Monday April 30th, 2012

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The buzzer sounded at the end of the third quarter and Chris Paul was already in Vinny Del Negro's ear. Let me go back in, it's not over. Del Negro was not inclined to leave his prized point guard and his still sore groin out on the floor much longer, not with his team down 21 and playing like the Washington Generals. Let me go back in, it's not over, Paul said, knowing that stinking out the joint for three quarters was "just how we play," knowing his team had a rally left in them. Let me go back in, it's not over, Paul said, and Del Negro listened, opening the door for one of the most improbable comebacks in NBA playoff history.

This is why Paul was a Clipper, why he forced his way out of the chaos in New Orleans and into Blake Griffin's backyard. Not even Paul could have predicted how the Clippers were going to come back, that Nick Young would can three three-pointers, that Eric Bledsoe would score seven points, that a white hot Grizzlies team that shot 50 percent through the first three quarters would miss 12 consecutive shots and hand Los Angeles a 99-98 win. It didn't matter how, though. Playoff games are precious, and Paul wanted this one.

"In these situations," Paul said, "you always have to believe."

Paul believed, his team believed, and now the Clippers took home court and a 1-0 lead in the most anticipated first-round series. These Clippers, so young, so inexperienced, going up against a Memphis team that has been called a conference dark horse so many times, they almost have to be considered a favorite, with a bruising front line, a rugged defense and a dynamic scorer in Rudy Gay to close the show. Paul has heard it. Everyone has. After coughing up home-court advantage, L.A. needed a confidence boost, and it got a double dose.

"That's why you have got to keep playing," Del Negro said. "We preach it all the time, and this is the reason. You have got to keep playing and give yourself a chance."

The Clippers learned some things in this one, too. They learned that Reggie Evans, that pesky, 31-year-old power forward could bump and grind with Zach Randolph in the post and irritate Gasol on the perimeter. Evans, Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said, was "outstanding," finishing with seven points, 13 rebounds and a leading role in Randolph's miserable 3-of-13 night. They learned that while they don't want to allow Memphis to connect on 68.8 percent of its threes they can live with the Grizzlies, a team that finished 25th in the league in three-point percentage in the regular season, launching from the outside if they win the battle around the rim. The Clippers outscored Memphis 54-38 in the paint on Sunday night.

They know Memphis won't roll over, that the Grizzlies will rally around the idea that they gave the game away. In the locker room Hollins reminded his team that no champion ever won just by winning at home, and Memphis will try to embrace that. Inside muscle is the Grizzlies' game and, amid a barrage of threes, they got away from it. They know with Randolph and Gasol putting up high-percentage shots it is unlikely they will go ice-cold like that in the fourth quarter again. They know they were one Rudy Gay buzzer-beating floater away from laughing about the one that almost got away.

"I hate to say it, but it happens," Gay said. "We just can't let it happen to us again."

Yes, things will likely change for Memphis in Game 2. Both teams believe they belong among the elite, the Grizzlies because they were on the cusp of it last season, the Clippers because Paul's mere presence makes it possible. This has been billed as a heavyweight slugfest, hyped by expectations, and if the first game is any indication, it will exceed every one.

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