- Arash Markazi, ESPN Staff Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- Blake Griffin knew the moment would come. The moment when all the pushing and shoving and passive-aggressive shots on and off the court would manifest itself into, well, something more.
After Griffin was fouled on a baseline layup by Zach Randolph late in the second quarter, Randolph chest bumped Griffin and squared up as if he was ready to see how tough Griffin really was. Griffin simply laughed as he was pulled away by his teammates and Randolph was call for a technical foul.
As Griffin stood near the sideline, Caron Butler jumped up and down and looked into Griffin's eyes like a trainer looks at his fighter between rounds. Butler had talked with Griffin before the playoffs about moments like this. The playoffs would be far different than the regular season. Hard fouls build up, elbows in the back linger and tempers can easily flare.
The team that would be able to harness that energy while keeping their composure would likely win Game 4, and the Clippers certainly did that in their 101-97 overtime win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday to take a 3-1 lead in their Western Conference first-round series.
From the opening tip, the Clippers were not only the aggressors but they were intelligent antagonists. They consistently forced the Grizzlies into fouls and got under their skin with the kind of theatrics that, at times, would have made Laurence Olivier proud. They even got into the head of Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins, who called Chris Paul a flopper during his on-court interview after the first quarter.
"There's a lot of posturing and a lot of coaches whining on every call all the way up the sideline and on the court," Hollins said after the game. "That's the gamesmanship that goes on, and you can't let it bother you and you can't lose your poise."
The Grizzlies, however, did let it bother them at times and did lose their poise at other times.
When the Clippers returned home after losing Game 2 in Memphis, the players talked on the team charter and at practice the next day about the need to be more physical. The key, however, wasn't simply to push back and compile fouls, it was about being "smart about it," as Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said.
This was about Paul stopping on a dime on a fast break, reversing course and forcing Mike Conley or O.J. Mayo into a bad foul. This was about Griffin throwing himself into Randolph and Marc Gasol and flailing every time he was hit, forcing them to get frustrating fouls as well. Quite simply this was about the Clippers out-Grizzling the Grizzlies with a Hollywood twist. Hollins might consider it flopping but none of that matters to Paul and the Clippers as long as they win the series.
"I don't care what he's talking about," Paul said. "He's got a team over there he has to worry about."
No one has embraced the antagonist role on the Clippers more than Griffin, who really had the position thrust upon him this season whether he liked it or not. Griffin's reputation around the league has largely changed from a must-see dunker to a can't-watch flopper. Whether that's true or not really doesn't matter as long as he gets under his opponent's skin like he did on Monday night.
"It was a hard foul and I felt the foul lasted a little longer than it needed to," Griffin said, smiling about Randolph's technical. "I kind of turned around and looked at him and he looked at me and "
"They talked about going to dinner tomorrow night in Memphis," Paul chimed in with a grin on his face.
Griffin and Paul could laugh about the play after the game, considering the result and the way both played. Griffin finished with a game-high 30 points, 7 assists and 5 rebounds, while Paul finished with 27 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists. As good as Griffin was during the game, it was a bittersweet ending for him as he was forced to watch the end of it from the bench after fouling out as Paul scored eight of the Clippers' 14 points in overtime to lead them to their biggest home win in six years.
As Griffin's persona around the league evolves, so has his game, and if this series is any indication, that is a good thing for the Clippers and bad news for the rest of the league.
"I have a lot to prove," Griffin said. "My game has a lot of improvement left to be made and I don't ever want to feel like I don't have anything to prove. This year especially I felt like there's really been a drive inside of me to step up in a bigger way and step up on a team that actually wins games. Last year we were out of lot of games and I found out quickly it's a lot different to score and rebound in games that don't really mean anything and doing it in games that mean a lot."
No game will mean more than the next one, when a win would give the Clippers only their second series win ever.
The Clippers matched toughness with the Grizzlies, and it paid off in a thrilling win.