LOS ANGELES After Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol exited the postgame interview room, they jumped at the chance to hop on an equipment cart that whisked them away to the Memphis Grizzlies bus.
It seemed like a fitting reward for the two big men who resuscitated the Grizzlies season by sparking a 90-88 victory over the Clippers, evening their series at three games apiece. Or was it something else?
"We hurt, man," Randolph said with a chuckle as he settled in for the ride. "We hurt."
That was a dig at Clippers star Chris Paul, who was clearly not the same after straining his hip flexor late in Game 5. Blake Griffin was a lesser factor, too, after spraining his knee on Wednesday more solid than spectacular.
But it was Paul, who had rescued the Clippers down the stretch in their three victories and had nearly done so in two of their losses. Where he had been assertive, commanding and clutch, Paul was none of the above on Friday.
He contributed 11 points, seven assists and three steals, but he began the game hesitantly and finished it haltingly. In the fourth quarter where Paul has begun to garner consideration as the NBA's best closer he was a cipher. He scored one point, did not register an assist and turned the ball over twice as the Clippers wasted an eight-point lead and an opportunity to end the series.
Now, they'll have to return to Memphis for Game 7 on Sunday.
"We didn't want to go back to Memphis, not until next season sometime," Paul said. "But what can we do about it? We've got to leave tomorrow, go to Memphis, get some rest and be ready to play. Anybody know what time the game is?"
Noon, Paul was told.
"Cool," he said. "We can get in and get out."
Unless the Clippers defy considerable odds, they'll be on a return flight to Los Angeles rather than moving onto San Antonio, where Sunday's winner will play the Spurs in the Western Conference semifinal series opener on Tuesday. Home teams are 86-21 in Game 7s. One of the home teams that lost was Paul's New Orleans Hornets, who fell at home to San Antonio in the seventh game of the 2008 conference semifinals.
Paul has said that loss has haunted him, believing the Hornets would have presented more problems for the Lakers than the Spurs, who were easily dispatched, and he hasn't been past the first round since.
"It always will stay with him," Paul said.
Unless Paul and Griffin regain their health or other Clippers, particularly Randy Foye and Mo Williams, regain their form Paul will have another game that will gnaw at him.
In this one, the Clippers were carried past a woeful start by their energetic bench Reggie Evans, Eric Bledsoe and Kenyon Martin, three players who keyed the 24-point fourth-quarter comeback in the series opener.
And when Bledsoe, who had 14 points, confidently sank a 21-footer, the Clippers enjoyed a 76-68 lead with 8:31 left. All that seemed necessary was turning the game over to Paul, who had been scintillating down the stretch in this series.
Instead, it was the Grizzlies who dug deep. Randolph and Hamed Haddadi were relentless in the paint, blocking three shots and collecting six rebounds as Memphis scored 10 consecutive points.
Then, with the score tied at 80, Paul committed back-to-back turnovers. The first one was converted into Mike Conley's transition 3-pointer, which gave the Grizzlies a lead they never relinquished.
Memphis, as is their wont, gave the Clippers plenty of opportunities but Foye missed a pair of jumpers, Paul missed a driving layup and a free throw, and Caron Butler missed a 3-pointer and crashed into Foye, knocking him out of bounds after he had rebounded a missed Grizzlies free throw. Griffin, who finished with 17 points, five rebounds and six assists, played just five minutes in the fourth quarter, when he did not attempt a shot and had just one rebound.
"You guys saw it with your own eyes, just like me," Foye said. "Paul and Griffin both had injuries last game, so they're not going to go out there and be the same Chris or the same Blake."
The topic of injuries to the Clippers' stars appeared to amuse many of the Grizzlies.
"I don't know nothing about no injuries," said Memphis guard Tony Allen, one of the league's premier defenders who has spent more time on Paul as the series has progressed. "All I know is Clippers versus the Grizzlies. That's all I know. I don't pay any attention to the injury report."
Gasol reminded everyone that in such a rugged series everyone has assorted aches and pains, noting that nearly everyone in his locker room were accessorized with ice packs.
Randolph, seated next Gasol, chimed in when the subject of Paul's injury came up.
"I didn't know he was hurt," said Randolph, who is not at full strength after missing most of the season with a knee injury. "Is he hurt? I didn't know he was hurt. Everybody's hurt. It's the playoffs, man. He ain't looking for no excuse. My knee hurts. I ain't looking for an excuse."
The Grizzlies, in evening the series, seem to have discovered a few answers. They are dominating inside, grabbing 16 more rebounds than the Clippers on Friday. Gasol had another excellent game, scoring 23 points and grabbing nine rebounds, and Randolph added 18 points and 16 boards.
But the Clippers knew that would be a problem. What they didn't know is that Paul, their security blanket at the end of games, wouldn't always be there. The question looming as the series heads back east for its conclusion is whether Paul can put himself back together and his team, too.
"I'm not dead," he promised, drawing laughter.
Sure enough, there was a pulse. But check back Sunday and we'll know for sure.