So not many expected any of the series to go to a full seven games, but two of them did, and they turned out to be quite the battles until the very end.
The winners of those games turned out to be both Los Angeles teams, who are moving through to the Western Conference semifinals together for the first time ever.
Since becoming the Los Angeles Clippers, the team has made it past the first round just once back in the 2005-2006 season. That same season, the Lakers became the eighth team in NBA playoff history to relinquish a 3-1 lead and lost to the Suns in seven games.
The Los Angeles Clippers appeared to be candidates to become the ninth team to lose a series after leading 3-1, and they lost Games 5 and 6 with two of their stars hobbling through injuries (check out predictions here) that aren’t going to be miraculously cured during the second round. In fact, Blake Griffin – whose knee tightened up during the game – sat out all but 1:39 of the entire fourth quarter while Chris Paul – playing through a strained right hip flexor - was the only starter in the final period to score a basket.
The odds were certainly not on the Clippers’ side.
From Arash Markazi of ESPN Los Angeles: “After everything the Los Angeles Clippers had done over the past six months to change their perception and transform the culture of the team, they were right back where they started before the biggest game of their season. Going into Sunday’s Game 7 against the Memphis Grizzlies, the history and numbers were stacked against them, which is a position the Clippers have become all too familiar with in their star-crossed history. The Clippers had never won a Game 7 in franchise history and had won only two playoff series, the last in 2006. In the history of the NBA playoffs, the road team had posted a winning percentage of 25.5 in deciding games of a playoff series. As has been the case for most of this season, however, Chris Paul ignored the history and the numbers that were stacked against him and led the Clippers to their second playoff series win since 1976 with an 82-72 win over the Grizzlies that will surely go down as the biggest in team history.”
Who would have thought, going into the playoffs, that Kenyon Martin, Reggie Evans, Nick Young and Eric Bledsoe would become the Grizzlies worst nightmare?
The same bench that helped orchestrate one of the best comebacks in history in Game 1 by erasing a 24-point deficit in the fourth quarter, on the road, showed up once again in Game 7 at the FedExForum (Boxscore here).
Martin and Young came out blazing in the fourth quarter to score a combined 16 points for a team in desperate need of scoring, Bledsoe and Mo Williams stepped up to hit timely baskets, and the bench erupted for 41 points – exactly half of the team’s total.
Evans failed to score, but grabbed nine rebounds in 19 minutes and as he has throughout the entire series, helped anchor a defense that limited the Grizzlies to just 16 fourth-quarter points.
From Matt Stevens of Los Angeles Times: “It took less than a minute for the Clippers’ bench to step in and save the team’s season. In the fourth quarter of his team’s most important game, Coach Vinny Del Negro chose to open exclusively with his second unit. Just 52 seconds later it paid off as center Kenyon Martin and guard Nick Young made back-to-back jumpers to turn the Clippers’ one-point deficit into a four-point lead. The Memphis Grizzlies immediately took a timeout, and while they dawdled back to the huddle, the Clippers flew through the air, chest-bumping each other in the middle of a now-silent arena. Los Angeles wouldn’t trail again. ”That’s what we do,” a smiling Eric Bledsoe said after the Clippers’ 82-72 victory Sunday afternoon. By about the midway point of the quarter, the Clippers’ bench had built a 10-point lead that the starters could cruise behind to victory in Game 7 of their first-round playoff series.”
With the victory, the Clippers are set for a semifinals match against the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday night.
From Ronald Tillery of The Commercial Appeal: “By the time (Marc) Gasol finally reached an entryway to the showers, guard Tony Allen was asking the 7-footer about visiting him in Spain. The Griz were officially in offseason mode after losing their Western Conference first-round playoff series despite having home-court advantage. What Griz coach Lionel Hollins called “a very satisfying season with a bitter end” arguably came down to their taking a vacation from their style. The Grizzlies talked about grit and grind. The Clippers brought it in Game 7. The Griz talked about exploiting their size advantage. The ground-and-pound action with Gasol and Zach Randolph that helped win games 5 and 6 wasn’t emphasized much in Game 7. “They were overloading the post,” Gasol said. “They know what we want to do and they know what our strengths are and they were taking it away. We were trying to find something.”
The team shot an embarrassing 32.5 percent and could not hit a single 3-pointer in 13 tries. Their bench didn’t fair any better, scoring just 11 points and failing to match the intensity of the Clippers. O.J. Mayo, in particular, was awful as he managed just four points on a woeful 1-of-11 shooting.
The coaching decisions of Lionel Hollins down the stretch did not go unnoticed after the brutal season-ending loss.
