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Chris Paul and Clippers are oh so close to closing out

Leading 3-1 going into Game 5 Wednesday in Memphis, the Clippers can clinch only the third playoff series win in franchise history. Many of them are new to this situation, but Chris Paul has been there.

May 08, 2012|By Baxter Holmes

The Clippers are on history's precipice. With one more win, they'll reach a milestone they've achieved only once before in Los Angeles, and only once before that in the franchise's 42-season history.

Win a playoff series.

If the scoreboard favors the Clippers at the conclusion of Wednesday's Game 5 in Memphis, they'll have beaten the Grizzlies, four games to one, and advanced to the Western Conference semifinals, where the wise, veteran and rested San Antonio Spurs are waiting.

It would mark the second playoff series win for the "Clippers," who won a first-round series in 2006. The franchise, then the Buffalo Braves, also advanced from the first round in 1976.

Several Clippers players are making their playoff debuts this spring, including three of their five starters, and this game will be their first chance at closing out a series.

"The close-out game is the toughest one," said Chris Paul, who speaks from experience.

Paul, for all his accolades in his seven seasons in the league, has closed out a playoff series only once — in 2008, when he steered the New Orleans Hornets past the Dallas Mavericks in the first round.

Against Memphis, Paul has played brilliantly, willing the Clippers to dramatic wins in three games.

But a fourth win Wednesday — at FedEx Forum, known as "The Grindhouse," where 18,000-plus animated fans will be waving growl towels and screaming themselves hoarse — against a Memphis team that was favored in this series will be daunting.

"They're still going to bring it," Clippers forward Reggie Evans said. "They don't have any quit in them."

Said Memphis Coach Lionel Hollins. "We're going to try to shut down Chris Paul a little bit. He's the problem, and we've got to solve the problem."

Memphis won the last time the teams played there, in Game 2. But the Clippers proved in the opener they can win in Memphis, though guard Chauncey Billups called that win "miraculous."

The Clippers tied an NBA playoff record in Game 1 for largest deficit overcome at the end of three quarters — 21 points — and closed the game on a 28-3 run to win, 99-98.

Winning Games 3 and 4 at home gave the Clippers margin for error — a loss Wednesday would not end their season, merely move the series back to their friendly confines of Staples Center for Game 6 on Friday.

Clippers Coach Vinny Del Negro, who has twice coached teams to the playoffs (Chicago in 2009 and '10) but never past the first round, doesn't want his team to rely on that fall-back option.

"We have to go into Game 5 with the right mentality, ready to fight, ready to work, ready to grind the game out and put as much pressure on them as possible," he said.

The Grizzlies need three straight wins, something they did eight times during the regular season, to win this series. In NBA history, only eight teams have ever come back from a 3-1 deficit to win a playoff series.

Expect Game 5 to be close. The aggregate score of this series: Memphis 386, Clippers 385. Double-digit leads haven't lasted. Neither team has been able to pull away. Indeed, this series, between the fourth- and fifth-seeded teams, is an even matchup.

But Evans is encouraged that despite the close finishes, his team hasn't played a complete game yet.

"We can do better," he said, rattling off a to-do list: better interior help defense against cutting Memphis guards, boxing out better around the basket and reducing turnovers.

"That's the way we've got to play for 48 minutes and find a way to get a win instead of just holding our breath and hoping we get a stop at the end," Evans said.

Evans, now a Clippers cult hero for his rebounding prowess (8.3 a game this series), had said that his team was "punked" by the more physical Grizzlies in Game 2.

It haven't been since, but Blake Griffin — one of those three starters in their first close-out game —described the physicality in the series as "unreal."

Del Negro expects Game 5 to be the most physical and intense yet.

Said Evans: "Memphis is a good team. They're not going anywhere."

Not if the Clippers win Wednesday.

baxter.holmes@latimes.com

twitter.com/baxterholmes

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