As the final seconds ticked off the clock during the Memphis Grizzlies’ 92-80 win over the Los Angeles Clippers Wednesday night, the chant at FedExForum grew louder and louder.
"See you Sunday! See you Sunday!"
Of course, before a potential Game 7 back in Memphis on Sunday, there will be a Game 6 Friday night in Los Angeles. Mathematically, just like Wednesday’s Game 5, it will be a must-win game for the Grizzlies but it will be just as much of a must-win for the Clippers if they are still to win this series.
When the Clippers left Memphis Wednesday night and boarded their charter flight back to Los Angeles, they knew this had to be their last roundtrip to Tennessee if they hoped to make a trip to San Antonio next week for the next round of the playoffs. If they are forced to make a return trip the River City this weekend, they might as well start making vacation plans while they’re at it.
“We fought hard for home-court advantage and we want to take full advantage of it,” Clippers guard Mo Williams said after losing Game 5. “Our Game 7 is Friday.”
As hard as the Clippers fought to gain home-court advantage in their historic comeback win in Game 1, winning Game 6 will be even harder if they are forced to play with a hobbled Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. Paul and Griffin both finished the game on the sideline after Griffin suffered a sprained left knee and Paul suffered a strained right hip flexor late in the game. Both will be re-evaluated Thursday in Los Angeles.
Chances are both will be on the floor Friday night, but the best indicator of how serious Paul’s injury may be was the sight of him on the bench in his warm-ups with the Clippers down by just six points with about a minute left in the game. This was the same player that urged Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro to keep the starters in the game when the Clippers were down 24 points with 7:55 left in Game 1, setting the stage for their comeback.
After Paul scored eight of the Clippers’ 14 points in overtime and led them to a win in Game 4, Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said containing Paul would be the biggest factor in extending the series. As a reporter asked Hollins how Memphis was able to contain Paul in Game 5, Hollins was quick not to take any credit for Paul's absence at the end of the game.
"I think he contained himself when he got hurt and went to the bench," Hollins said. "He was coming on. He helped bring them back and then he got hurt and went to the bench."
As confident as the Clippers might claim to be if this series does go back to Memphis for Game 7, they know they have been consistently outplayed in all three games outside of the final eight minutes of Game 1. In the second half of their home playoff games in this series, the Grizzlies have been up by as many as 27 points in Game 1, 13 points in Game 2 and 24 points in Game 5. Overall, in this series they have outscored the Clippers 478-465. Talk to folks in Memphis and they’ll claim they are one historic blown lead in Game 1 and two missed jumpers by Rudy Gay at the end of regulation in Games 3 and 4 from moving on to the next round already.
"Our backs are against the wall. We felt like we should have definitely won the first game and we felt we should have won the first game in L.A. too," said Grizzlies forward Zach Randolph, who had 19 points and 10 rebounds. "We’re right there. We just have to put a whole game together. We’re going to come out firing and we’re going to be ready."
Despite what a certain center in Los Angeles may think, closeout games are the hardest to win in the NBA, or any sport for that matter. No one knows that better than Paul, who has only won a single playoff series in his career. "The closeout game is the toughest one," Paul said. "It won’t be easy."
It will obviously be infinitely harder if Griffin and Paul are not at full strength for the Clippers by Friday night. Either way, the Clippers are hoping they can ride a loud wave of red-clad fans at Staples Center to their first playoff series win in six years and only their second since the franchise moved to California in 1978. Meanwhile, the Grizzlies are simply trying to win their first game against the Clippers in Los Angeles this year to stay alive.
"We understand it’s going to be a tough environment but we’ve played in tougher environments," Randolph said. "We just have to come out and play basketball. We understand more calls might go their way but, oh well, we just have to come out play. We can’t argue with the refs, we just have to come out and play basketball."
If the Grizzlies can do that and figure out a way to win in L.A. on Friday night, well, as the old saying in Memphis goes, "See you Sunday!"