From Geoff Calkins of The Commercial Appeal: “When that happens, there will be finger-pointing, and a fair number of fingers are pointed in the direction of head coach Lionel Hollins today. The guy didn’t have a great series, plainly. And Sunday was a particularly bad day. For all the Grizzlies’ struggles from the field, the team entered the fourth quarter up by one. That’s when Hollins sent out a lineup of Gilbert Arenas, O.J. Mayo, Rudy Gay, Hamed Haddadi and Randolph. It was a disaster…”Yes, it was frustrating,” said Randolph, who was critical of the offensive tactics as well. ”The coach has got to draw up plays to get the ball in the post,” he said. “You gotta get the ball down there, run a play.” Oh, and while we’re on the topic of misjudgments by Hollins, let’s not forget this: He was the one most responsible for the trade that sent Greivis Vasquez to New Orleans, a deal that bedeviled the team all season.”
Perhaps Randolph may have been more heavily depended on down the stretch if he wasn’t shooting 3-of-12 from the field. Maybe the team would have been in a better position in the first place if Mike Conley didn’t miss nine of his 13 shots. The team failed to execute offensively.
Remember, the Grizzlies found a new identity last season through the play of Randolph and Gasol, with Gay out of the picture. With Gay returning this season, the team needed time to gel, but Randolph – who wasn’t 100 percent coming into the series – missed much of the season due to a knee injury and didn’t join the starting lineup until the final game of the regular season.
Simply put, the team did not have enough time to form a comfortable offensive identity. After averaging 97.5 points against the Spurs and 99.6 points against the Thunder in last season’s playoffs, they averaged just 91.4 points against the Clippers. The Clippers are a good defensive team, but they are not that good. In the end, a lack of cohesion, more than their “grind and grit”, doomed them in this series.
Back in the East, another second round battle took off, this time between the Indiana Pacers against the heavily favored Miami Heat (Boxscore here), who prevailed 95-86.
From Ira Winderman of South Florida Sun Sentinel: “Any doubts about whether this would be a competitive series quickly were extinguished. What we had Sunday at AmericanAirlines Arena was a war of attrition. The Miami Heat emerged with the 95-86 victory over the Indiana Pacers in the opening game of this best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series, yet might have emerged as the biggest losers. For the Pacers, the attrition issues will be reset by the time the teams take the court for Tuesday’s Game 2 at AmericanAirlines Arena, their Sunday losses merely the result of rotation-numbing foul trouble. ”Our guys were fouling too much,” coach Frank Vogel said. For the Heat, the pain goes deeper, with the question being how deep into Chris Bosh’s abdomen. The All-Star power forward was lost for the second half after sustaining a lower-abdominal strain on the follow-through of a second-quarter dunk that resulted in a 3-point play.”
Sensing adversity and urgency, three-time MVP LeBron James and Dwyane Wade went into extra gear, scoring a combined 42 points – four more than the Pacers had – in the second half.
From Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com: “But the most powerful was the unspoken understanding between LeBron James and Dwyane Wade… Heat coach Erik Spoelstra went over some new strategy and issued some reminders at halftime about how the team had to deal with it, talking about rebounding and the next man up and such. Wade and James didn’t say anything to each other. They just went out and had one of the best halves they ever had as teammates… During the 21 minutes they played side-by-side in the half, attacking the Pacers in transition and marching repeatedly to the foul line where they didn’t miss, the Heat outscored Indiana by 18 points. That made it the most efficient half of postseason basketball since they joined up last season. “We knew when Chris went down we needed to flip a switch and become the one and two options,” Wade said. James and Wade, of course, were the No. 1 and 2 options already. The difference was effort level.”
James, in particular, was masterful. Playing all 24 minutes in the second half, he finished the game with 32 points, 15 rebounds, 5 assists and just 1 turnover.
“People criticize me for not being aggressive, it’s hard to be aggressive when I’m not touching the ball,” George said.
“It’s not me,” Granger said, “I have to play in the system of the offense, in the rhythm of the offense. I can’t just catch the ball and hoist up shots. I think it’s on all of us. The coaching staff, myself, we have to find ways to get me involved.”
From Mike Wells of Indianapolis Star: “Welcome to the next round of the playoffs Danny Granger, where the stars shine brighter and others go hide in the corner. Sorry Indiana Pacers fans, Granger was the latter in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Don’t worry, though, he had company. Teammate Paul George was right there next to him. They both did it on national television in a game where they could have sent a message by going with two of the premier players in the league. As LeBron James and Dwyane Wade put on a show — with Granger and Paul guarding them most of the time — the two Pacer teammates were barely a factor in Miami’s 95-86 Game 1 victory at American Airlines Arena on Sunday afternoon. The Pacers’ starting wing players combined to go 2-of-15 from the field for 13 points. James and Wade scored 61 points, including 22 in the fourth quarter, on 49 attempts.”
David West and Roy Hibbert were much better, scoring 17 points apiece on 50 percent shooting while grabbing a combined 23 rebounds.
The Pacers will have to find a way to stay out of foul trouble, as they committed 31 fouls and sent the Heat to the line 38 times.
The two teams will face off again on Tuesday night, on TNT.
James Park is a regular contributor to Sheridanhoops.com. You can find him on twitter @nbatupark.