|ESPN.com: NBA Playoffs 2012||[Print without images]|
LOS ANGELES -- As Mike Conley caught the inbound pass with 3.7 seconds left, his eyes grew wide when he looked up and saw what was in front of him.
It wasn't one of the Clippers' many hulking brutes that had knocked him and his Memphis Grizzlies teammates on their keisters so many times this series. Not another deficit on the scoreboard that the Grizzlies had to somehow erase to save their season.
All that lay before him was open space, a sight so serene not even a baby deer sipping water from a pond would've have made it sweeter. For once, with the game on the line, Conley felt not anxiety, but relief.
"As soon as I saw that space, I just wanted to run to it as far as I could," Conley said, a sly grin creeping up his face. "I just wanted to run the clock out. And that's what I did. I didn't want to give them any opportunity to foul or stop the clock."
With the Clippers down five with 13.1 seconds and seemingly already resigned to the fact that a seventh game would be needed for them to win their first playoff series since 2006, Randy Foye reached into his waistband and brought out the paddles, quickly turning it into a one-possession game with a made 3-point heave.
But Conley's quick wit was even faster. Without hesitation, Marc Gasol inbounded the ball from the baseline to their zippy point guard. Conley immediately bolted downcourt, past an unusually slow-reacting Eric Bledsoe, and threw the ball up in the air when finally cornered at the other end to run out the remainder of the clock and preserve a 90-88 victory to send the series back to Memphis for a Game 7.
After coming up short in the three prior games that went down the wire against the Clippers in this postseason, this time it was the Grizzlies, a team defined by their rugged play and snarling star players, that pulled one out when the going got tough again. Finally.
Zach Randolph literally breathed a sigh of relief on the news-conference podium after the game. He wasn't the only one.
"It feels good," said Rudy Gay, an apparent tic-tac-toe master given all the X's he left at the top of the key in his shot chart. (In basketball terms, he was an ugly 5-for-14 for 13 points). "Obviously we knew it was going to be a fight. Nothing's going to be easy. We thought it may come down to this, because we're so evenly matched. We're supposed to be the gritty team. So we knew [coming back from down 3-1] was possible."
The spirit that embodied their run to the conference semifinals last season, past the top-seeded Spurs and very nearly the Thunder, seemed gone the last time they were here in Staples Center. After falling in overtime in Game 4, those grit-and-grind Griz seemed neutered as they packed their bags for Memphis in what appeared to be the goodbye to the team as we knew it.
This time, Gasol and Randolph were riding high, off into the sunset. (Or at least to the team bus.)
After taking the podium together like they had so many times during last season's miraculous postseason run, Gasol and Z-Bo hopped aboard one of the arena's small flatbed trucks and zipped off into the night. ... Well, after they backed the sucker up, turned it around and very nearly sent the Grizzlies' $57 million center tumbling off the back when the driver hit the gas a little too hard.
He was fine. And more importantly, so was the devastating down-low combo that fuels these Grizzlies.
With scoring now more on his mind after totaling only 27 points combined in Games 2, 3 and 4, Gasol finished with 23 points for the second straight game to go along with nine rebounds. Randolph, who's still battling the lingering effects of a knee injury that sidelined him for more than half of the regular season, chipped in 18 and 16. For the first time in a long time, one of the NBA's oddest couples looked like itself again.
Especially late in the fourth quarter.
Down eight with 8:31 to go, it seemed like the final blow to a team battered and beaten in the fourth quarter all series, even if it was Eric Bledsoe, the diminutive backup to a hobbling Chris Paul, dishing out the punches.
"It was looking bleak at that time," Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said.
But after missing their first three shots, Randolph corralled his own miss and scored on a layup to end an almost-four-minute scoring drought. With Tony Allen pestering opposing ballhandlers and Gay again waking up in time for the action (five straight points), Memphis grabbing its first lead of the fourth with 6:28 to play and took it over for good with a Conley 3-pointer two minutes later to go up 83-80.
Still, the Grizzlies never grabbed the game by the throat. There was no moment where Memphis saw the Clippers, with their best two players clearly not right, holding on by a thread as their wings missed shot after shot and finally slammed the door shut.
Memphis missed its final four shots from the field, made only one of its final six free throw attempts and turned it over twice, including once when Allen gifted a loose ball for Griffin. The team even trotted out little-used backups Hamed Haddadi and Gilbert Arenas (still weird to say that) in the crucial fourth quarter for rest reasons and didn't really feel it (more so in the case of the former than the latter).
There was no reason to score this comeback with Wagner; Benny Hill might've been more appropriate.
But the Griz did what you'd expect from a team that brought "grit and grind" back into the NBA vernacular, outrebounding the Clippers 9-3 after Conley's long bomb and holding on for dear life.
"We just kept battling," Hollins said. "We went to the offensive glass a few times, and made big plays. Marc got going, Zach got going, and Rudy had a couple of big baskets. Then we really started collapsing, closing down, and did not give them anything."
"It was a time for us to be resilient," Conley said.