MEMPHIS When Rudy Gay's jumper, over the outstretched arm of Kenyon Martin, bounced off the front of the rim and into the hands of Blake Griffin just before the buzzer sounded, the Clippers weren't sure how to feel.
Elation? Griffin began to hug anyone he could find.
Redemption? Marc Iavaroni, the Clippers assistant and former Memphis coach, cupped his hand over his ear and shouted to the crowd that he couldn't hear them.Relief? Chris Paul suggested a newspaper headline would read: Phew!
But in sorting out all the emotions of the Clippers' unlikely, ridiculous, inconceivable 99-98 comeback victory over the Grizzlies in Sunday's opener of their first-round Western Conference series, there seemed to be one overriding all others.
This felt, more than anything else, like ill-gotten goods.
The Clippers trailed by 27 late in the third and tied the NBA playoff record for largest deficit overcome at the end of three quarters, when they trailed by 21.When you come back after trailing by 24 in the final nine minutes, you walk away from the greatest fourth-quarter comeback in NBA playoff history feeling not as if you've won a game, but as if you've pilfered it.
"We came in with ski masks on," Griffin said in a locker room that was equal parts giddy and disbelieving.
"Of course we stole it," Martin said, sitting at the neighboring stall. "There was no way we were supposed to win this game."
Suddenly, the Grizzlies the team nobody wanted to play must shrug off a result that was as devastating for them as it was elating for the Clippers. Last year an unlikely late comeback by the Mavericks catapulted them to a sweep of the Lakers.
"It's a heartbreaker," forward Marc Gasol said. "There is nothing we can do about this game. We have to worry about the second game on Wednesday."
If anybody might have fashioned a comeback, it would figure to be the Clippers, who had won an NBA-leading 14 games in the regular season when they trailed by double digits. But none remotely like this.
For three quarters they were a picture of frustration and dysfunction, frazzled by a roaring capacity crowd and with precious little experience to draw on. Four Clippers were playing in their first playoff series.
Memphis closed the half by scoring eight consecutive points, the final two coming on Gasol's dunk just before the buzzer, which gave Memphis a 58-39 lead.Paul and Griffin, the team's stars who are attempting to change the culture of the franchise, had totaled three points at halftime. In the third quarter, Paul picked up a technical foul for barking at an official and threw up his hands at coach Vinny Del Negro, upset with the way the Clippers were defending Mike Conley on pick-and-rolls.
Martin, during a timeout, challenged a fan behind the Clippers bench to come down to the court and continue his heckling face-to-face.
If that weren't discouraging enough, Caron Butler, who scored 12 points, suffered a fractured left hand late in the third quarter when his fingers got stuck in Gay's jersey. After briefly trying to play with his pinkie and ring finger taped together, Butler left to have his hand X-rayed, which revealed a crack that is expected to sideline him at least a month.
With the injury to Butler, and Saturday's catastrophic injury to Derrick Rose, Del Negro was close to pulling Paul, whose strained groin kept him out of Wednesday's loss in New York, midway through the fourth quarter.
"I was worried, in talking to our trainer," Del Negro said. "When the fatigue sets in, he wants to keep playing and keep playing. But with the adrenaline, you have to be kind of smart about it."
Along with Paul and Griffin, Del Negro rode three reserves: Nick Young, Reggie Evans and Eric Bledsoe. Evans grabbed 13 rebounds in 20 minutes and played superb defense against Zach Randolph, who finished just 3 of 13. Young led the Clippers with 19 points, including three 3-pointers in a 60-second blitz pulling the Clippers within 96-93 with 1:47 to play.
"We started chipping away, chipping away and then all of a sudden you could feel it," Evans said. "You could see it in their eyes, kind of feel their heart beat. It started changing and we took advantage of it."
In the final 9:13, the Grizzlies made just 1 of 13 shots and turned the ball over four times. After Paul's free throws put the Clippers ahead with 23.7 seconds left, Young was replaced by Martin for the final possession. Martin wanted to avoid fouling Gay and keep him from driving to the basket, but correctly figured that Gay would shoot a jumper. Gay pulled up at the free-throw line, but Martin contested the shot and it was short.
There was a great deal of satisfaction that Young, Martin and Evans all of whom were acquired during the season played up to their reputations.
"Guys just did their job," Martin said. "We traded for Nick and he's a scorer. He came in and scored. Reggie plays tough post D and he made it tough as hell on Zach and he had 13 rebounds and that's why they signed him. They signed me to come in and be a veteran and play D and that's what I did. Nobody tried to do something that they can't do."
It was one of the few explanations of the night that did not require a reach. Players sorted through metaphors and thesauruses, searching for the right words. They also sorted through their memories, searching for comparable experiences, which was an effort.
As they packed up to leave, Del Negro asked an official if they could eat dinner at the hotel or would it be too crazy. Those ski masks Griffin talked about might come in handy.