They will play again, they will most certainly be rested, and they still will have no black marks on their record since back on April 11 when they lost to the Lakers. Since then, it’s been 14 wins in a row — the latest an 87-81 victory at Utah the eliminated the Jazz after they fought tooth and nail over the final month of the regular season to make it thus far.
Their reward was an opponent so deep, playing with so much precision and acumen, that should leave a lot of people convinced that the championship parade is likely to be held aboard boats on the Riverwalk in San Antonio.
Congratulations are in order for Chris Bernucca, Moke Hamilton, and myself, who all picked the sweep (nobody on this staff had the Thunder in 4 over the Mavs, and the editor-in-chief is reminded daily by his tweeps of his Knicks-in-7 brain fart pick.) Over at the old mothership, only Mr. Wilbon and Mr. Thorpe had Spurs in 4, and ESPN, too had no one picking Thunder in 4. Nobody at Yahoo, even their sports editor, who should know better, called the sweep. And at CBSSports.com, they all whiffed on this one, too.
But enough about the Spurs. Well, almost enough.
Here’s one factoid that is too darn relevant to bury any lower in the copy: San Antonio’s reserves came up with 57 points in Monday night’s clincher. This after the subs had 40 in Game 3, 43 in Game 2 and 44 in Game 1.
Yes, they are deep.
But the Spurs do not provide drama like the Clippers do, and there as plenty more of that lats night in what has easily become the most entertaining of all eight postseason series. Record-setting comebacks, record low free-throw shooting, crazy final fourth-quarter moments. And that drama kept coming last night.
After overdribbling and failing to get a good look on the final possession of regulation, Chris Paul scored eight of his 27 points in overtime as the Clippers moved within one win of making it to the second round with a 101-97 win over the Memphis Grizzlies for a 3-1 series lead.
Blake Griffin had 30 points and seven assists (and laughed off another hard foul, this one from Zach Randolph that was followed by a shove that earned Z-Bo a technical foul) before fouling out with 2:26 left in overtime for the Clippers, who blew an 84-74 lead over the final 4½ minutes of regulation.
Game 5 is Wednesday night in Memphis, with Game 6 back at Staples Center on Friday if necessary.
From one of the brightest in the business, columnist Geoff Caulkins of the Memphis Commercial-Appeal: “First half. Score tied. Rudy Gay drove to the rim, got his shot blocked, and started screaming at the ref. While Gay was occupied doing that, the Clippers were flying down the court for an alley-oop dunk. Gay kept screaming. He drew a technical. Looking back, you wonder if it would have worked out better for the Grizzlies if Gay had just gone ahead, drawn a second technical, and gotten thrown out of the game. The Grizzlies lost to the Los Angeles Clippers in overtime Monday night, 101-97. The Clippers now lead the series 3-1. And, yes, it’s true, Chris Paul was great. You will hear this a lot in the next 24 hours. But the Grizzlies aren’t on the verge of elimination just because the Clippers max player has been great. They’re on the verge of elimination because their own max player has been not great at all. And, yes, I realize, it’s not all about Gay. Monday’s loss was a team effort. Especially from the Grizzlies vaunted core. Zach Randolph had just 12 points on the night. He gave up a crucial rebound to Reggie Evans in overtime. Injury or no injury, Randolph can’t be doing that. O.J. Mayo was lousy for the second straight game. He shot 1 of 6. Mayo’s shooting helped win Game 2 for the Grizzlies but he’s gone 2 of 14 with 8 turnovers on the West Coast. Marc Gasol was as bad as I’ve ever seen him. At least, since Lausanne. Some will point out that he only got 4 shots, but he wasn’t being aggressive at all. Take the first possession of overtime. Blake Griffin had 5 fouls. Unlike Game 3, the Grizzlies decided to go right at Griffin to try and get him out of the game. So they fed the ball to Gasol. And what did he do? Let’s go straight to the play-by-play: “Gasol 9’ turnaround fadeaway jump shot.” Yep, a turnaround fadeaway. What’s the point in that? If you’re trying to get Griffin out of the game, don’t you go at him, hard? Gasol settled for a fadeaway. Which, by the way, missed. So, no, this is not to single out Gay, exclusively. But the math is the math. Gay signed an $82-million contract with the Grizzlies. As a noted philosopher once said, with great riches comes great pressure to at least get your team out of the first round of the playoffs. Right now, Gay is failing at the task. Like Mayo, Gay had a nice Game 2. In Games 1 and 3, he shot a combined 13 of 33 and missed the potential-game winning shot in each game. And Monday, he once again demonstrated his limitations as the franchise’s leading man.”
