MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The Los Angeles Clippers came face-to-face with their worst-case scenario on Wednesday night, and it sent shivers up and down their bench.
"It felt how the Bulls probably felt when [Derrick Rose] went down," Clippers guard Randy Foye said after the Clippers' 92-80 Game 5 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies. "Because if someone jumps and comes down like that and you see them tugging at their knee, that's not a good sign."
That someone was Blake Griffin, who was lying beneath Los Angeles' basket, gripping his left knee.
Events had already turned ugly for the Clippers. They trailed 75-58 with 1:31 remaining in the third quarter and had converted one field goal in the preceding six minutes. In that same span, the team had been hit with a barrage of technical fouls, four in all.
Griffin took the ball off a pick-and-roll on the left side from Mo Williams and readied himself to attack Marc Gasol. Griffin took a couple of dribbles with his right hand, crossed over to his left, and as he elevated, Gasol bodied up to his right shoulder, sending Griffin tumbling to the floor.
"It was just kind of a weird play," Griffin said. "My foot got caught under me and I kind of came down wrong. It was scary at first."
Griffin wasn't down more than a few seconds before the entire Clippers bench emptied onto the court from the opposite end.
"I told the guys, 'Get up, one of our guys went down,'" Caron Butler said. "Not just one of our guys, but one of our superstars. It's important that we go down there and check on our brother. He got up. It was a tough play. He got banged up pretty bad, but he's a soldier. He got back out there."
Griffin remained in the game to take his free throws and actually finished out the third quarter before spending the opening minutes of the fourth quarter under the care of the team's chiropractor. After a few minutes of treatment, Griffin was back on the floor for the Clippers' fourth-quarter rally, during which they trimmed the Grizzlies' lead -- once 24 points -- down to six. He has been diagnosed with a sprained left knee and will undergo an MRI back in L.A. on Thursday.
The power forward plays with an uncommon velocity and force. The impunity with which he flies through the air -- and often crashes to the floor -- thrills spectators, but also prompts Clippers fans to cringe every time he takes off and lands. As they bask in his aerial stunts, they also whisper: He's going to maim himself one day. For a few tense beats on Wednesday night, it appeared as if Griffin's mortality would finally intervene -- at the worst possible moment, just as the Clippers were on the doorstep of only their second conference semifinals appearance since moving to California 28 years ago.
Griffin is only half of this nightmare. Losing him would be enough to throttle the Clippers, but the possibility of having both Griffin and Chris Paul sidelined would amount to a cataclysm.
In the first quarter, Paul jammed the middle finger on his right hand. Though Paul, as usual, denied that the injury had any adverse affect on his play, he was quiet through much of the game. At halftime, he had five points on 1-for-5 shooting with only a single assist -- very un-Paul-ish production.
In the fourth quarter, fears that Paul was less than 100 percent were exacerbated when he could be seen hobbling and holding his midsection. The initial prognosis was that he had aggravated the groin injury that kept him out of the Clippers' final two regular-season games. As it turned out, Paul had strained his right hip flexor.
"I felt a little sharp pain in my leg," he said. "I'll be all right."
Paul clearly wasn't, because he alternated dribbles with clutches to his right hip. How debilitated was Paul? Williams was assigned to guard the ball during the closing minutes. Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro ultimately pulled Paul from the game with 1:24 remaining and his team trailing by eight points.
I told the guys, 'Get up, one of our guys went down.' Not just one of our guys, but one of our superstars. It's important that we go down there and check on our brother. He got up. It was a tough play. He got banged up pretty bad, but he's a soldier.
”-- Caron Butler
"I was trying to go, but I couldn't," Paul said. "I wanted to, tried to."
Paul, who also will be evaluated on Thursday, becomes peevish when asked about his health or well-being and insisted he will be ready to go Friday when the Clippers will again have the opportunity to close out the Grizzlies, this time at Staples Center in Game 6 of their first-round series.
Suggesting the Clippers can't afford to lose either of their All-Stars would be a vast understatement, especially against a Memphis team that looked re-energized.
The Grizzlies had a lengthy to-do list entering Game 5 and were able to check off each of their objectives. They pounded the Clippers inside with both Gasol and Zach Randolph, creating space for Gasol to facilitate and drive, and giving Randolph plenty of opportunities to work down on the right block.
Defensively, the Grizzlies bottled up the Clippers on the strong side of the floor. Memphis' defenders were told to better anticipate the Clippers' high pick-and-rolls and flare screens. There were instances when the Grizzlies seemed to know what the Clippers were running before the Clippers did. Memphis bumped those L.A. cutters who were creating all that space for Griffin in Game 4, and generally stifled the movement that greased the wheels for the Clippers in their two wins in Los Angeles.
Memphis has outscored the Clippers in this series and, if not for a few possessions here and there, could very well be en route to San Antonio for a second-round matchup with the Spurs. The Clippers have never had much margin for error in this series, but now face the possibility that their two best players will be hampered for the most important 48 minutes of the Paul-Griffin era.
"I'd never felt that before," Griffin said about his fall to the floor. "The pain scares you the most, not because it hurts, but because you don't know what's wrong."
The unknowable is frightening, and for the Clippers, who have never experienced the glow of a superstar-driven postseason, the next 48 hours are certain to be torturous.