It turns very serious for Clippers
With Paul and Griffin ailing, L.A. must dig deep if it hopes to win Game 7 on road
The mood, however, was distinctly different this time.
Long gone was Paul's son, Chris Jr., doing an impersonation of Griffin's facial expressions as he sat on Paul's lap, or Nick Young showing off his "swaggy" wardrobe or Griffin teasing a reporter with a thumbs-up for asking a good question.
Their postgame news conferences, held inside a cramped dressing room at Staples Center, which is normally used as the changing room for the Los Angeles Clippers' cheerleaders, had turned into their own little variety show during the playoffs.
It looked more like a wake Friday night.
Paul, followed by a late-arriving Griffin, stared blankly at the reporters and the cameras before them as they searched for words to describe the Clippers' 90-88 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 6 of their first-round series. The smiles after their Game 4 win Monday to give the Clippers a 3-1 series lead had been erased as they prepared for an early-morning flight back to Memphis for Game 7.
"We got to win. This is it," Paul said. "We could lose Game 5 and lose Game 6 and be OK. Game 7 is going to be exciting. It's going to be in Memphis, and we showed the ability to win there. It's going to be my second Game 7 ever and I can't wait. I'm going to leave it all out there."
There was no doubt Paul and Griffin would play in this game. If they were well enough to roll out of bed Friday morning, the Clippers' dynamic duo was going to be well enough to dress and start Game 6.
The question was never if they would play, but how effective they would be when they were on the court.
After all, the last time we saw Paul and Griffin, they were sitting on the bench as the Clippers were down by only six points with a minute remaining in Game 5. As much as they wanted to be on the floor, the sprained left knee Griffin suffered in the third quarter and strained right hip flexor Paul suffered in the fourth quarter made it impossible.
On Friday night, their injuries clearly made it impossible for them to play the way they had through the first five games of the series and that is what ultimately did the Clippers in late.
Both players were essentially robbed of the physical traits that make them the players they are. If you were counting on your hands the number of times Paul penetrated the paint to make a play or Griffin exploded to the basket for a dunk, you would have had to wait until late in the third quarter to get to your second hand.
In the first half, Griffin settled on jump shots instead of attacking the basket and Paul camped outside, essentially serving an off guard. Griffin's first dunk came midway through the third quarter and Paul was relegated to being spot-up shooter for much of the game as Eric Bledsoe ran the offense.
"I couldn't move as much as I'd liked to," Paul said. "So being at the 2 gave me an opportunity to get off the ball a little bit and not have to pressure [Mike] Conley as much."
Said Griffin: "We were both trying to feel it out. There were times where there's a move I think I could normally make but not in that instance, so I tried to get other people going and tried to move the ball and get on the move to help a little bit."
While Griffin and Paul were limited, the Clippers' second unit of Bledsoe, Reggie Evans, Kenyon Martin, Mo Williams and Young kept the Clippers in the game and looked as if they would propel them to only their second playoff series win since 1976. The tandem of Bledsoe and Martin did their best impersonations of Paul and Griffin for as long as they could, as they finished with a combined 24 points, six rebounds and six assists. The duo helped spark a 10-0 run in the fourth quarter that gave the Clippers a 76-68 lead with less than eight minutes left.
"They played great and we had an opportunity to really put them away," Paul said. "I think that's something that's going to play back in my head a lot."
It would take the Grizzlies less than two minutes to go on their own 10-0 run and retake the lead for good. As great as the players on Clippers' second unit have been this series in providing the team with a spark, they are there to start comebacks or build on leads, not to be closers. Paul and Griffin are the Clippers' closers, but they looked like shells of themselves as they came off the bench late to try to close out the win.
The Clippers' game plan late in games when it is close is essentially to give the ball to Paul and have him create something. With Paul unable to create, however, the Clippers looked like a team without a plan. Take, for example, Game 4, when Paul scored eight of the team's 14 points in overtime to lead the Clippers to the win. On Saturday, that playmaking ability was long gone.
During a crucial stretch with the score still tied, Paul lost the ball on back-to-back turnovers, was unable to convert a layup in the paint he would normally finish in his sleep and missed a free throw. By the time he fouled out of the game with 13.1 seconds left, the game was over.
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In the fourth quarter, Paul and Griffin combined for just five points, two rebounds and no assists.
Paul and Griffin didn't use their injuries as an excuse after the game.
"It's tough, but nobody's 100 percent at this point in the season," Paul said. "I tried to suck it up and so did Blake. We still had an opportunity to win. This is not a one-man team or anything like that. I tried to help as much as possible."
The only ones intent on not having Paul and Griffin use their injuries as an excuse other than them were the Grizzlies players, many of whom acted as if they had no idea either player was injured.
"Everybody has something," Marc Gasol said. "Everybody has knee problems, ankle problems, groin problems, shoulder problems. It's been a very physical series and it's not going to get any softer, and everyone has something. If you see our locker room, everyone is icing something or more than one or two things."
Said Zach Randolph with a smile talking about Paul: "I didn't know he was hurt. He's hurt? I didn't know he was hurt. Everybody's hurt if that's the case. It's the playoffs, man. We're not looking for excuses. My knee's hurting and I'm out there playing. I'm not looking for no excuses, because it's the playoffs."
Both players smiled and proved they were hurting, too, by hopping on a cart to the Grizzlies' team bus after finishing their news conference.
While those smiles were devoid in the Clippers' locker room after the game, a smile did come over Paul's face when he was asked what time Sunday's game was and heard that it would be a high-noon showdown.
"Oh, it's a noon game, cool," Paul said. "Yeah, we can get in and get out."