Patrick Patterson had played five combined minutes in the last week when Clippers coach Doc Rivers summoned the forward midway through Wednesday’s third quarter, the game teetering on the edge of disaster.
Maurice Harkless had not played in nearly 22 minutes when it was his turn to check in with 2.3 seconds left and the Clippers leading Memphis by two.
Neither finished with statistics that leaped off the final box score. But both fulfilled the specific niche they were called to perform, and because of it, the Clippers escaped FedEx Forum and the Grizzlies’ grasp with a 121-119 victory, their seventh consecutive.
The Clippers trailed by 10 with 6:48 to play but key three-pointers by Paul George and Patrick Beverley, plus a tip-in by Montrezl Harrell to break the tie with two seconds left, further burnished this team’s reputation as comeback artists.
“We really don’t want to get in that position, especially to have to feel like you have to turn it off, turn it on,” said Harrell, who scored 24 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.
That said, it is a position they feel extremely comfortable in. The Clippers had previously rallied against Boston and Houston within the last week but this one was different. The team arrived at its downtown hotel at least an hour later than expected Wednesday morning — after 3 a.m.— because bad weather in Memphis forced the team plane to circle over Texas for an hour. Star Kawhi Leonard didn’t play because of left knee soreness, continuing his practice of not playing consecutive nights that dates to 2017. And his replacement, Rodney McGruder, also was lost in the third quarter when he grabbed the back of his right leg.
“We don’t panic, we run our stuff,” Rivers said. “We’re a gritty basketball team. We played last night, we got Kawhi in the locker room, Rodney goes out, there were so many little heroes.”
George finished with 22 points, five rebounds and four turnovers in 29 minutes.
Patterson scored 10 points in seven minutes, drew a charge and helped blunt the effectiveness of Jonas Valanciunas, the Grizzlies big man who had bludgeoned the Clippers (14-5) up to that point, by pulling him away from the basket defensively. The Grizzlies had started sloppy but were surging after halftime behind the NBA’s seventh-fastest pace. By the end of the third quarter the Clippers were up by four points and the Grizzlies had substituted for Valanciunas to match the small Clippers lineup.
“He was huge for us,” Rivers said of Patterson. “It was a gamble move, honestly; it just worked.”
Then the Grizzlies began a 15-4 run to begin the final quarter and the Clippers went into comeback mode. Valanciunas finished with 30 points and 16 rebounds and rookie point guard Ja Morant had 20 points.
Tied with 31 seconds left, the Clippers ran a play for a quick three-pointer from George. JaMychal Green collected the rebound, and passed to Lou Williams, who lofted a floater that missed too but caromed right to Harrell. Williams finished with 24 points.
“He’s down there in the paint, I’m down there in the paint and it’s tough to keep two active guys off the glass,” Harrell said of Green.
Then it was Harkless’ time to enter. The last time he stepped on the floor, 9:51 remained in the third quarter. The 6-foot-9 forward with nearly a 7-foot wingspan switched onto Memphis’ Jaren Jackson Jr. and blocked his three-point attempt with two-tenths of a second remaining, then deflected an inbounds pass on the Grizzlies’ final possession.
“Once the game got close and we knew it was going to be a one-possession game, I thought I might go in for the end for a stop so I just prepared myself mentally for it,” said Harkless, who finished with five points, but two blocks, in 12 minutes. “Honestly I wasn’t trying to block the shot, I was trying to contest the shot. But I’m long enough I could block it.”