Los Angeles Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro walked up to Chris Paul in the locker room after Wednesday’s Game 5 of the opening round of the Western Conference playoffs at FedExForum, apparently relieved after learning that his star point guard’s injury that forced him to the bench in the waning moments wasn’t as serious as the team initially thought.
“That was good…better news,” said Del Negro while patting Paul on the back. “You’ll be alright.”
Paul, removing ice packs off both knees, agreed.
“Yeah, I’ll be alright,” he said.
Unfortunately for the Clippers, who were hoping to close out the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 6 Friday night at the Staple’s Center, Paul appeared hampered by a right hip flexor strain for a majority of the game. His ineffectiveness ultimately led to the Grizzlies evening the best-of-seven series at three games apiece with a 90-88 win.
Heading into Sunday’s decisive Game 7 before what will be a raucous FedExForum crowd, the Clippers will need a much healthier and effective Paul directing the offense if they are to prevent from becoming only the ninth team in NBA history to blow a 3-1 lead in the postseason.
Paul, who averages a team-best 20.7 points in the playoffs, was limited to just 11 points on 4-of-9 field goals in 35 minutes in Friday’s game, his lowest point total and minutes he’s had the entire series. What’s even worse for the Clippers, who must now win in a hostile environment for a second time, is that power forward Blake Griffin wasn’t at full strength for Game 6 after sustaining a left knee late in third quarter Game 5.
After Game 5 in Memphis, Paul and Griffin insisted that their injuries weren’t a cause for concern and that they both would be fully prepared for Game 6 in Los Angeles.
“There’s a difference in being hurt and being injured,” Paul told reporters after Wednesday’s game. “I just felt a little slight pain in my leg. “No pressure. We’re going to be okay. Obviously, we didn’t want to go back home (for Game 6), not right now anyway. But it is what it is.”
At the time, Paul also spoke about the importance of the Clippers needing to win Game 6 in their arena, given the FedExForum crowd hasn’t been too kind to them. Throughout much of the series, the Clippers have endured their share of rants and taunts from Grizzlies fans, who have routinely chanted “Beat L. A.” and booed Griffin each time he touches the ball.
One fan went as far as to hold up a big head of Paul wearing a baby bonnet draped over his head, while sucking a pacifier featuring the Clippers logo as a way of suggesting that Paul has spent much time whining and complaining to officials and the media about the Grizzlies’ aggressive play throughout the series.
Paul, however, admittedly welcomes the trash talk and constant scoldings he’s getting from Grizzlies fans.
“In a way, I love playing in hostile environments,” Paul said after the Clippers erased a 27-point second half deficit to win Game 1. “That way, I can take the crowd out of the game.”
Even if the Clippers don’t advance to the play the Spurs in the Western Conference semifinals, it’s clear that Paul’s presence has greatly impacted a franchise that has been the subject of constant jokes and endured decades of futility. After commissioner David Stern rejected a proposed three-team trade that would have sent Paul to the Lakers on December 8, the Clippers and New Orleans Hornets agreed to a trade that sent the five-time All Star to the Clippers.
Although Lakers guard Kobe Bryant has publicly labeled the Clippers “the other team,” it seems they are now being mentioned in the same breath as the Lakers, in large part because of the buzz Paul has created throughout the organization in his brief time with the team.
“He’s brought respect to that franchise,” said former NBA player Chris Webber, now a commentator for TNT. “I think the thing with him and Chauncey Billups is that everybody took them seriously because they won everywhere they’ve been. What they’ve done is come in and take this franchise seriously. He’s brought with him some respectibility to L. A.”
Still, the Clippers, one of the NBA’s youngest teams, have a long ways to go to catch up with their Staple’s Center counterparts.
“They’re going to be the little brothers to the Lakers,” Webber said, “But you’ve to work your way up the ladder.”
They can take yet another huge step with a win Sunday in Game 7. It certainly will take some doing, considering the injury-plagued Clippers will be up against a more experienced Grizzlies team that appears to be as healthy as it has been all season.
Fortunately for the Clippers, though, they have Paul, whom many believe has been the best player on the floor throughout this series.
“Chris Paul has been a force everywhere he’s been,” Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins said. “He’s a point guard with the ball in his hands. He’s going to have it 95 percent of the time. He’s made some big shots in this series. The Clippers are not a factor without Chris Paul. Without him, they wouldn’t have been up 3-1.”
Paul realizes the Clippers will need him to be an even bigger factor Sunday afternoon if they hope to earn more respect, particularly among Los Angeles fans. However, if the Clippers manage to shock Memphis again, Paul contends they wouldn’t have done anything more than winning a brutal opening-round series.
“Nothing,” said Paul, when asked what would advancing past the Grizzlies mean for the Clippers franchise. “It will just mean we won a series against a tough team. We’ve got to stick together and grind it out.”
Something the Clippers have been able to do since Paul’s mid-December arrival to L. A.
Andre Johnson is a regular contributor for MemphiSport. Follow him on Twitter @AJ_Journalist.