LOS ANGELES – In the final, defining moment Monday night, the Clippers wanted the ball in Chris Paul’s hands.
Anyone else could have taken the shot, but Paul was the one who seemed ordained to shoot it – with the clock ticking down, the game tied, the crowd at Staples Center on its feet.
“Chris is unselfish,” coach Vinny Del Negro said. “He has a knack and a will and a desire to step up in those moments. That’s what star players do.”
And Paul did. He hit the game-winner, driving to his right, tossing a one-handed shot off the glass with Tony Allen guarding him tightly to give the Clippers a 93-91 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies.
Two games down, both to the Clippers in the best-of-seven first-round playoff series. It isn’t over yet, but they are very much in control.
“It’s tough. It hurts,” Grizzlies guard Mike Conley said. “We wanted to come here and steal one and try to get home court (advantage) back. To go back to Memphis 0-2 against a team like this is very tough.”
Nothing about this series is going to be easy for either team. There were nine lead changes in Game 2, and nine ties. The Clippers saw a 12-point lead early in the fourth quarter evaporate to an 89-89 score with 1 minute, 37 seconds left.
That should be proof that Games 3 and 4, both in Memphis, will not be easy. The Grizzlies had a 32-9 home record, and although the Clippers won both games at FedEx Forum this season, the playoffs heighten the importance of home games.
But after holding off the Grizzlies for a second consecutive game – and getting major contributions from their bench – the Clippers at least have confidence and a good dose of momentum. They’ll need it.
Their reserves out-scored the Memphis bench 30-11, and even when the Clippers backups – Jamal Crawford, Eric Bledsoe, Lamar Odom, Matt Barnes and Ronny Turiaf – were on the floor against the Grizzlies starters in the final period, they still out-played them.
“We understand the strength of our team is our depth,” said Odom, who had five rebounds and came up with a big block on Zach Randolph in the fourth. “We can’t be too worried about what the other team is doing. We know the style we want to play. We try to share the basketball, get stops and get on the break. We were tough and resilient.”
“Honestly, it’s more about winning than anything,” Crawford said. “I know a lot of people say, ‘Go out there and prove why you should have been this or that.’ You kind of feel like you’ve been proving it all season, so it’s not about that. You just want to win.”
But even that was in doubt in the final minutes. When Memphis’ Marc Gasol scored on an uncontested dunk off a pass from Conley with 13.9 seconds left, it tied the game but gave the Clippers a chance to take the last shot.
The Clippers wanted to try and force a defensive switch, getting Conley to cover Paul rather than Tony Allen, their best defender. It worked momentarily, but Allen got back on Paul as the Clippers point guard drove to his right.
“Tony came back to me and played as good a defense as you could have,” Paul said. “I looked up at the clock and thought to myself, ‘I better get the shot off.’ So I just tried to attack, and luckily I made it.”
Allen assumed some of the blame, saying, “I was supposed to send him back to the left and he got right. That’s what he does. He closes games. I definitely let my team down.”
But it wasn’t so much Allen as it was Paul, who never hesitated, even as he appeared to be slightly off balance going into the air. But it fell in.
Game officials determined there was still one-tenth of a second left after Paul’s winner, but Tayshaun Prince’s inbounds pass never reached its intended target. The game was over.