Going into the playoffs, the book on the Clippers was written.
The boys from “Lob City” were more glitz than grit. They were a defensive disaster — slow on the perimeter, toothless up the middle. They were a jump-shooting team that was about as predictable offensively as a coin-flip. They had no depth. They were soft.
The Clippers re-wrote their story in Game 7.
It started on an individual level, and it started with Blake Griffin. Over the season, Griffin developed his own reputation throughout the league. He was a flopper and a villain, an entitled superstar who had little interest in anything else but dunking and scoring. That all may be rooted in some form of reality, but there wasn’t the slightest hint of any of that in Game 7 in Memphis. Griffin may have played the ugliest, prettiest game of his career. There is nothing glamorous about battling with Zach Randolph. At one point, Randolph quite literally saddled Griffin and rode him to the ground. He clocked him with an elbow. Battling for every inch of space is something that rarely earns you money, recognition or stats — just respect. Griffin was willing to sacrifice everything for a win — bum knee, pride, whatever — by finally engaging in the little battles that he’s often declined to take part of. If there was a scrum in the paint, you could guarantee Griffin was in the middle of it.
The defense overall benefited as a whole. This was definitely a Memphis Grizzlies game to the core. It was everything they wanted it to be — physical, frantic and forced. The style of play could best be described as uncomfortable, both for the players and the viewers. Neither team was afforded an easy path to the rim. Honestly, we expect the Grizzlies to win that type of game on their home floor. They are the champions of grit and grind and having defense as the backbone to everything.
You would have expected the Clippers to have to utilize their own strengths and enforce their will on the game. Nope. Instead, the Clippers just beat the Grizzlies at what they do best. They accepted the terms of battle. You know how you’re not supposed to bring a knife to a gun fight? The Clippers brought nothing but their bare hands. It helped that the Grizzlies couldn’t shoot them down, sure, but the Clippers didn’t shy away from mixing it up, particularly the guys on the bench.
It wasn’t always certain that the five players who secured the lead in the fourth quarter of Game 7 would be contributors or even Clippers all year. Eric Bledsoe was buried on the bench. Mo Williams, other than Bledsoe, was the one Clipper who could bring back anything at the trade deadline. Nick Young was acquired for Brian Cook, for goodness sakes. Reggie Evans was nearly relegated to thug duty. Kenyon Martin was a world away for half of the season.This was a potpourri of players, each with undeniable flaws.
But as it turned out, it was one of the Clippers’ biggest perceived weaknesses that became their greatest strength throughout the series and again in Game 7. It’s hard not to say enough good things about Bledsoe — he and Kenyon Martin altered the course of this game. Both Bledsoe and Martin completely took away their defensive assignments in Game 7, and their willingness to attack (Bledsoe) or find open spaces on the floor (Martin) was really the difference. You expect Martin to understand the size of the moment and play accordingly, but it was even more impressive how Bledsoe was able to ignore it. That just doesn’t happen for rarely used second year players in their first playoff appearance. They’re supposed to freeze up.
Really, it all couldn’t have culminated in a crazier, more fitting way. Reggie Evans was legitimately the fourth best frontcourt player in this series. Often times he was the best. Step back and think about that for a second, and let it sink in how ridiculously wonderful it all is.
It’s even crazier that it all came without Paul in that early fourth period. Where was the guy who was so critical for the Clippers to have any chance at all? Where was the miracle worker who could pull the Clippers out of any bad situation with his late game heroics?
He was in the locker room, stretching. It would have been unfathomable to imagine the Clippers sealing up a Game 7 win without Chris Paul on the floor. It felt like Superman had got all dressed up for nothing — the citizens had already taken care of the problem themselves.
It’s just all so incredible. In the old days, there was this blanket statement used to explain every unexplainable thing that happened to the Clippers. But as the perceptions around the team continue to change, so does the meaning surrounding those three little words.
“The Clippers actually won a playoff series…with defense and depth?”
What else can you really say?
It’s the Clippers.