|Blake Griffin scores 17 points in Game 6, but his injured knee is clearly slowing him. (US Presswire)|
LOS ANGELES -- Here comes Chris Paul's greatest challenge, the biggest obstacle he's faced since coming to L.A. on a mission to change the Clippers and what they've always been.
Here comes Game 7, lurking only 36 hours and two time zones away in Memphis, where Paul will step into an environment that will rank among the most hostile he's ever faced during his All-Star career.
Hobbled but not making excuses, vowing to be better than he was in a fourth-quarter meltdown Friday night, Paul could only replay the low points in his mind -- something he said he'll be doing for a long time.
Especially if his first offseason as a Clipper begins Sunday.
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"I'm not ready to start my summer," Paul said after the Clippers squandered an eight-point lead in the fourth quarter and lost to the Grizzlies 90-88 in Game 6 -- a blown opportunity that could resonate for months for one of the game's fiercest competitors.
"We had an opportunity to put it away tonight," Paul said. "We didn't want to go to Memphis; not until next season sometime. But what can we do about it?"
Then, he asked, "What time's the game? Anybody know?"
Noon, he was told. High noon central time on Sunday in Memphis.
"Cool," Paul said, feigning enthusiasm for what will be a brutal turnaround for his injured body and that of his formerly high-flying sidekick, Blake Griffin, who was visibly slowed by a knee injury suffered in Game 5. "Then we can get in and get out."
With either an improbable road victory against the Grizzles, who are 7-2 at home in the playoffs the past two seasons, or with massive regrets that will haunt him.
"We'll see what we're made of," Paul said.
We know what Paul is made of. As for the rest of the Clippers -- those who were allowed to play in the fourth quarter Friday night and those who weren't, as well as those who make such decisions -- the grade is incomplete.
The Clippers had an eight-point lead on their home floor, 76-68, with 8 ½ minutes left, and let it slip away. It was painful to watch. Just ask DeAndre Jordan, who spent the entire fourth quarter on the bench, literally watching. Coach Vinny Del Negro pulled Jordan, the Clippers' $10 million starting center, with 3:57 left in the third quarter of a tie game, and he never stepped onto the floor again.
"It's not my job to question what our coaching staff decides," Griffin said, when asked why his frontcourt mate, who had seven points and four rebounds in 18 minutes, didn't play in the fourth. "I thought that the guys that were in there gave us good minutes. Right now is not the time to start pointing fingers."
No, that happens Sunday if the Clippers can't move past this mini-collapse -- which, in the end, could wind up being more devastating than Memphis blowing a 27-point lead at home in Game 1. So much for treating this as though it were the Clippers' Game 7, a refrain popularized by Mo Williams in the hours leading up to tipoff.
"Well, that's what we said," Williams said, "but I just feel like, as a whole, we didn't approach it as such."
The Clippers had managed only five points in the final 5 ½ minutes of the game before Randy Foye's harmless 3-pointer went in with 3.7 seconds left. Paul, who'd willed the Clippers to victory here in Game 4, accounted for one single solitary point in the fourth -- though, in fairness, he only played 6:39 in arguably the most important quarter of basketball in the Clippers' mostly miserable existence.
Griffin played five minutes in the fourth; Foye four; Caron Butler three; and Jordan none. Nick Young played 8:50 and Reggie Evans 7:27. They accounted for one basket between them. It had me wanting to walk out to the court after everyone had left the building and look under Del Negro's seat for the Ouija board that told him to do all of this.
The Clippers' brutal stretch started at the 4:45 mark with the first of two straight turnovers from Paul, who said, "That's something I'm going to play back in my mind for a long time."
Paul's mind is still burdened with bad memories of Game 7's past. Just when he had the New Orleans Hornets on the rise with David West, Tyson Chandler and Peja Stojakovic in 2008, they were crushed by that Game 7 loss to the Spurs in San Antonio in the conference semifinals. The franchise still hasn't recovered, and don't think Paul doesn't think about it to this day.
"Always will," he said. "Always will."
He'll have another one to remember Sunday, one way or another.
Paul had 11 points and seven assists, saying he was tentative to test his injured groin early in the game. Griffin (17 points and five rebounds) clearly was slowed by his sprained left knee. With Griffin limited and Jordan relegated to spectator status, the Grizzlies' bigs dominated the paint. Marc Gasol had 23 points and nine rebounds, and Zach Randolph had 18 points and 16 rebounds as the Grizzlies managed to even the best-of-7 series at 3-3 despite committing 22 turnovers.
"The pressure was on us," said the Grizzlies' defensive stopper, Tony Allen. "We had to come in here and get a win. We knew if we didn't, we'd be getting ready for vacation."
Instead, a long, grim flight to Memphis for Paul and the Clippers.
"This one has to hurt," Paul said. "It has to hurt. If it doesn't hurt, you don't care."
Caring is never the problem for Chris Paul, who finds out Sunday if he has the power to push the Clippers away from their decades of failure. His biggest challenge yet.