As the Los Angeles Clippers pursued their first playoff series victory since 2006 and just their second since 1976, you had to know that entry into the second round wouldn’t come in routine fashion.
So it was natural, then, that securing a date with the Spurs in the Western Conference semis required a full seven games and a win on the road in the deciding Game 7 with the Clippers’ star tandem (Chris Paul and Blake Griffin) hobbled. Leave it to L.A.’s previously perennial laughingstocks to slumber through three fairly uninspired quarters of the decisive game, only to unexpectedly come alive with a 27-16 fourth quarter eruption to seal the series against the Memphis Grizzlies.
In a way, it brings to mind the achievements of their lovable loser brother-in-arms from the soccer world, Manchester City, who rallied with two injury time goals on Sunday to win their first English Premier League championship in 44 years.
Although Paul is being credited with legitimizing the club after an off-season trade from New Orleans and Griffin continues to be one of the NBA’s foremost must-see players, they were nowhere to be found when the Clips went on their difference-making run. Instead, it was the unit internally known as “the Goon Squad,” the unlikely quintet of Kenyon Martin, Reggie Evans, Eric Bledsoe, Nick Young and Mo Williams, that turned what had been a one-point deficit to start the fourth into a 71-61 advantage during what was a 15-5 run.
Going back to the beginning of the season, there was no guarantee that any of the five men would even be in Lob City right now. Martin opened the 2011-12 season in China after signing a one-year deal with the Xinjiang Flying Tigers during the lockout (he was free to sign with Los Angeles on February 3). Evans was a free agent without many suitors (he wasn’t even offered a contract by his former team, the bottom-feeding Toronto Raptors). Bledsoe began the season on the sidelines while recovering from surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his knee and, like Williams, faced heavy competition for minutes in the backcourt from Paul, Randy Foye and Chauncey Billups. Young was one of several talented headaches the going-nowhere Washington Wizards.
But for a 6:14 stretch in the club’s biggest game of the season, all five men put any talk of the Clippers being a three-man team (Paul, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan) on the back burner (not to mention all the flopping / whining talk targeting the team). Instead, they’ve offered up hope of depth, which will be a key issue going into their second round encounter with the firing-on-all-cylinders Spurs.
We don’t know the extent of Paul’s groin woes or Griffin’s sprained knee, but anything less than 100% will be problematic. Paul will need to be at full health to keep Tony Parker in check, while a healthy, explosive Griffin would have a big opportunity to exploit San Antonio’s weakness in playing above the rim.
Once again, then, the secondary Clips will have a chance to come up big. Evans will be asked to bang down low against Tim Duncan, Tiago Splitter and DeJuan Blair, while Martin will have to get his mid-range game going (he did on Sunday with 11 points on 5-7 shooting). Bledsoe will be critical in easing the pressure on Paul and may even get the bulk of the Parker assignment. Young and Williams, meanwhile, will look to offer long range shooting options, while also trying to keep San Antonio’s impressive group of young supporting players (Danny Green, Gary Neal and James Anderson) at bay.
You won’t see many folks projecting much more than maybe one victory for the Clippers in their second round tilt (including in our own, well-written series preview). Of course, those same people probably wouldn’t have projected a team needing to rely on significant, Game 7 production from Martin-Evans-Bledsoe-Young-Williams – and to get it.