nine fourth quarter points from Young and the relentless rebounding of Martin and Evans.
“It was Game 7 pressure and jitters,” Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said. “We wanted to do well. We just wanted to let it rip. You walk up here and have two strikes on you in the ninth inning and you have to let it rip. And we didn’t.”
The Clippers will have no such luxury against the Spurs, the best team in the league during the regular season and arguably the most impressive so far during this postseason. The Spurs are well rested and motivated by the sting of their loss to the then-No. 8 seed Grizzlies in the first round last year. The wounded Clippers — both Paul and Blake Griffin (knee) — will hobble into San Antonio on just one day of rest.
That said, we’d be foolish to assume that Paul, and in turn the Clippers, won’t find a way to rise to the occasion. No one is crazy enough to pick the Clippers in the upset … well, expect for maybe Paul, who proved once again that some players are worth whatever sacrifice a franchise makes to get them.