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Clippers dig deeper to reach daylight

T.J. SIMERS

L.A. is the tougher team when it counts, and everyone seems to have contributed to a Game 7 victory in Memphis.

May 13, 2012|T.J. Simers
  • Clippers point guard Chris Paul battles the big men, including Grizzlies power forward Zach Randolph, for a rebound in the fourth quarter of Game 7 on Sunday afternoon in Memphis. Paul finished with 19 points, nine rebounds and four assists in the victory.
Clippers point guard Chris Paul battles the big men, including Grizzlies… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — I've got your grit and grind here, Memphis, and they are wearing Clippers uniforms.

The Grizzlies were supposed to be the better team, with fans holding up "Believe Memphis" towels and a newspaper columnist here detailing the intangibles early on that would separate Memphis from L.A.

But while the columnist moves on now to write about the minor league baseball team here or the town's best bowlers, the Clippers have already landed in San Antonio — and with no need of a plane to get them there.

The Clippers were the tougher team when it really counted, oozing with determination and digging deeper when everyone had them buried after Game 6.

I didn't even pack clothes for San Antonio, never being so wrong and absolutely thrilled now to look so silly.

As often as the headlines go sour in professional sports, what a kick to hear Coach Vinny Del Negro walk through the locker room singing, "It's a miracle."

Del Negro stopped to crack: "I just got a text from Mike Eruzione."

Everything, including ABC-TV's pregame concentration on Memphis, was stacked against the Clippers. And yet inside the Clippers' locker room Chris Paul made sure everyone knew he had already booked a flight to San Antonio for his wife and son.

"And I didn't want them going there without me," he said.

Memphis has its mottoes; the Clippers have their leader in Paul.

But maybe this series never gets this far if it isn't another veteran in Caron Butler who opts to play with a broken hand and no pain medication.

Maybe it was the third time, or the fourth, that he got his hand whacked, but all Butler can remember is that he could not feel the fingers on his hand as he went to shoot free throws.

"I'm going to be crying all the way to San Antonio," he said to the courtside media, and that was with two quarters still to play because he believed his team was going to prevail.

When he did come out of the game, he walked the sideline with Del Negro. At one point he got in the face of Paul asking for more.

And then he was screaming, "Yes, yes, yes," the game almost over, hugs all around.

"To get that win and embrace all the fellas, the pain was well worth it," said Butler.

How painful might the results have been?

Instead of maybe coaching his last game with the Clippers, Del Negro was taking congratulations from team President Andy Roeser and a telephone call as well from owner Donald Sterling.

"It's a good step forward for the franchise, and I appreciate their support," said Del Negro. "But it's all about the players; they did this."

Del Negro did not hear from Clippers General Manager Neil Olshey after the game; Olshey spent a good deal of time during this series with Memphis lead assistant Dave Joerger. Maybe Joerger needed some consoling.

Whatever the explanation, Del Negro has remained unflappable and resolute in believing his team can find a way to win.

"Did you see the way these guys stepped up?" he said, and maybe if he sat down and didn't stand in front of the scorer's table, we could all see.

"This is the most connected and fun team I have ever been around," said Blake Griffin. "I wish I could have helped more, but what a job these guys did."

Raise your hand if you thought the Clippers could beat Memphis with both Paul and Griffin healthy. How about with both Paul and Griffin handicapped by injuries for Game 7 on the road?

Never a doubt as far as Paul was concerned. He pulled out his phone and began scrolling down a list of media names he had saved and how each had predicted how this series might go.

"J.A. Adande had Memphis winning in six, Jon Barry had Memphis winning in six, Marc Stein had Memphis winning in seven, Michael Wilbon had Memphis winning in seven and Tim Legler had Memphis winning in seven," said Paul.

"Sometimes you just have to will it."

Beyond a superstar's heroics, is there anything more rewarding than watching group dynamics lead to an upset?

Name a Clipper, and he somehow contributed to this piece of history and winning a Game 7 on the road.

Paul was back in the locker room getting treatment on an injured hip and sore groin with the game on the line.

"And when I came back out on the floor we were up by eight," he said. "This win goes to those guys: Eric Bledsoe, Nick Young, Kenyon Martin, Reggie Evans and Mo Williams."

Griffin could barely stand on an injured leg, but here was the Clippers' bench seemingly oblivious to the pressure that accompanies such a big moment.

The bench scored 41 points, including 25 of the team's 27 fourth-quarter points. And you know what? When things don't go well here, folks sure leave the arena early.

"It's the best feeling when you have people screaming at you all game long and then see them walk out pouting," said Paul.

But as monumental as this was, the playoffs continue and the Clippers remain banged up.

And although at risk of ending up on Paul's list, I had to inform Del Negro his team has no chance of beating San Antonio.

"Well, we got a better shot now than we had two hours ago," Del Negro said, and everyone laughed.

The best way I know to leave Memphis behind.

t.j.simers@latimes.com

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