MEMPHIS For everything that's been said about the way these Clippers are built sending away a likely future star in Eric Gordon for the current All-Star Chris Paul, and bringing along the high-flying sensation that is Blake Griffin it was, of all things, their bench play on Sunday afternoon, and really throughout the series, that captured the franchise's third playoff series win.
The Clippers, after nearly choking away a 3-1 lead in the series, finally closed out the Grizzlies, 82-72, in Game 7 at FedExForum and will advance to the second round to face the San Antonio Spurs.
With the Clippers' All-Star duo battling injury in the latter stages of the series, it was vital for the Clippers not named Paul or Griffin to rise to the occasion in Game 7, and they certainly did.
Kenyon Martin had a double-double, Nick Young had 13 points, and Mo Williams added nine points, as the Clippers bench outscored the Grizzlies bench, 41-11. They provided the necessary spark in a game that saw a combined 29 points after the first quarter.
In such an evenly-matched series, it was going to take something like a nine-rebound effort from the most unlikely of heroes, Reggie Evans, to separate one team from the other.
"Look at myself, look at Nick, look at (Eric Bledsoe). We had our moments throughout the series," Williams said. "But one thing we haven't done is do it on the same day. We had to do it together today, and we did. The bench came out and played well."
In Game 1, it was Young and his timely shots that ensured the Grizzlies' historic 24-point fourth quarter collapse. In Game 7, it was the triumvirate of Young, Martin, and Bledsoe that made it possible for the Clippers to yank the series from the Grizzlies clutches, to say nothing of Evans' defense on Marc Gasol and others.
With 2:41 remaining, Bledsoe, who scored 11, converted a smooth reverse layup on a baseline drive that put the Clippers ahead, 75-67, squashing any hope of a Grizzlies comeback.
"Unbelievable," Paul said. "That fourth quarter, man. With the guys that we have, it was unreal. Game 7, on the road this win goes to them guys: Eric Bledsoe, Mo Williams, Kenyon Martin."
On some level, this series win is validation for Paul, coach Vinny Del Negro, and the entire Clippers franchise. Even with a jammed right finger and sore right hip flexor, Paul was able to remain in control for mostly the whole series, scoring 19 points and securing nine rebounds in Game 7.
At various junctures throughout the season, Del Negro was a loss away from being relieved of his duties as the Clippers coach. Now, he'll lead the suddenly-tested Clippers into a second-round series against the No. 1-seeded Spurs.
For the Clippers franchise, the first round result brought the organization a step closer to creating a culture of postseason success, rather than being the butt of a long-running joke in Los Angeles.
"I'm just really proud," Del Negro said. "I'm proud of the guys because they stuck together and battled through the adversity. We played hard, and we got it done."
The outlook isn't as clear for the Grizzlies, who fell short of becoming the ninth team in NBA history to rally from a 3-1 deficit. With Rudy Gay back in the fold for the Grizzlies after missing last season's playoffs due to shoulder surgery, the Grizzlies were hoping to do more damage in the postseason and, at the very least, avoid a first-round exit.
"It's very frustrating," said Gay, who had 19 points and nine rebounds. "Everyone was excited to be on a team that was a built on last year."
But the Clippers bench performance in this series exposed some glaring issues in the Grizzlies roster: there is no consistent backup point guard and virtually no offensive firepower off the bench.
Those flaws ultimately undid the Grizzlies in Game 7.
"It's a very satisfying season with a bitter end," Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said.
The Clippers season, however, goes on for at least another four games. They advance to face a well-rested Spurs team that made light work of the Utah Jazz, completing the sweep by an average of 16 points per game.
Game 1 is Tuesday, and the Clippers can hardly wait. In fact, Paul said after Sunday's victory that he went ahead and booked his wife and son's flight to San Antonio prior to Game 7 against the Grizzlies.
It will be a different series; the young, exuberant Clippers vs. the aging, grisled Spurs. But they certainly seem eager, and their physical, intense series with the Grizzlies went a long way in preparing the Clippers for what lies ahead.
"I think this series was really good for us, especially for our young guys, playing against a physical team like this," Mo Williams said. "This is what the playoffs are all about. San Antonio is a different team, but they're still gonna be physical. So we've gotta be ready to approach the game that way."