BACKCOURT TRIO BOOSTS CLIPPERS

PAUL, BILLUPS, AND BLEDSOE

LOS ANGELES – Chris Paul, Chauncey Billups, Eric Bledsoe.

It was a lineup combination that sounded improbable. Three point guards by trade, sharing the court for the Clippers down the stretch of a vital series opener against the Memphis Grizzlies Saturday night.

The trio of Paul, Billups and Bledsoe, who until the 5:02 mark of an 11-point game of Game 1 had not set foot on the court together in two seasons with the Clippers, helped extend an 11-point lead to 19 and forced the Grizzlies hand defensively.

Asked what made them so effective as a threesome, Bledsoe grinned widely and said, “I have no idea.”

“I guess coach [Vinny Del Negro] had a great feeling about that lineup and wanted to stick with that and I think we did a great job of helping him have that confidence in us.”

Perhaps, it was the confidence bred from Bledsoe’s performance. The third-year guard is fast becoming known as a Grizzlies killer. He was dynamic in short bursts in last season’s first round series and in Game 1 of the rematch he scored 15 points on 7-for-7 shooting off the bench with six rebounds and four assists.

“[Bledsoe] was built for series like this,” said Jamal Crawford, who was one of seven Clippers with 10 or more points. “His toughness, his energy, his passion, the way he gets after it. He was good.”

Bledsoe had six of his points in the nearly three-minute stretch he played alongside Paul and Billups. All three shots came at the rim and two of those off assists from Paul.

Del Negro explained the decision to stick with Bledsoe even when he subbed Billups into the game.

“I was just thinking Eric had a great stride to his step tonight, especially in that second half,” Del Negro said. “He just had energy. It felt like it was contagious out there. I wanted to try to keep Bled’s speed on [Mike] Conley as much as possible.

“Those are just decisions you make. I could have easily went back Caron [Butler], who played well. I could have easily went back with Jamal who was making shots and you always have to guard him. Those are the decisions you make. That’s the beauty with this team. Do they all want to be out there? Of course, but you have to find out what matchups work and how we’re going to manage at the end of the game.”

Paul, Bledsoe and Billups all had a hand in the game independently. Billups, who played for just the third time in the last three weeks after returning Tuesday from a strained right groin, scored 14 points in 21:28. And Paul darted around screens and was deadly efficient from the field. He had a game-high 23 points, missed just four shots, dished out seven assists to one turnover and had half of the Clippers’ four steals.

He opened the third quarter with nine of the first 11 points and seemingly handed the keys to his young apprentice in the fourth. Of course, Paul joined Bledsoe in the backcourt in the final half of the final period and promptly made a 3-pointer over two defenders to put the Clippers up 15 and squeeze the life out of any potential Grizzlies comeback.

“It gives you almost like a three-headed monster,” Paul said of the small lineup. “It almost took me back to my college days [at Wake Forest] when I was with Justin Gray and Taron Downey. Bled’s that blur. He probably runs faster than me and Chauncey put together. And me and Chauncey are a little more crafty and things like that.

“I think it gave us a little more versatility. They didn’t know who to guard.”

It showed. The lineup helped the Clippers accelerate to a 35-15 run to close the game and there was nothing small about that.