By: JOHN MARTIN FOXSportsTennessee.com Contributor
MEMPHIS — At some point in the early moments of Game 5, between the Marc Gasol baseline spin moves and Zach Randolph stepback jump shots, the Grizzlies rediscovered the qualities that earned them home-court advantage for the first time in franchise history.
Make no mistake about it: Even with Rudy Gay and his max contract, the Grizzlies are a team that is truly at its best when the offense goes through its two premier post players.
And though they strayed far enough from the two to cause a major fourth-quarter scare, the Grizzlies’ first-half performance in the paint was enough to hold off the Clippers, 92-80, Wednesday night at FedExForum to pull within 3-2 in the series as it heads back to Los Angeles on Friday for Game 6.
“We just wanted to drive the ball and get to the inside,” said Randolph, who scored 19 points and pulled down 10 rebounds. “We play through the post, and that’s what we did tonight. Marc had a great game. He was a presence, got the ball inside and scored. That’s what we need to do; play inside-out and that’s the way we’ve been playing, and that’s what got us there. We’ve just got to keep going.”
Although the Grizzlies dominated the Clippers in the paint, 48-26, the Clippers made the necessary adjustments in the second half to force Gasol, who finished with 23 points, and Randolph into an 0-for-7 shooting effort after halftime.
As a result, the Clippers – despite being down as many as 24 points midway through the third quarter – had it down to a two-possession game with 55 seconds left to play. But Gay sealed it after a putback on a missed Randolph free-throw attempt with 19 seconds remaining.
“You spend a lot of energy trying to come back,” said Clippers guard Mo Williams, who had 20 points. “It’s the playoffs, so there’s also a lot of energy. I thought we dug ourselves in a big hole. They played well.”
Wednesday’s game was yet another installment in what has been arguably the most physical and intense series in this year’s playoffs. So physical, in fact, that Clipper stars Blake Griffin and Chris Paul sustained injuries as a result; Griffin a sprained knee, and Paul a jammed right finger and strained right hip flexor.
Good thing for the Grizzlies, then, that they seem to thrive in these settings.
“We had our backs against the wall,” Gasol said. “We haven’t done anything yet. We want to take it back to LA and give them another battle.”
It will likely be nothing less than that. As has been the case in every game this series, tempers were flaring from start to finish. The Clippers’ frustration boiled over with less than five minutes to play in the third quarter, when the team was assessed four separate technical fouls within a two-minute span for jawing with officials.
“We’ve got to do a better job of keeping our composure a little bit, but we were just trying to scramble and battle and try to get ourselves some type of rhythm to get back into the game,” Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said.
In the past two games of the series, however, it seemed as though the favored Grizzlies were the rattled ones. The hustle plays belonged to Reggie Evans in the form of pulling down crucial offensive rebounds after missed free throws in Games 3 and 4. The heart was all Chris Paul’s, who led the Clippers to a gutsy 101-97 overtime win in Game 4.
But on this night, as they stared down potential elimination, the Grizzlies had no choice but to get back to the mantra that had afforded them the success in last season’s playoffs and this regular season: grit and grind.
Gasol, who came into Game 5 averaging seven shots a game, attempted eight (and made six) in the first quarter alone. He and Randolph set the tone physically, combining for 26 of the Grizzlies’ 33 points in the opening period.
“I had talked to them earlier, yesterday and today about them needing to play better,” Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said. “They needed to work harder to get the ball in the post, and we needed to make sure we threw it to them when they were open. … Marc really got us off and then it just carried forward through the whole first half.”
For the Clippers, however, Wednesday was a free swing. And considering how zany this series has been – with 24-point collapses by the Grizzlies and the Clippers’ Caron Butler playing efficiently with one hand – the Clippers still can close the series on their home floor.
And that chance, Mo Williams said, is all you can ask for.
“We fought for home-court advantage, and we want to take full advantage,” he said. “Our Game 7 is Friday.”