Memphis forward Zach Randolph, left, drives past Clippers forward Blake… (Mark Humphrey / Associated…)
Memphis had a huge lead. At home. In the playoffs. Against the Clippers.
And it began to slowly and surely fade…
The second half of Wednesday’s Game 5 at FedEx Forum sure looked a lot like the one in Game 1 of the Western Conference first-round playoff series between these two teams, when the Clippers pulled off a one-point win in the same building after trailing by as many as 27.
But the comparisons can end there.
PHOTOS: Clippers vs. Grizzlies, Game 5
Memphis was playing for its season Wednesday night, and it extended it for at least another game by hanging on, 92-80, after blowing a big lead.
The series moves back to Los Angeles, where Game 6 will be played Friday at Staples Center.
The Clippers lead the series, 3-2.
A reminder: only eight teams trailing a playoff series three games to one have come back to win that series in 186 chances, a conversion rate of 4.3%.
Memphis led by as many as 24 points in this game but the Clippers cut it to six points in the final quarter, as nervous Memphians bit their nails to the quick.
But Chris Paul, who finished with 19 points, had a nagging strained right groin that hindered him from completing the comeback, which he had done in the Clippers’ three close wins.
Paul's injury is a huge concern for the Clippers, obviously, but their concerns don't stop there.
Blake Griffin suffered a strained left knee late in the third quarter and finished with 15 points and 11 rebounds, his first playoff double-double. But Griffin did not score in the fourth quarter.
Memphis was led by Marc Gasol, who had his best game of the series by far, scoring 23 points on eight-of-14 shooting.
His frontline teammate Zach Randolph also played well, adding 19 points and 10 rebounds.
In the final seconds, Memphis fans chanted “See you Sunday,” which is where Game 7 of this series will be played if Memphis wins in Game 6.
Memphis 77, Clippers 65 (end of the third quarter)
Clippers fans held their collective breath with 1 minute, 31 seconds in the quarter when Blake Griffin landed awkwardly after a layup attempt and fell to the floor, clutching his left knee.
That’s the same knee that Griffin injured in 2009, suffering a fractured kneecap that forced him to miss his rookie season.
But Griffin walked off the floor under his own power and then returned to the game to make one of two free throws. The Times’ Broderick Turner reports that the injury is a “hyper-extended” left knee. (Notable: Griffin, has 15 points and 10 rebounds, his first-ever playoff double-double.)
As for the game itself, the Clippers trailed by as many as 24 points and have halved that deficitby closing the quarter on a 14-2 run. Paul has 17 points to lead the way for the Clippers and also has a jammed middle right (shooting) finger – a fact also pointed out by Turner.
But Paul appears to be well enough to once again carry his entire team – as he’s used to doing – to a comeback win.
He has to keep his temper under control, though.
He was tagged for a technical foul in the third quarter for arguing with an official. And in the span of about one minute, three other Clippers members – Caron Butler, Mo Williams and Coach Vinny Del Negro – were issued technical fouls for the same reason.
Expect this to be a hard-fought final quarter, as Memphis doesn't want a repeat of Game 1 and Paul won't go down or let his team go down without scrapping until the final seconds.
Memphis 57, Clippers 42 (halftime)
A double-digit hole.
The Clippers have been stuck in deep, cavernous such holes for much of this season, enough to make it almost unreasonable that they ever advanced to the postseason and to within one win from winning their third playoff series in franchise history at all.
Which is where they sit Wednesday.
Oh, here’s how they did it: Chris Paul.
Yes, sirs and madams, he’s quite good.
But, for all Paul’s heroics, his team is in, as Everett from “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” might say, a “tight spot” in Memphis in Game 5, trailing by 15 at intermission.
What’s that, you say? They were in a much tighter spot in Game 1, trailing by as many as 27 before winning? Touché.
That was then, as they say, and lightning rarely strikes twice, especially in the same series.
In the now, the Clippers trailed by as many as 18 points before switching to a zone defense, which led to a quick 6-0 run that helped chop that lead down a bit.
But that switch wasn't a fix-all.
Memphis’s bread-and-butter offense has been in the paint all season, and they’re remembering that fact more than they have all series. They’re shooting 57.5% from the field and have attempted just one shot from beyond the arc.