In what was every bit as much of a collapse as a comeback, the Grizzlies probably deserved that shot.
Through three quarters everything was going right in the first home playoff opener in franchise history. As is so often the case when the Grizzlies' offense is at its best, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley — with four assists each — were directing a balanced attack as the Grizzlies sprinted out to a 34-16 run at the end of the first quarter.
When a 20-point Grizzlies lead eroded to 11 late in the second quarter — mostly with Gasol and Conley on the bench — the team responded with an 8-0 run to end the first half, capped by a buzzer-beating Gasol dunk off a Conley feed.
When the Clippers opened the third quarter on a 5-0 mini-run to get the Grizzlies lead under 15, the Grizzlies went on a five-minute 18-6 run to rebuild a commanding lead. It was during this stretch that Conley hit four consecutive threes and the Clippers' defense seemed beyond repair.
But the third time was in no way a charm.
Leading by 24 points with under eight minutes to go, the Grizzlies were first complacent with a seemingly insurmountable lead and, finally, as gradual decline gave way to a startlingly quick evaporation, seemingly as queasy and uncertain as the 18,000 people holding gold “Believe Memphis” towels at their hips.
No, they didn't believe this.
The Clippers went from 24 points down to take a one-point lead — their first lead of the game — on a Reggie Evans layup that made it 97-96 Clippers with under a minute to play. During that 26-1 Clippers run, seven different Grizzlies collaborated to misfire on 12 consecutive shots, with four turnovers sprinkled amid the misses. And even with most of that, the game didn't quite feel in doubt.
The Grizzlies had a 12-point lead with 2:47 to play. And that's when reserve Clippers guard Nick Young drained three corner three-pointers in the span of a minute to turn “this isn't really happening” into “wait, this is happening.”
This was a team-wide collapse, but one that perhaps reflects most harshly on Lionel Hollins — the coach on the bad end of history — and Rudy Gay, the young star making his first post-season appearance.
The Clippers run was underway when Gay re-entered the game at the 6:45 mark, and the offense, rather than running through Gasol (one field-goal attempt in the second half, none in the fourth quarter) and Conley (0-2 with one assist in 10 fourth-quarter minutes), became more isolation-oriented.
A year ago, this mostly worked, but that was with a healthy Zach Randolph. Now, still limited by his January knee injury, the Randolph shots fans got so used to seeing float just over the fingertips of defenders are instead finding those fingertips. Randolph was 0-3 in the fourth quarter, 3-13 in the game for a demoralizing six points.
With Randolph reduced, Gay was asked to be last year's Randolph and, for this night at least, couldn't do it. Gay had three straight misses and a turnover — and was the primary defender on Young — as the lead went poof. Gay did convert one shot down the stretch, and a big one: Scoring over Chris Paul on a defensive switch to reclaim the lead, 98-97, with 28 seconds left. But this score was erased — forgotten — when Tony Allen needlessly fouled Paul on the next Clippers possession, sending Paul to the line to take back the lead.
And, at the end, it was Gay with the ball, beyond the three-point line, down one, the shot clock off, surrounded by a lineup — Conley, O.J. Mayo, Gilbert Arenas, and Gasol — that I'm pretty sure had never been on the floor together. He drove toward the free-throw line and missed a contested 15-footer. Game over. Old questions about Gay's ability to be a legitimate difference maker most likely re-started.
“Of course people are down,” Gay said, sitting at a post-game press conference alongside Conley. “We felt as if we gave this game away. Obviously we gave it away. It's a long series and everybody is ready to fight. That's all this means. We've just got to fight harder.”
With two days off before Wednesday night's now crucial Game 2, there will be plenty of time to further assess this debacle. To tease out details that will be relevant to the rest of the series: About how the Grizzlies' offense can and should function in crunch time. About what Zach Randolph can give and whether reserves Marreese Speights and Dante Cunningham should be counted on more. About the impact of the loss of Clippers' small forward Caron Butler, who fractured his left hand in the second half and is presumably out for the series.
But the first question is whether the Grizzlies can survive a gut-punch of this magnitude. They blew it. Blew a 27-point second-half lead. Blew a game where they shot 69% (11-16) from three-point range. Blew a game where the Clippers' two best players, Paul (14 points on 5-12 shooting) and Blake Griffin (17 points and 7 rebounds), were generally mediocre by their own standards. Blew a game where the Clippers shooter who had been so hot over the past month, Randy Foye, ended up with three points. Blew it with reserves Nick Young (19 points), Eric Bledsoe (7 points on 3-4 in the fourth quarter), and Reggie Evans (7 points on 3-3 shooting, 13 rebounds) doing so much of the damage.
They blew a game in which the opposing coach, Vinny Del Negro, was, by his own post-game admission, one minute away from pulling the plug.
Lionel Hollins and his team said all the right things after the game. It's one game. It's a long series. We didn't do enough down the stretch. We have to learn from this. We'll keep fighting.
But you can't respond to a loss like this at a press conference podium or in the locker room afterward. It can only happen on the court.