Making Sense of Sunday Night

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 I have to admit that on more than one occasion during Sunday night’s ridiculous Clippers/Grizzlies game, I was on the verge of switching off the television and heading to bed. After watching close to 15 hours of playoff basketball over the weekend (Yes, I don’t have a life), and with the clock inching towards midnight, I figured that I could excuse myself from sitting through the last ten minutes of a blowout game.

Then again, as I started to rationalize: if I’ve already watched over 15 hours of basketball, would another ten minutes really hurt? Plus Nick Young is on the floor! He always has the potential to do something random/weird/self-destructive.

Well, I’m glad I had that internal debate because the game soon took an extraordinary turn. Everyone like myself, who battled through basketball fatigue and chose to watch on will be forever grateful—with the exception of those who were cheering for the Grizzlies, of course. That would’ve been the most painful 9 minutes of basketball anyone in Memphis ever witnessed.

Even with the benefit of highlights, endless game postmortems, and interviews from players and coaches, it’s still hard to fully grasp how the Grizzlies let that game slip away. But let it slip away they did, and in spectacular fashion.

In-fact, the record-breaking comeback was so absurdly spectacular that it’s worth recapping what the hell actually happened in those final minutes.

Wait…the Clippers won?!

With just over 9 minutes left in the 4th quarter O.J. Mayo hit a 3 to put Memphis up
95-71. The Grizzlies had led by as many as 27 points during the game, and had blitzed the Clippers out of gate, putting up 34 points in the 1st quarter. Los Angeles improved in the 2nd and 3rd quarters but were still trailing by 21 heading into the 4th.

Cue the ridiculous comeback.

Inconceivably after Mayo’s 3, the Clippers went on a 28-3 run, and led the game 99-98 after two Chris Paul free-throws. So just to reiterate (and to get it straight in my own head) Memphis scored just 3 points in the final 9 minutes! Insane.

After Paul gave the Clippers the lead, Lionel Hollins called a time-out with 8 seconds remaining and ran an isolation play for Rudy Gay. Well defended, Gay’s shot bricked off the front of the rim and bounced into the hands of a gleeful Blake Griffin. The Clippers celebrated like they’d just won a game 7. The crowd at the Fed-ex Forum looked like they’d been collectively punched in the stomach.

Boiled Frogs and Comebacks

Like everyone else, as soon as Griffin pulled down that final rebound, I began trying to make sense of what I’d just witnessed. For whatever reason, I kept thinking back to that often cited metaphorical anecdote about the frog in boiling water (bear with me here). As the story goes, the frog that’s placed in a pot of cold water, that is slowly heated, will remain in the pot ever after the water begins to boil.

Well, in the 4th quarter the Grizzlies were like that frog in slowly boiling water. They tried to coast through the final minutes, stopped running basketball plays and didn’t perceive the danger that a loose, re-energized, Clippers team was starting to pose. By the time they realized that Paul and company were boiling them alive, it was too late.

Of course, at the start of the 4th quarter, it wasn’t just Memphis fans, and those watching at home that felt like the game was over. Despite what he said in the post-game press conference, Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro appeared to have accepted his team’s fate and was already preparing for Game 2, taking out his starters.

After the game Chris Paul told the media that he begged Del Negro to put him back in the game for the final quarter. Del Negro did a good job listening to his point guard.

Chris Paul was fantastic down the stretch, playing aggressive, driving into the lane and kicking the ball out for Nick Young to make some big shots. However, it was Reggie Evans, a player familiar to Raptors’ fans, who received deserved plaudits for hauling his team back in the game when all seemed lost.

Evans started the comeback run for the Clippers with a lay-up and gave them their first lead of the game with under a minute left. At the defensive end Evans was immense, pulling down 13 boards and completely smothering Zach Randolph down the stretch. All that in just 21 minutes of playing time!

Great for 3 Quarters

As great as Chris Paul, Young and Evans were in dragging their team back from the jaws of defeat, the Grizzlies should be furious with themselves for letting the game slip away. During practice the following morning Randolph told the press that he hadn’t been able to sleep and that he had stayed up to re-watch parts of the game. For Randolph, re-watching the last few minutes would’ve been like watching a horror movie.

Z-Bo also told reporters that he felt like he had his worst playoff game ever. He might be right about that, but for over 3 quarters of Sunday’s game, Memphis had plenty to feel positive about.

The Grizzlies were the complete package until their late-game implosion. Marc Gasol dominated the paint, predictably giving Blake Griffin major problems, and demonstrating why he might be the best passing big-man in the league.

On the outside, Mike Conley and Mayo took advantage of their teams dominance down low, destroying the Clippers from beyond the arc when the ball was kicked out (actually a big weakness for Memphis during the regular season). The Clippers simply couldn’t handle the Grizzlies’ powerful inside-out game. Well, up until the final 9 minutes, that is.

Moving Forward

Approaching a vitally important Game 2 on Wednesday night, it’s hard to imagine two teams with such widely contrasting emotions. The Clippers will be ecstatic, and although they’ll be looking to head back to Staples Center with a commanding 2-0 lead, deep down inside they’ll feel that even a 1-1 split on the road gives them a great chance in this series.

The Grizzlies, on the other hand, would do well to focus on everything they did right on Sunday, while figuring out how to implement it for a full 48 minutes. As cliché as it may sound, Wednesday night is a new game and the Grizzlies need to erase the disappointment of Game 1 and move on.

For the first 40 minutes the Clippers couldn’t live with Memphis, and despite all that happened in the subsequent 8, Hollins and his team should realize that none of the favourable match-ups that existed before the series begun have changed.

The Grizzlies still pose numerous problems for the Clippers. There’s no doubt that Randolph needs to improve, but Blake will still be troubled by Memphis’s frontcourt and the combination of Allen and Conley still have ability to slow down Chris Paul on the perimeter. Amid all the jubilation, the Clippers’ also suffered a big blow, losing Caron Butler with a fractured hand.

It’s also worth remembering that during the 2002 Eastern Conference finals, the Nets blew a 21-point lead and lost game 3 to the Celtics (the record playoff comeback until Sunday night), but recovered to win the series.

So even with all the drama of an improbable Clippers comeback, I’m still picking Memphis to win this series. They’re still the better all-round team. I’m just going to make sure that regardless of the score, I watch every minute of every 4th quarter.

 

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