An awful lot of sports fans — especially those on the East Coast, exhausted after 7.75 NBA playoff games in less than two days — probably went to sleep somewhere around the end of the third quarter of Sunday's Game 1 between the Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Clippers. After 36 minutes of mostly lights-out basketball on both ends of the floor, Memphis held a 21-point advantage over the Clippers heading into the fourth quarter, and they looked well on their way to a convincing blowout win to open their Western Conference playoff series.
And then, this happened:
Chris Paul begged coach Vinny Del Negro to put him back into the game for the fourth quarter and not give up despite being down 21 points.
The result was another Clippers comeback — one of the greatest in NBA playoff history.
Paul hit a pair of free throws with 23.7 seconds left, and the Clippers rallied from a deficit that had been as much as 27 to stun the Memphis Grizzlies 99-98 Sunday night in the opening game of their Western Conference series.
The key, Paul said, is to keep believing.
''Unfortunately, that's how we play,'' he said. ''We get killed in the first three quarters and in the fourth quarter we like to try to stand up for ourselves, and we found a way to win tonight.''
Memphis led by 18 points after the first quarter, by 19 going in at half and by a whopping 27 points, 84-57, with 2:12 remaining in the third quarter. Six points in the final 76 seconds of the third from Paul and Mo Williams narrowed the gap to 21 by quarter's end, sending the Clips into the fourth down 85-64.
That set the stage for the historic comeback, for heroic turns by the likes of Reggie Evans and Nick Young, and for — as Yahoo! Sports NBA columnist Adrian Wojnarowski wrote after a late Sunday conversation with Clippers general manager Neil Olshey — the plain-as-day proof of why players like Chris Paul matter in ways that few other players can:
Olshey couldn't hear his point guard pleading with coach Vinny Del Negro for a chance to return to a fourth-quarter blowout, but Olshey had come to believe in the power of Paul's voice. Once the rollicking, rowdy Memphis sellout crowd transformed into a hushed whisper, Olshey could almost hear Paul barking out directions on the floor. This is how change sounds, the roar of 20,000 dissolving into the determined, defiant declarations of a franchise point guard.
Finally, the Clippers had a voice.
And now, for the first time in six years, they have a lead in a playoff series.
As shocking and dispiriting as the Sunday night loss would seem to be for the Grizzlies, though, there's actually a surprising silver lining to the collapse, according to our friends at the Yahoo! Sports Minute.
As it turns out, the last three teams to surrender a lead of 18 points or more in the fourth quarter of a playoff game — the 1994 Houston Rockets, 2002 New Jersey Nets and 2011 Dallas Mavericks — all advanced to the NBA Finals.
The Rockets held a 100-82 lead over the Phoenix Suns after three quarters in Game 2 of their '94 second-round series, lost the game in overtime to drop into an 0-2 series hole, and won four of the next five to send the Suns out in seven. The Nets blew a 21-point lead to the Boston Celtics to drop Game 3 of the '02 Eastern Conference finals, then promptly ripped off three straight wins to dispatch Boston in six games. And last year's Mavs looked dead in the water after Brandon Roy's miraculous 18-point fourth-quarter explosion pushed the Portland Trail Blazers into a 2-2 tie with Dallas in their 2011 first-round series; Dallas won the next two games, moved on to face the Los Angeles Lakers and, like Hakeem Olajuwon's '94 Rockets, ran to the NBA title.
See? Not so bad, Memphis fans! All is not dire; worst-case scenario, you wind up in the NBA Finals and suffer a heartwrenching stompout of a defeat, which would still be better than the worst things you were worrying about Sunday night. As the poet said: 'Tis better to have blown a huge lead, regrouped to win a series and make the NBA Finals and lost than to have never made the NBA Finals at all.
Is the clip at the top of this post not working for you? Feel free to check out the comeback elsewhere, thanks to our friends at the National Basketball Association, with a hat-tip to CBSSports.com's Royce Young for the initial video of L.A.'s 28-3 run.
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- Vinny Del Negro