I’m sorry this is entirely too long. I’ve written so many meaningless, worthless recaps over the years — it just didn’t feel right to have them be the same length as this game. More succinct analysis and video coming soon. Until then, here’s this. -D.J.
9.8 seconds left on the clock. Grizzlies down one, their ball. Rudy Gay dribbles side-to-side at the top of the key, 30 feet away from the hoop. A crouched Kenyon Martin patiently awaits him. This is what the game has come down to.
Gay dribbles, waiting for a reaction before he eventually makes his move — a few hard dribbles to his left to turn the corner and blow by the slower defender. Martin is beat at first but regains the advantage, and picks a point on the floor to cut off the penetration. The two men collide at about 13-feet, and Gay absorbs the blow and elevates with a fadeaway jumper. It’s a shot he’s hit a million times, but Martin contests it well with his long arms. Both men have done their jobs.
The shot has a high arc. It hangs in the air for a long time, but it becomes clear during the descent that it will likely miss its intended target. It’s too short. The shot clangs off the front iron, and Blake Griffin carves out the exact spot the ball will fall to. He collects the rebound and shoots away from the pack like he’s been shot out of a cannon. The buzzer sounds. The Clippers’ bench rushes the court. They’ve actually done it.
The Los Angeles Clippers have successfully completed one of the greatest comebacks in playoff history and one of the greatest wins in the history of the franchise.
How the hell did we get here?
We have to go back first. You don’t want to leave this moment, but I have something to show you first.
Let’s go back to November 29th, 2009. We’re at the Staples Center. The season is only 18 games in, meaning that hope is not yet completely dead. DeAndre Jordan is the only link to the present that actually plays. Blake Griffin watches every game from behind the Clippers bench, in a suit.
The Memphis Grizzlies sport a more familiar lineup of Conley-Mayo-Gay-Randolph-Gasol. They crush the Clippers through the first three periods, and cruise into the fourth with an 18-point lead.
But suddenly, the Grizzlies stop scoring. Marc Gasol is coughing up the ball. Rudy Gay is missing easy shots.
The Clippers, meanwhile, can’t miss. They’re flying around in transition, getting easy dunks. The lead evaporates for the Grizzlies, who have seemingly developed a temporary case of basketball amnesia. Al Thornton puts the Clips ahead with a little over a minute to play, and the Grizzlies look done. Sebastian Telfair hits a 3-pointer (the ultimate “go home” moment) and the Clippers’ comeback is complete.
Remember this. This is where it began.
It’s now January 12th, 2010. The Clippers are, surprisingly enough, still looking good. Mike Dunleavy’s seat is a relatively cool temperature, and Baron Davis looks downright svelte. The Clippers have a chance to hit the .500 mark 35 games into the season – a massive accomplishment considering the failures of the previous seasons. They’re really sticking it to Memphis – Baron is on his way to an impressive triple-double, and DeAndre Jordan is putting up the best game of his career.
Then something happens that’s more bizarre than Baron Davis triple-doubles or DeAndre Jordan 23-point games: fire alarms go off in the arena. The Clippers and Grizzlies are in the middle of a game in Memphis, and fire alarms are going off. The scoreboard flashes an alert to evacuate the arena. Ralph Lawler, who is always quick on his feet, bails from the broadcast and joins those leaving the building. The floor is clear. The arena is empty.
As it turns out, a broken water-main tripped a fire alarm during the third period. The Clippers were up 89-77 before the interruption, and returned back to the court to put the finishing touches on their win.
Then disaster actually struck. The Clippers quickly blew their lead and allowed Memphis to come all the way back and eventually win it.
The Clippers season died that night in Memphis. You may remember it as the “Water-Main Game”. The Clips were devastated with the loss, and would go 12-34 the rest of the season. Dunleavy would be fired midway through the year – midway through a game, actually. It was the end of an era, and it started in Memphis.
Our last stop: April 13th, 2011. The Clippers are a young, exciting team with nothing to play for in the last game of the regular season, and the Grizzlies, on their end, already have playoff position locked up. It’s a nothing game. It means nothing.
The Grizzlies treat the first half as such, going down 66-37 to the Clippers at Staples. The game is such a blowout, I decide to eat extra ice cream in the press room instead of watching the beginning of the third quarter. Of course, the Grizzlies come out firing, and eventually whittle the Clippers’ once insurmountable 29-point lead all the way down to four in the final period. The likes of Hamed Haddadi can’t complete the comeback, though, and the Clippers narrowly avoid blowing one of the biggest leads in NBA history in their final game of 2011.
Back to the future: 2012. Everything has changed, except for the Grizzlies. They’ve remained virtually unchanged over three years. Outside of DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin, “water-main” carries no meaning with this squad. They do not reminisce over Al Thornton led comebacks. Chris Paul openly scoffs at any mention of the past that doesn’t involve him. The Clippers are a new team. New players, new identity. The past does not concern them. The past does not exist.