And from another of journalism’s finest wordsmiths, T.J. Simers of the Los Angeles Times: “The theme all season long has been “Rise,” as in lob the ball high in the air and watch Blake Griffin slam it home. As in rise behind Chris Paul and lift a franchise. Only the team jumped the gun a little and passed out red T-shirts for Game 4 that read, “Risen. It’s Monday afternoon, a few hours before Game 4 for the Clippers and I’m on the telephone with C.J. Paul. Anyone who goes by their initials has to be a good guy. C.J. is Chris Paul’s big brother by two years, his business manager and his best friend. ”I think my parents sleep better at night because they know we’re always together,” C.J. says. I’m asking C.J. what it is like to sit in Staples Center and watch his kid brother decide the Clippers’ fate, and he says he’s not sitting. ”I’m on my feet yelling all the time,” he says, “and going crazy.” ”Were you the guy standing in the front row Saturday who wouldn’t sit down no matter how loudly I yelled for you to sit down?” I ask. ”That would be me,” C.J. says, and really, how does anyone watch Chris Paul play and not jump to their feet? Yeah, Kobe Bryant is just the greatest and has been forever. And this is a Lakers‘ town, so Chris Paul will probably be a grandfather before there is any chance of the Clippers being mentioned in the same sentence as the Lakers. But how do you not root for the runt of the litter going Mighty Mouse on everyone to win the day? The other night he’s roaring mad at Memphis’ Marc Gasol, who is a foot taller and built like a bulldozer. Paul is so upset and competitive he yanked teammate Nick Young off the free-throw line so he could stand beside Gasol. Later he goes to the Clippers’ bench and the Memphis fans are yelling, “Sit down, you little leprechaun.” ”Does that mean I’m lucky?” he says later with a grin. ”No, it means you’re a shrimp,” I tell him. ”I stand tall in my family,” he fires back. More than that, he plays so much bigger than everyone else in a game that features giants.”
Paul’s resilience in overtime spoke to his greatness, which is why there will be at least one first-place vote for him in MVP balloting when the award is ultimately presented to LeBron James, who did not even have the last play called for him in Miami’s Game 4 loss at New York on Sunday.
But I said it during the regular season and I’ll say it again now that we are past the midway point of the first round: This guy, and this Clippers team, make for the most compelling watch on TV that we’ve seen in a long, long time.
One more win, and he can test himself against Tony Parker and the Spurs in the second round.
Rest assured, the Spurs will be rested.
And their leader? Coach of the Year Gregg Popovich?
Well, he’s a special case, as columnist Buck Harvey of the San Antonio Express-News explains: “Coaches torture themselves over success, and Gregg Popovich has been lately. He’s been wondering out loud among his staff that, well, wouldn’t it be better to lose a game? “That’s why,” one of his assistants kidded him, “you are coach of the year.” Popovich wasn’t laughing. He’s felt the winning streak has become a burden, and he didn’t like the feel that a relaxed first round was giving his players. It’s the same reason he also dislikes 20-point leads in the first half. So what happened Monday, when the Spurs coughed and sputtered toward a sweep, gave him hope. Popovich can treat the latest win like a loss, and he will take the Spurs into the film room to see a few things. Or, as Stephen Jackson put it with a smile, “Pop’s got something to teach on.” The broader picture should include a few positives. The Spurs did what the best teams do, which is take out an opponent as quickly as possible to minimize injuries. The Spurs were healthy going into the playoffs, and they are still healthy. Ask Chicago, among others. This isn’t something to complain about. Then there’s the exposure that the younger players, such as Kawhi Leonard, got. It’s better to be introduced to the playoffs in Utah than in Oklahoma City. But coaches aren’t programmed to see the best in a situation, and Popovich doesn’t now. Asked after the game if getting some time off will help, he said flatly, “I don’t think it will.” The Spurs might not play again for a week. That’s a lot of time to worry.”
There are approximately
28 27 other coaches (Paul Silas not among them) that would kill to have the worries that Pop has. But for the next several days, we’ll let him torture himself in silence. The belief here heading into the playoffs was that the Spurs were going to win the championship, and win it with relative ease.
And no, we are not backing off that prediction.