Clippers guard Nick Young drives for a reverse layup against Grizzlies… (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles…)
The Clippers, led by their bench players throughout the fourth quarter, beat the Memphis Grizzlies in Game 7 of their Western Conference first-round playoff series at the FedEx Forum on Sunday to advance in the postseason for the first time since 2006 and only the third time in franchise history.
They will open the second round in San Antonio against the Spurs on Tuesday.
The Clippers' support players were the story of the game. They outscored the Memphis bench, 41-11. Kenyon Martin had 11 points and 10 rebounds, Nick Young scored 13, Mo Williams nine and Eric Bledsoe eight. All figured prominently in the fourth quarter.
Chris Paul was the only Clippers starter in the game during crunch time. He finished with 19 points, nine rebounds and four assists.
“That's why it's seven games,” Martin said. “If you don't do it before, you get another chance. So they did what they had to do, they came and stole home court back on our floor. … We had a chance to close it out. We knew we let it go, an opportunity get away.”
PHOTOS: Clippers vs. Grizzlies, Game 7
Randy Foye, a reserve until Chauncey Billups was lost for the season with an injury, had high praise for the bench.
“Our bench was our MVP,” Foye said. “They realized what they had to do. We had a lot of guys hurt, so we just continued to grind.”
The Clippers came out firing in the fourth with the second unit. Martin, who scored seven of his points in the quarter, made an 18-footer and Young had a transition three-pointer from the corner to put L.A. on top, 60-56, and force a hasty Memphis timeout less than a minute into the quarter.
After the timeout, the Clippers outscored Memphis, 6-2; when Martin's put-back put L.A. on top by eight, 66-58, Memphis called another timeout with 8:41 to play. That's the same advantage the Clippers had in Game 6 with eight minutes to play before losing. They would hold it this time in one of the biggest games in franchise history.
Williams' three-pointer with seven minutes to go pushed the Clippers' lead to 71-61. Paul, playing aggressively despite the injured hip he sustained in Game 5, re-entered the game for Bledsoe with 6:16 to go.
Blake Griffin, clearly hampered by his injured left knee, remained on the bench and played only briefly in the final quarter. He finished with eight points and four rebounds.
When Marc Gasol, who along with Rudy Gay led the Grizzlies in scoring with 19 points, tossed in a one-footer over DeAndre Jordan with 4:05 to play, cutting the Clippers' lead to 71-65, L.A. called a timeout.
The Clippers pushed the lead to eight again on a drive by Bledsoe with 2:35 to play. With 1:01 left and the Clippers leading by six, 75-69, Martin went to the line for the first time in the series. He made one of two.
The final two minutes of the game was contested at the free-throw line, with the Clippers making seven of eight down the stretch.
“I felt like we should have won earlier,” Paul said. “But it doesn't matter. As long as you win, I think it is a step in the right direction for our franchise."
The series started promisingly for the Clippers in Game 1 when they put together one of the biggest comebacks in NBA playoff history, overcoming a 27-point deficit in the second half to defeat the Grizzlies, 99-98, in Memphis and steal home-court advantage. The Grizzlies bounced back in Game 2 to even things up before the series moved to Staples Center for Game 3.
The question at the time for the Clippers, who were tagged as underdogs by most experts and those who consider themselves experts, was whether they could hold on to the home-court edge in their two games at home. They did, but it wasn't easy.
They won Game 3, 87-86, after nearly blowing a six-point lead with 23 seconds to play, managing to eke out the victory despite missing 17 of their 30 free throws.
Game 4 was no easier, but as has been the case all season, Paul and Griffin powered the team to an overtime victory. Paul had 27 points, nine rebounds and seven assists; Griffin had 30 points, seven assists and five rebounds. Still, it took two free throws by Williams to ice it.
Things turned sour in the return to Memphis for Game 5. Griffin and Paul were injured and Memphis got back into the series with a 92-80 win. And with Paul and Griffin operating at well below full strength in Game 6 back in L.A., the Clippers had no answers for Gasol and Randolph, who powered Memphis to a 90-88 victory to set up Game 7.
“I want the guys to enjoy this, and then we'll regroup tomorrow and focus in on that,” Clippers Coach Vinny Del Negro said before turning his attention to the Spurs. “But obviously another big challenge for us.”
Memphis 56, Clippers 55 (end of third quarter)