Now we’re back — Game One: Grizzlies fans are rocking the FedEx Arena. I half expect the broadcast to show a “noise meter” like they did during the Utah Jazz-Chicago Bulls final, and for Dick Stockton to explain to me that it’s as noisy in there as a chainsaw would be next to my ear, which I imagine is fairly unpleasant.
Zach Randolph starts off the game with a jumper, and crowd goes crazy. When he does pushups after a hard foul early on, they eat it up. The Clippers on the ropes early – Memphis can’t miss a shot, and Chris Paul looks slow, sluggish and out of sync with everyone on a few uncharacteristic turnovers. The Clippers try to use their side pick and roll to get them back on track. It’s their old familiar standby, but Marc Gasol, Tony Allen and Rudy Gay have taken all the parking spaces in the paint. The only answer is to go to Caron Butler and Randy Foye on the outside, but they’re getting chased off the 3-point line. Once open looks for the Clippers’ spot up shooters in the regular season are now forced forays to the rim with a legitimate shot blocker awaiting them. The Grizzlies weren’t forcing the Clippers to their third option – they were forcing their third option to beat them with his third option. Shooters shoot. The Grizzlies wouldn’t allow that, though.
Before the Clippers can even adjust, they’re down 18 points just like that, 30-12. Marc Gasol is doing whatever he wants in the high post – shooting his jumper, finding cutters, whatever. The Grizzlies perimeter guys are banging home threes. Old Clipper Law has found a way to manifest itself: everything that can go wrong will – usually at the worst possible time.
The second quarter begins, and the Clippers find themselves in the precarious situation of having to rely on their bench to provide the offense necessary to get back into the game. With Griffin in foul trouble and not getting any uncontested post touches or the time and space needed to operate and Paul unable to get into the teeth of the defense, the Clippers have to turn to…Nick Young and Eric Bledsoe?
Well, surprise, surprise. The Grizzlies’ blitzing closeouts may have worked against Butler, Foye and Williams, but Young’s athleticism and life-like pump fake was enough to make the Grizzlies’ perimeter defenders pump their brakes a little bit. Young’s 8 points in the second quarter gave the Clippers temporary life.
While Mo Williams hopped around and tried (and failed) to stay in front of O.J. Mayo, Eric Bledsoe waited for a call to cool down Mayo that he never received. The Grizzlies extended their lead behind their home crowd yet again, and the half ended in the most fitting of ways – a Gasol dunk on a defensive breakdown.
At the half, the Grizzlies had just two turnovers and were shooting 83 percent from the 3-point line. Blake Griffin and Chris Paul, meanwhile, combined for the same amount of turnovers as points (3).
Eventually, things would regress to the mean, right? Right?
It didn’t look like it in the third quarter. Mike Conley 3-ball. Another Mike Conley 3-ball. Chris Paul goes under the screen, DeAndre Jordan doesn’t show…Mike Conley 3-ball. Three straight bombs from behind the arc for Conley, and then O.J. Mayo hits one for good measure. Before you know it, Chris Paul picks up a technical, and the Clippers are down 27, their biggest deficit yet. It’s over. The Grizzlies march into the fourth quarter with a 21-point lead. Channels everywhere are changed. “They’re still the Clippers” probably trends on Twitter, for all I know. It’s a wrap.
Chris Paul started the fourth quarter on the bench, but he had no interest in staying there. He’s delusional, like most pro athletes sort of have to be, and he wants back in the game. Del Negro, to his credit, throws him in there.
With Paul back in, O.J. Mayo bangs another three to extend the Grizzlies lead to 24. Lawler’s Law beckons with 9 minutes left to play. Vinny Del Negro considers pulling his starters and waving the white flag. Caron Butler, the only player who did anything in the first quarter, has already broken his hand. Chris Paul has an iffy groin. No one would argue with the decision to regroup.
But hey! Reggie Evans got a bucket and a foul, and his free throw just slightly nicked the rim and allowed an opportunistic Blake Griffin to slam home the follow. 20-point game, under 8 to play. Zach Randolph and Reggie Evans do a little sumo wrestling in the post, with Zach literally belly bumping Reggie to free up space. Reggie doesn’t move. Z-Bo attempts to go around, but dribbles it off his foot like it was 2008. Chris Paul splits a pick-and-roll on the other end and flies down the middle of the paint for an easy layup. 18.
Eric Bledsoe, as he tends to do, comes out of the pack with an offensive rebound and spots up for an easy baseline jumper with no one near him. 16. Rudy Gay misses a pullup, and Evans gobbles it up. On the other end, Bledsoe cuts to the opposite corner while all eyes are on Paul, and sneaks over to the same corner he just nailed a jumper from. This time, it’s a bingo from 3. 13.
Panic starts to set in a bit with the Grizzlies crowd. Conley wisely gets to the rim, draws the foul on an attempted charge by Bledsoe, and hits one of two. 14.
