The Clippers intended to win a fight for one of the top playoff seedings in the Western Conference, not a battle of attrition.
Things changed considerably in the first quarter Saturday night when Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol sprained his left ankle, joining injured teammates Mike Conley and Tony Allen on the sideline.
What was left of the Grizzlies fought gamely before ultimately succumbing to the Clippers, 94-86, at Staples Center after a fourth-quarter flourish by Chris Paul.
The point guard scored five consecutive points on a three-pointer and a mid-range jumper, helping the Clippers avoid a potentially deflating defeat while delighting team owner Steve Ballmer in his courtside seat.
“We just had to grit and grind a little bit,” Clippers shooting guard J.J. Redick said, using the catchphrase favored by Memphis.
The Clippers (54-26) moved into a three-way tie with the Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs for the second-best record in the West, though the Grizzlies would own the No. 2 seeding by virtue of holding the tiebreaker that puts them atop the Southwest Division.
The Clippers hold a tiebreaker with San Antonio by virtue of having a better record against West opponents, provided the Spurs do not win their division.
“I guess it’s more confusing now,” Clippers Coach Doc Rivers joked of the playoff picture. “When you figure it out, let me know.”
Paul finished with 15 points and 14 assists and Blake Griffin and Redick added 18 points apiece for the Clippers. Center DeAndre Jordan had 16 points and 16 rebounds, his last two points coming on free throws with 20 seconds left after he was bopped in the face by Memphis’ Jeff Green.
The crowd roared in appreciation of Jordan’s free throws several hours after Clippers forward Matt Barnes had issued a verbal call to arms on social media. Barnes sent a message to his 560,000 combined followers on Twitter and Instagram, asking for their support.
“Big Game 2nite!,” Barnes wrote. “It’s almost that time of year. WE NEED OUR CROWD MORE THAN EVER, let’s make Staple [sic] Center the BEST HOME COURT THIS YEAR IN THE PLAYOFFS!! That means Yall are gonna [have] to get off your phones, stop talking to the person [next] to you & actually stand up & cheer!!”
The Clippers had some extra help on their bench after signing veteran guard Lester Hudson before the game to a contract that includes a partial guarantee for next season.
The chippy play that seems a given when these teams meet materialized in the third quarter when Griffin appeared to be pulled down on top of Memphis center Kosta Koufos, who pushed Griffin with two hands to try to get him off. Both players were assessed technical fouls.
“We probably lead the league in double technicals between franchises,” Griffin deadpanned.
Zach Randolph finished with 21 points and 13 rebounds for Memphis, which was playing for the second time in two days after having defeated Utah in Salt Lake City on Friday night.
“That’s not the team that will be there in the playoffs,” Paul said of the Grizzlies, “but we couldn’t do anything about it. We had to play our game.”