MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Many Memphians filed out of churches after Sunday services ended and headed to Beale Street, swelling the famous strip to its edges, guzzling down beer and wine — the street hosted the city’s annual “Great Wine Race” — as dusk approached.
Then scores funneled into the building they call “The Grindhouse” in honor of their team’s “grit-and-grind” style of play to watch the Memphis Grizzlies play host to a playoff series for the first time in franchise history.
They were ready, but nearly everyone in the sellout crowd of 18,119 saved their most deafening, full-throated boos for when Blake Griffin, who was making his much-anticipated playoff debut, was introduced in the starting lineup.
It was a harsh welcome to postseason play, and it befitted the Clipper star’s play on the court for most of the night.
But then his team completed one of the most improbable comebacks in NBA playoff history, digging out of a 27-point hole to beat Memphis 99-98 and take a 1-0 series lead in its Western Conference first-round playoff series.
And then Griffin stood in the doorway of a small office near his team’s visiting locker room, trying to make sense of his first foray into playoff basketball while still trying to comprehend a game that didn’t make much sense at all.
“It was real emotional,” Griffin said after his 17-point, seven-rebound performance.
“I think that kind of showed me a lot about the way the playoffs are. That was a great first lesson. No matter how I played in the beginning, you’ve got to keep playing and working, and that’s what we did.”
In the beginning, Griffin played terribly. He picked up two fouls in the first quarter and sat for most of the second.
At halftime, Griffin had as many points as turnovers: two.
“Welcome to the Grindhouse!” Memphis fans shouted from behind the Clippers’ bench.
In the third quarter, he became more aggressive, shooting nine of his 15 total shots, but he made only three of them.
In the fourth, Griffin made all three of his field-goal shots.
And with 1 minute 30 seconds left, Griffin stepped to the free-throw line, a place where he has long struggled. The crowd that had become so silent because of his team’s frantic comeback mustered the energy to boo him as loudly as it did at the game’s start. Two made free throws would bring his team within one point of a lead.
The crowd roared. Griffin sank both. And a possession later, the Clippers took their first lead. Fifty seconds after that, Los Angeles completed a 28-3 game-ending run to steal home-court advantage from Memphis and tie the NBA playoff record for the largest deficit overcome at the end of three quarters: 21 points.
When the final buzzer sounded on his first playoff game, Griffin searched for someone to hug.
Then he looked around. He saw stunned faces of fans, of the stunned opposing team. He enjoyed the view.
“That was one of the best feelings ever,” he said.
Reflecting later with a lone reporter, Griffin looked back on the game and what it was versus what he had expected, especially the physicality, which he had heard would be rougher than the roughhouse style he already knew well.
“It was about what I thought, but I think I anticipated the contact a little too much on some of those shots,” Griffin said. “I missed a lot of easy ones and ones I’ll make. That’s the promising thing.”
Griffin was reminded of how he had referred to the game as a “lesson” to never give up in a playoff game and that it was unusual that it had occurred in his very first playoff game and in such a historically dramatic fashion.
“Yeah,” he said. “That’s probably the best lesson I could learn, right out of the gate.”
“I’m going to hold on to that one for a while.”