Here’s where Blake Griffin enters the picture. On the block alone with Marreese Speights, Griffin pulls off the prettiest post move of his career – a fake spin, step back, gorgeous up and under that leaves Speights and Gay grasping for air. 12.
The Clippers are now within striking distance, and this possession shows why. The Clippers finally start communicating defensively and play smart instead of fast. The Clippers switch consecutive pick and rolls, then rematch according to size away from the ball. This is simple stuff, but the Clippers were burned in the first half on it. Conley clanks a long jumper, and Reggie Evans collects another board. Still 12.
After the teams exchange turnovers and misses thanks to some good defense on both ends, the Clippers strike next. Chris Paul comes off a hard screen by Evans and runs the baseline in a Steve Nash-like manner before finding Nick Young, who has wisely relocated from the wing to the corner for an open 3. Bingo. The lead is now down to single-digits, and there’s 3 minutes left. 9.
After Evans blows up a pick and roll with an outrageous show, O.J. Mayo gets Eric Bledsoe off his feet, but misses the pull-up jumper. The long rebound squirts out to Chris Paul, who flies up the middle of the court on the break. Nick Young glides with him along the 3-point line and receives the great pass – but not before Chris Paul can completely take out Mike Conley with a veteran flop. Splash. Young erupts on his way back court, elbowing invisible James Harden along the way. 6.
Conley gets into the lane on the other end, but here’s Blake with the help defense we all know he’s capable of. Blake contests the shot, and it’s a wild miss by Conley. Evans gets the board, and Paul is once again racing up the middle of the floor. Guess who is in the right corner again? Yup – it’s Nick Young, and the closeout can’t come quick enough. Bingo. 3.
There’s an uneasiness echoing throughout the arena for the Grizzlies next possession. It’s a haunting sound, really. Griffin strips the ball from Gasol at the high post in another huge defensive play, and Eric Bledsoe dives like a college player to save it from going out of bounds. Gasol lunges for the ball, and then for the shoestring tackle, and Griffin gets sent to the line to conquer some demons.
I’d like to tell you Griffin’s freethrows were textbook. They weren’t, but they went in. The lead is down to 1.
The Grizzlies are shook. They go to Zach Randolph against Reggie Evans, which may have been their worst matchup considering how Randolph had played and how Reggie was blowing up everything defensively. Randolph shoots an impossible fadeaway that Reggie gets a piece of, but Tony Allen flies in for an offensive rebound…before reverting to Boston Celtics Tony Allen by missing the layup. Bledsoe comes up with it and races into the frontcourt. Bullet dodged. Memphis still up 1.
Chris Paul/Reggie Evans crunch time pick and roll? Sure, why the hell not. The best part about this play is how Chris Paul directs Reggie to exactly where he wants him to go. He waves off the first pick, but not in the way that jerk at your local pickup game does – he redirects Reggie to the other side of the floor, then calls for him to set the screen to his left. Paul subsequently abuses Tony Allen with an in and out dribble, gets Gasol to commit, and leaves his feet for a jumper. When Gasol leaps out, Paul finds a wide-open Reggie (!) for the layup at the rim (!!!) and the lead (not enough exclamation points in the world). Incredible. Clips up 1.
Rudy Gay gets Chris Paul on a switch on the other end, and gets the ball in the post. Del Negro wants the double – he nearly does it himself he’s so far out on the court — but it never it comes. Gay simply turns and elevates from 15, and the shot is good. 27 seconds left, Grizz up 1, and the momentum temporarily back on their side.
We all know what was coming next: Paul and Allen squared off in isolation. Paul gets Allen to reach in, sending him to the line. Both free throws go down without touching the rim. Clippers back up 1. Like the comeback itself, the Clippers would be forced to win with defense more than anything else.
And then it happened. Rudy Gay misses, and the Clippers complete one of the most historic comebacks ever.
Maybe the current squad of Clippers doesn’t care about the past, and maybe they shouldn’t. Maybe it means very little that this was one of the best wins in franchise history. But for me at least, this was the most endearing thing this group could possibly do, because tonight, if only for a brief time, the Clippers were really the underdog again. They were up against it, on the road, down 27, and here was Reggie Evans channeling Michael Cage to grab every rebound and save the day. Nick Young nailing corner 3’s and bumping his chest might as well have been Quentin Richardson tapping his forehead.
When it was all over, and the comeback was complete, all those feelings came rushing back to me. This is still the team I love, even if they no longer embody the ideals I thought I loved them for. I’m not just rooting for laundry – I’m rooting for memories I can string together. Part of me, improbable as it might be, would like to think that those crazy comebacks against the Grizzlies in the past weren’t entirely in vain after all — like the seed was somehow planted years ago. That somewhere in the back of the mind of the Grizzlies, they knew the Clippers were capable of doing this. I want to believe that the destinies of these two teams have been tied together all along. I know — it’s idiotic, illogical, improbable and insane.
And so was this comeback.