MEMPHIS– For a perfectionist like Blake Griffin 148 regular-season games might have seemed like too long a wait.
But after enduring a rookie season filled with a truckload of highlights and few wins and a sophomore campaign that whizzed by at an unprecedented pace, the superstar forward made his playoff debut Sunday. For much of the night, playoff debut against the Memphis Grizzlies was far more inauspicious than he had hoped it would be.
“I was extremely frustrated coming out and missing easy shots,” Griffin said.
Griffin missed layups and turnarounds, shots he usually sinks. He battled foul trouble, picking up his second with 2:12 left in the first quarter and his fifth with 5:26 remaining in the game.
Still, he managed a breakaway dunk, a lob from Eric Bledsoe in transition, and twisting layup around Quincy Pondexter for a basket and a foul. And as the game moved along Griffin found a way to etch his mark into the Clippers’ remarkable comeback.
He scored eight of his 17 points in the fourth quarter, shooting 3-for-3 from the field and making two clutch free throws to pull the Clippers to within a point of the reeling Grizzlies in the final minute and a half.
On the play, Griffin swiped the ball away from Marc Gasol and Bledsoe dove along the sideline to save it back to Griffin.
“One of the biggest plays was when Bledsoe got that ball and got it to Blake. And it’s something that will probably go overlooked and stuff like that,” Chris Paul said. “We were down three. He went to the line and I remember standing right behind him like, ‘Give us these two. Get us down one and give us a chance.’ He went and made those two big free throws. We get a stop, and a bucket, and take the lead.”
KENYON MARTIN COMES UP BIG DEFENSIVELY
Kenyon Martin spent all but 23 seconds of the Clippers’ comeback on the bench, but arguably had the pristine moment in a game filled to the brim with them.
After Paul made two free throws, the Grizzlies called a 20-second timeout and advanced the ball with 23.7 seconds to go. The score was 99-98 in favor of L.A. and according to Paul, “everyone in the arena knew it was going to Rudy Gay.”
That’s when head coach Vinny Del Negro summoned Martin to replace Nick Young. The 34-year-old big man had been sitting for 10:29 straight, yet Del Negro and his teammates had confidence in him making the biggest defensive stop of the season so far.
As Gay dribbled down the clock, Martin committed a foul the Clippers had to give with 9.8 seconds on the clock. This time as Gay received the inbounds pass, he isolated Martin in the middle of the floor, drove left, and as Martin hounded him, pulled up for a toughly contested 15-footer that clanged off the front of the rim.
“We had an idea it was going to Rudy,” Griffin said. “I think Kenyon played unbelievable defense and forced him into taking a tough jumper, a fadeaway. But our whole thing was to just get out there and play the same way we had been playing the last eight minutes. I think our momentum really carried us into that last possession.”
As for the matter of coming in for the final possession, Martin said it’s just a matter of staying ready.
“No matter if you’re tight or not, or you’re playing or not playing, you’ve just got to stay ready,” he said. “I knew the way the game was going I’d probably be called on down the stretch for defense.
“I tried to make [Gay] take a tough one. I knew he was probably going to pull up because that’s his game.”
Grizzlies head coach Lionel Hollins said he gave Gay the freedom to make a decision whether to pull up or drive to the basket. “That’s what Rudy decided to do,” Hollins said. “He was good to go whenever.”
NICK YOUNG AND REGGIE EVANS SHINE OFF BENCH
If the final nine minutes of the game needed an individual on either side of the ball to explain how the Clippers got back in the game, it’s likely you could choose Nick Young’s shooting and Reggie Evans’ defense on Zach Randolph.
Of course, that would be over simplifying things. But either way, Young and Evans played significant roles in the comeback.
Take Young. Playing the first meaningful playoff minutes of his career (he was a member of the Wizards in a four-game sweep his rookie year), Young scored a team-high 19 points and kept the Clippers barely afloat with 10 points in the first half.
But when the Clippers needed it most, Young struck. He nailed a 3-pointer in transition off a dish form Paul in the left corner in front of the Memphis bench. Then after O.J. Mayo missed, Paul snared a rebound and pushed it ahead to Young for another three in the opposite corner. Knowing Young was hot, Paul found him again on the next possession for his third 3-pointer in a minute.
“It felt good being out there and the coaches having confidence in me in the fourth quarter,” Young said. “And C.P. [Paul] being the point guard that he is, he just found me in my spots out there.”
The Grizzlies failed to make a field goal over a near nine-minute stretch in the final quarter with Evans being at the center of most everything L.A. did. He defended Randolph, Gasol, and grabbed eight of his game-high 13 rebounds in the fourth quarter.
“Reggie Evans did an outstanding job on Zach in the fourth quarter,” Hollins said. “He was banging him pretty good. He kept him from getting were he wanted, and when he did get it he crowded him and took that away.”
The defense was hardly surprising. Evans has shown the ability to control the game on that end before. He was an integral part of the Clippers’ comeback win in Philadelphia in February, for example. But he also managed seven points, including a layup on a feed from Paul to give the Clippers the lead on their penultimate possession of the game.
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