Clippers' gritty Game 7 vs. Grizz propels them to second round
The Clippers won Game 7, 82-72, and just their third playoff series in 41 years
L.A.'s reserves dominated the fourth and the game (41-11) to ensure the win
Chris Paul & Co. will now face the top-seeded Spurs in the Western semifinals
The No. 7 tends to carry a lot of nostalgia. It's the number Mickey Mantle wore. It's James Bond's employee number. It's the number of wonders in the world. And it's the number of luck, jackpots, Avengers and Harry Potter books.
So it comes as little surprise that Game 7s hold a special place in basketball's heart. The do-or-die, win-or-go-home clichés ring true. When a seven-game series goes the distance, the finale tends to live up to the hype.
Sunday's clash added to the folklore. The only thing missing from the Game 7 street fight was the asphalt. But after the punches had settled, the Clippers were left standing with an 82-72 victory over the Grizzlies in Memphis, capping the first round's most exciting series and leaving both teams badly in need of ice baths and rest.
The rims took the brunt of the damage in the first quarter. Both teams shot a combined 11-of-41 to start the game and finished the first period a ghastly 27.6 percent from the field. Maybe it was nerves. Maybe it was the noon tipoff. But neither team was able to get anything going offensively, foreshadowing the brand of basketball the rest of the way. While the game wasn't hard up for intensity, it was in desperate need of points. Things were so ugly that defensive stopper Tony Allen scored the Grizzlies' first five points and finished the quarter as the team's top scorer -- with those same five points.
A chippy first period bordered on violent in the second. The battle between Blake Griffin and Zach Randolph alone featured more contact than last week's Floyd Mayweather-Miguel Cotto title fight. Despite bodies flying on nearly ever play, the Joey Crawford-led officiating team handed out only 48 fouls, a shade below the average for this series. It was clear the referees were going to let them play, so both teams decided to embrace the physicality.
No one did this more than Chris Paul, whose back-to-back baskets midway through the second quarter were the closest things to an offensive explosion in the first half. The Clippers led by as many as 10, but took only a 39-38 lead into the break after the Grizzlies were finally able to string together a few baskets.
The difference in the second half was the Clippers' bench. All series long, coach Vinny Del Negro has turned to his second-unit in confidence and he reaped the benefits once again Sunday. Los Angeles' reserves outscored Memphis' 27-3 in the second half (41-11 for the game) and played most of the fourth quarter when the Clippers used an 11-2 run to pull away. While Paul played six minutes in the fourth, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan contributed just four minutes combined, and Caron Butler and Randy Foye didn't even get off the bench.
Instead, it was the ragtag crew of Reggie Evans (zero points, nine rebounds), Kenyon Martin (11 points, 10 rebounds), Nick Young (13 points), Mo Williams (nine points) and Eric Bledsoe (eight points) that led the way. L.A.'s reserves dominated the fourth quarter so much that a starter didn't score a single point until Paul made a free throw with 28.4 seconds remaining. Del Negro hasn't had much praise thrown his way all season, but the decision to ride his bench and rest his marquee players -- namely, Griffin -- is ultimately why the Clippers prevailed in Game 7 and won just their third playoff series in 41 years.
Another reason the Clippers won Sunday was the grit displayed by Paul. He might be one of the NBA's best citizens off the floor, but on it he packs the nastiness and reckless abandon of Bill Laimbeer into a 6-foot frame. Paul finished with 19 points, nine rebounds and four assists Sunday, but it was his physicality that was felt the most.
Despite being hampered by injuries, the Clippers' floor general absorbed more contact than a workhorse running back in Game 7 -- most of which he initiated. Paul's 35 hard-fought minutes were the type of leadership and intensity the Clippers needed to beat the Grizzlies at home. Entering Sunday, home teams were 87-21 all time in Game 7s.
Evans is one of those guys you absolutely hate unless he's on your team. The 6-foot-8, 245-pound menace is the NBA's version of an enforcer. He comes into games to disrupt the other team and frustrate opposing stars. Case in point: He committed 17 fouls in just his last four games. On Sunday, he was at his best, playing 19 game-altering minutes despite not taking a single shot. He finished with a game-high plus-18 rating and dominated the glass and Grizzlies big man Randolph (3-of-12 shooting) when on the floor. Evans' bruising buddy, Martin, showed the same type of toughness inside while adding 11 points on 5-of-7 shooting.
Much has been made all series about the Grizzlies' interior duo of Randolph and Marc Gasol, but they were outmatched in Game 7. In Memphis' wins in Game 5 and 6, the duo averaged 41 points and 21 rebounds on 53 percent shooting. On Sunday, they managed just 28 points and 17 rebounds on 39 percent shooting. With Griffin hobbled by a sprained left knee and playing a supplementary role, the Grizz's bigs had an opportunity to take over and make the difference. Instead, they were outmanned by two veterans earning about an eighth of their salary.
With the Clippers advancing, the Spurs are spared from a postseason rematch against the Grizzlies, who swept them out of the playoffs in the first round last season as the No. 8 seed. San Antonio went 2-1 against Los Angeles during the regular season, but it'll have its hands full in the second round, assuming the Clippers can physically recover from the quick turnaround.
Tim Duncan will have to deal with a litany of defenders in Griffin, Jordan, Evans and Martin. Butler will be pasted to Manu Ginobili. And the matchup between Paul and Tony Parker will be as competitive of a positional battle as we'll see all postseason.
The series could come down to health as much as talent. With the Clippers ailing (Griffin, Paul, Butler) and the Spurs aging (Duncan, Parker, Ginobili), rest and minute monitoring will be critical. The teams are scheduled to play back-to-back games in Los Angeles next week, a stretch that will test the two team's depth and likely affect the outcome of the series.