It was one of the biggest comebacks in playoff history, but two weeks later, it is no longer the most significant in this series. On Sunday afternoon, across the street from the Westin, Memphis will try to become only the ninth team ever to advance after trailing 3-1. The home teams win Game 7 more than 80 percent of the time, so the odds are with the Grizzlies, who will be back at The Grindhouse also known as FedEx Forum.
Ten years ago, the Nets blew a 21-point lead to the Celtics in a playoff game, and still beat them in the series. Last year, the Mavericks squandered a 23-point lead to the Trailblazers, and outlasted them as well. The Grizzlies have endured a handful of excruciating losses this season, and afterward, head coach Lionel Hollins has marched them into the bathroom and flushed a toilet, letting frustration disappear down the bowl. He did not make a symbolic restroom run after Game 1 and the Grizzlies lost two more in stomach-churning fashion: one by a point, another in overtime. "Finish the game!" Hollins told his team, again and again.
They finally won a close one Friday night at Staples Center, 90-88, trailing by eight points with eight minutes remaining, before a final and unstoppable surge. "In Game 1, we took on that mentality," Paul said. "Tonight, it was sort of like them." It is only appropriate that the Clippers and Grizzlies, who have provided the most spectacular action of the first round, would go to the max. It is also appropriate that this series, which at times has verged on violent, would be decided by attrition.
The Grizzlies faced a team Friday that was far different than the one they saw last time they were in L.A. Clippers power forward Blake Griffin, hampered by a sprained left knee sustained in Game 5, limped around the court and rarely crashed the glass. Paul, limited by a strained right hip flexor also suffered in Game 5, played off the ball and was unable to assume his familiar closer role. In the fourth quarter, Paul did not make a field goal or register an assist. He did commit two turnovers in 25 seconds, one of which set up a tiebreaking three by Mike Conley.
The loss was classic Clippers, a combination of terrible misfortune and ragged play, on what should have been their finest night. Paul and Griffin would not acknowledge the extent of their injuries, but they were admittedly tentative at the outset. Neither Paul nor Griffin reached 35 minutes and neither scored more than 17 points. Head coach Vinny Del Negro stuck with bench players deep into the fourth quarter, when the lead dwindled. The Grizzlies, however, either did not notice that Paul was gimpy or did want to recognize it. "I didn't know he was hurt," said power forward Zach Randolph. "Everybody's hurt. If he's looking for an excuse, my knee is hurt. I just came off a torn ligament."
Memphis upset San Antonio in the first round of last year's playoffs on the strength and guile of Randolph and Marc Gasol, two of the league's most skilled and clever big men. Randolph and Gasol have been inconsistent against the Clippers' acrobatic front line, but dominant lately. In Game 5, they combined for 42 points and 17 rebounds. In Game 6, they piled up 41 points and 25 rebounds. Gasol was sinking fadeaways and reverse layups. Randolph was playing volleyball with himself under the basket. The Grizzlies have rediscovered their inside-out identity, just in time for a potential second-round rematch with the Spurs.
Hollins has been part of revivals more memorable than this one. In 1977, he played for the Trailblazers, who faced a 2-0 deficit against the favored 76ers in the Finals before peeling off four straight wins. Hollins lost his championship ring two years ago, when he moved it from his nightstand because carpet was being laid in his house, only to discover it in a desk drawer early in this series. Then he thought he lost it again this week but found it in the glove-box of his car. "It won't happen again," he said with a smile.
When players first saw the ring before Game 2, they assumed he was trying to motivate them, transferring the resolve of those Blazers into these Grizzlies. Hollins was making no such dramatic statement -- he was just relieved to have found the ring -- but they asked him to keep wearing it. This is just the first round, not the Finals, and the Grizzlies do not have to contend with Dr. J. But they are on the brink of a rare accomplishment, wiping out the Clippers' historic recovery with their own.