MEMPHIS–After the Clippers completed their comeback for the ages, Chris Paul referred to a diving save along the right sideline by Eric Bledsoe as a play that was likely to go overlooked.
It was somewhat easy to forget amidst the controlled chaos that was the Clippers’ 28-3 run to close Game 1 in FedEx Forum. But Bledsoe’s hustle play along with several other moments from the second-year guard playing his first career playoff game, were essential to the 99-98 victory.
Or as Paul said about Bledsoe and the rest of his teammates efforts prior to Monday’s practice at the arena, “Each one of those plays had to be made in order for us to have a chance to win.”
Among those were plays with Bledsoe’s fingerprints all over them. He scored nine points with four rebounds and two assists. He knocked down two baseline jumpers, including a 3-pointer from the right corner that cut Memphis’ lead to 95-82 with 5:44 to go. He skied for an offensive rebound, out-jumping Blake Griffin and a host of Grizzlies defenders. And, of course, with momentum tilting wildly in the Clippers’ direction, he saved the ball to Griffin before skidding over the sideline.
Griffin stepped up and converted two free throws after being fouled by Marc Gasol and the Clippers pulled to within one. They took the lead on the next possession after Bledsoe rebounded a missed putback by Tony Allen and Paul dished to Evans for a layup.
“It was big, especially to get it going on the offensive end a little bit and not only that we made a couple of hustle plays,” Bledsoe said. “Me saving the ball out of bounds gave Blake some free throws and Chris came back and made another set of free throws.”
Bledsoe, who played in the Elite 8 during his one season at the University of Kentucky, said the atmosphere in his first NBA postseason experience reminded him of his days a Wildcat. “It was exciting, man. It was real exciting. It felt like I was in college all over again. The number one team in the country and everyone’s trying to knock you off.”
Moving forward, Bledsoe could be a so-called x-factor in the series. The Clippers are now 6-2 this season when Bledsoe scores seven points or more. But it’s not about scoring as much as Bledsoe’s intangibles. He’s a ball hawk on defense and has the kind of speed and athleticism to keep up with Memphis’ transition game and gives L.A. another guard, who is capable of getting into the paint.
Sunday, Clippers head coach Vinny Del Negro teamed Bledsoe with Paul for the duration of the nine-minute comeback, something Paul thinks could create problems for the risk-taking Grizzlies defense.
“I love it because E.B. [Bledsoe] is so fast and puts so much pressure on the defense that it gives me an opportunity to get off the ball a little and gives me an opportunity to attack from the wings and things like that,” Paul said. “When he pushes it in transition he can finish. A lot of times when the defense collapses he kicks it out to me and it gives me an opportunity without the defense looking at me.”
Small forward Caron Butler felt like Bledsoe’s play in the fourth quarter was an important step for the speedy youngster.
“I know that’s the best feeling because you get told so many stories about the playoffs and how hard it is and how tough and guys playing at an all-time high,” Butler said Monday. “For him to go out and play as well as he did for as long as he did was a big confidence booster.”
CARON BUTLER INJURY UPDATE
The Clippers announced Butler will miss the next 4-6 weeks with a fracture of the fifth metacarpal in his left hand. The 32-year-old forward said he was “disappointed” about missing time, particularly at this point in the season.
His teammates and coaches shared Butler’s disappointment.
“I feel bad for Caron. You know, you work hard all year to get back,” head coach Vinny Del Negro said referring to Butler’s recovery from a ruptured patellar tendon he suffered on Jan. 1, 2011.
“I mean it’s tough to replace a guy like that,” Griffin said. “He’s got so much leadership and experience. But we’ve had injuries all season. We’ve had guys step up all season.”
Paul echoed Griffin’s sentiment: “It’s tough to fill a void like that because Caron not only brings so much to us not only physically with his ability, but emotionally the way he helps everybody in the locker room and how he carries himself.”
With Butler and Chauncey Billups sidelined, it leaves the Clippers with two of their most influential leaders in street clothes.
Del Negro said he’s still not sure if Nick Young, who scored a team-high 19 points on Sunday, or Bobby Simmons will start in Butler’s absence.
“It’s going to be by committee,” Del Negro said. “Guys are going to have to step up really now.
“You can’t [replace Butler]. At this stage there’s no time to work through it a little bit. The next guy in line has got to be ready. It hurts us depending on who we’re going to start and how it’s going to work out.”
REFELCTING ON THE COMEBACK
The Clippers’ come-from-behind victory was still a major topic of discussion prior to Monday’s practice.
Butler said it was predicated on somewhat of a never give up attitude. “I’m far from psychic, but I told guys in the huddle, I said it halftime and I said it at the beginning of the game when we were down and having trouble scoring, I said that if we just stay the course we’ll be fine,” he said. “And guys stayed together collectively and they kept working hard. We were able to overcome that huge hurdle.”
Still, according to Griffin, the team is already moving on to Wednesday’s Game 2.
“It’s just one game,” the power forward said. “We’ve still got to win three more. We know we can’t sit and dwell on it too much, but we need to take that momentum and kind of take that energy and ride into the next game.
“Right now, the work starts. We should really use the first 40 minutes or whatever it was as a teaching tool and kind of dwell on that a little bit more and to kind of leave a bad taste in our mouth.”
The biggest carry over from Griffin’s perspective could on the defensive end, where the Clippers played with the kind of aggression that was missing over the first three quarters of Game 1.
“There were multiple pick and rolls and we would rotate and switch them within the play,” Griffin said. “There was a play when C.P. and Eric Bledsoe switched and ended up on Rudy Gay and I was on [Mike] Conley and then me and C.P. switched and then Marc Gasol came down and I switched with somebody else and that was all in the flow of the play. And that’s the way it has to happen, especially against a team like that.”
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