LOS ANGELES -- When Chris Paul was sitting at home during the summer, watching NBA TV one day, he sat in his living room transfixed as he watched replays the Los Angeles Clippers’ seven-game playoffs series against the Memphis Grizzlies.
He had so much fun watching Reggie Evans at one moment during the marathon replay that he picked up the phone and called his former teammate to reminisce about the first-round series.
“I’ll never forget that,” Paul said. “I actually watched it all. It’s something I’ll never forget.”
When the NBA schedule was released soon after, Paul knew exactly what the league was doing when they pitted the Clippers against the Grizzlies so early. They essentially wanted to start the season with a Game 8 between the two teams.
“When the schedule was released over the summer, I’m sure players on both teams were like, ‘I’m sure this isn’t a coincidence,’” Paul said. “I’m sure this was on purpose.”
If the league was hoping for an extension of the Clippers and Grizzlies' playoff series and refueling the fire of a budding rivalry, they got their wish Wednesday night.
Blake Griffin and Zach Randolph went at each other for most of the game, as if their playoff series had never ended. It nearly manifested into a fight in the fourth quarter, when the two had to be separated on two occasions, with Randolph pulling Griffin down from behind on a third occasion.
“We didn’t really say much to each other,” Griffin said with a smile after the game. “It’s one of those things, after 48 minutes of pushing and shoving and being down low on both ends, it gets to you after a while.”
After the game Randolph said he enjoys messing with Griffin, but that it seems Griffin now knows that he’s messing with him more than he did last season. Instead of overreacting after every missed foul, Griffin will either move on or, as he did following back-to-back altercations, simply smile at Randolph.
“I kind of [knew he was messing with me] last year, too, but you have to know what guys are doing and why they’re doing it,” Griffin said. “For me, it’s important to not get involved and to stay focused and not play anybody else’s game and play my own game.”
When Griffin was again asked about Randolph, he deadpanned, “Yeah, we’re going to go have dinner now.”
The budding rivalry between the Clippers and Grizzlies -- and between Griffin and Randolph -- is a vital part of the growth process of the Clippers. Sure, they have a rivalry with the Lakers, but that’s more a product of the city they play in and arena they share than playoff meetings (none) and historical comparisons (few and far between).
Inside of the Clippers’ practice facility is a display case where they keep such artifacts as the NBA Lottery balls that helped them draft Blake Griffin and various trophies for community service their owner, Donald Sterling, has been given. It is currently void of any division, conference or league titles.
But during the offseason, the team placed a painted game ball from Game 7 of the Grizzlies series in the case. It was, after all, only their third playoff series win in franchise history and the first Game 7 win.
When you’re trying to build a winning culture, coming back from 24 points down with less than eight minutes left on the road in the playoffs, as the Clippers did in Game 1, then coming back to win a playoff series on the road in Game 7 are key moments.
Paul was continually asked about the Lakers heading into the season, but he knew the Grizzlies would be just as tough, if not tougher, than their neighbors at season’s start. As much attention as Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol may get, Paul said he thinks the tandem of Randolph and Marc Gasol, Pau’s brother, may be just as potent in the paint at this point.
“If someone was expecting a blowout tonight, they’re trippin’,” Paul said. “That’s a great team that we beat over there. They have a great coach and an unbelievable offense. Those two big men that they have are the two best big men in the game on the same team, as far as synergy. I don’t know anybody that knows how to pass and seal like those two guys. That’s a playoff team that we just beat in a tough first game.”
It was a tough first game that was really a continuation of the Clippers' playoffs run last season and perhaps the start of their first real rivalry that isn't simply based on location.