For this night, this moment, this is why Los Angeles Clippers general manager Neil Olshey always knew he had to make that trade for Chris Paul. Olshey was sitting in the stands, and the noise was so deafening it reminded him of Pittsburgh Steelers games in the 1970s with the terrible towels everywhere. This was a biblical beat-down in Memphis, the kind that can demoralize a franchise with the demons connected to these Clippers.
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 sellout Memphis 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.
"Here's a guy nursing a groin injury that’s limited him in practice time, and he's not going back into the game to get his numbers or make it look like a more-palatable loss," Olshey told Yahoo! Sports late Sunday. "Chris doesn't go back into that game unless he thinks we can win.
"What it proves to everyone else: If Chris Paul still thinks we can win this game, then we still have a chance."
Somehow, the Clippers did it. From 27 points down in the third quarter, from 21 down in the fourth, against all odds, and all reasonable belief, the Clippers made a hellacious, historic comeback for a 99-98 Game 1 victory. The Clippers scored 28 of the final 31 points in a furious fourth-quarter comeback out of nowhere, out of the anger, embarrassment and sheer will of Chris Paul. After six years away from the playoffs and decades as a punch line, the Los Angeles Clippers made a stand Sunday.
Olshey started watching the final minutes from the arena concourse, walking portal to portal for peeks of the court. He wandered back into the locker room, watched on the video equipment and finally emerged on the floor of the arena to watch the final seconds bleed away on the most improbable victory in franchise history.
What stayed with him on that wild comeback was the way that every one of these Clippers did the job they were asked to do. When they were losing a lot of games last month, everyone tried to do too much. They went outside of themselves.
"Now, Reggie [Evans] is rebounding his face off and Kenyon [Martin] is defending and [Eric] Bledsoe is pushing the ball and stopping dribble penetration and Nick Young is making shots," Olshey said. "Vinny went with the energy guys, and, hey, it's not always going to be strategic or fundamentally sound, but those guys are going to play for you. But Chris was policing everyone. He made them stay in their lanes, made them do what they do well. And we kept coming."
Across the final days of the season, the Clippers lost an opportunity to secure home court. They had to travel to Memphis for Game 1 on Sunday, and hours before tipoff Olshey was talking with team president Andy Roeser, telling him that maybe it wasn't the worst thing in the world that this lineup with three starters making playoff debuts would begin away from home. When Game 1 was over, Olshey was sure of it.
"If we had gotten down like this at home, it could've killed us for the series," Olshey said. "Sixty percent of our lineup has never been in the playoffs before, and if you're down on the road, you don't have anyone giving up on you in the crowd. You're in a hostile environment anyway. But now we’ve demystified the playoff process for Blake [Griffin] and DeAndre Jordan and Nick Young. We've sped up the process a little bit."
For so many of these Clippers, this season delivered them something they never had in their careers: expectations. As a rookie, the Clippers needed Griffin to be a show, a ticket seller, and he did the job. This year, everything changed. Olshey did a terrific job of surrounding his young stars with excellent role players. Only, Chauncey Billups was lost with an Achilles injury. And then Sunday night, Caron Butler broke his hand. This is a well-constructed, well-considered team, and Olshey went out of his way to make sure Del Negro had a prominent part in selecting the players.
Perhaps Del Negro's job has been in jeopardy with ownership, but several sources say Olshey never considered firing him. He hung in there with Del Negro, the way Del Negro hung in there with this young, developing team. This season isn't built for overnight successes, and considering everything, a fifth seed in the Western Conference was a significant achievement.
"I've watched too many times where a front office brings in its own players, and the coaches aren't on board and you end up with a separation of church and state," Olshey said. "This was always our team."
When the comeback was complete, the GM didn't march into the locker room. He never does. It isn't fair to his coach to come say something when emotions are snarling after a loss because those conversations are best at breakfast in the morning, after a night's sleep. "And so, I'm not going in there to take a victory lap after we've won a game either," Olshey said.
For the Clippers, this game meant so much. They spared themselves a 1-0 hole, the embarrassment of a blowout loss and the inner doubts that exist when a young team's never done anything in the playoffs. Well, they did something. They made one of the great comebacks in NBA history, and they did it because Chris Paul's greatness, his will, declared it possible. That's why Neil Olshey always knew he had to make that trade with New Orleans for Paul, why it was destined to transform the franchise.
And as the Clippers celebrated in the winning locker room, Neil Olshey marched out the door amongst those loud, wild Grizzlies fans who had suddenly turned so sullen. As the Clippers GM walked around in Memphis, he knew this night would be remembered for that single, solitary voice amidst all that mayhem. Somewhere, somehow, a franchise has to make a stand. Finally.
"Without Chris, we're not getting there tonight," Olshey said.
Yes, Neil Olshey knew he had to make that trade for Chris Paul. He just didn't know how badly until late Sunday, until all hell was breaking loose in Memphis, until no one was laughing at the Los Angeles Clippers anymore.
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