A funny thing happened as the Los Angeles Clippers were chasing their neighbors the Lakers for third place in the Western Conference playoff race -- the Memphis Grizzlies got hot and crept up behind the L.A. teams. On Monday in Memphis, the sizzling Grizzlies defeated the Clippers 94-85 to move within a half game of the fourth spot.
The Grizzlies and Clippers are two of the hottest teams in the league. Entering Monday's game, Memphis had won seven of nine, and the Clippers had won eight of nine. In Memphis' case, it's not just the wins -- it's the nature of the opponents they've beaten. Within the last week the Grizzlies have defeated Oklahoma City and Miami on the road and Dallas at home -- the Grizzlies are playing great ball, and no one wants to see this team in the playoffs.
The Clippers came into the game undefeated in two games against Memphis this season, but both of those games were played in Los Angeles. With the game in Memphis and the Grizzlies playing great, it figured to be a different story Monday night.
For the first 41 minutes of the game, it was no contest. The Memphis defense took the Clippers out of everything they wanted to do. L.A. constantly found themselves facing a short shot clock, forcing up contested jump shots and hoping for the best. Even when the Clippers got open looks, they were missing them. The perimeter players who have been so effective during their recent surge were no-shows Monday. Randy Foye, Caron Butler and Nick Young combined to shoot 7-29 -- 2-11 from behind the three-point line. The Clippers as a team made just 4-18 from deep. Some of that was because of the Memphis defense -- and some of it was just missing shots.
Five minutes into the fourth quarter, Memphis held its biggest lead of the game at 81-64. The Clippers had been unable to make shots on their end, unable to force Memphis to miss on the other, and worst of all, unable to secure the rebound when Memphis did miss. The game appeared to be over.
At that point the Clippers went on a furious run. Led by the defensive pressure of Chris Paul and Eric Bledsoe, the Clippers started beating the Grizzlies at their own game by forcing turnovers, and they began making some shots. Paul scored nine points during a 19-5 L.A. run, capped by a DeAndre Jordan dunk to cut the lead to three with 55 seconds left. It was the closest the Clippers had been since the first quarter. But Rudy Gay got a dunk of his own off a backdoor cut, Chris Paul turned the ball over on L.A.'s next possession, and Memphis held on for a huge win.
Marc Gasol had 18 points, eight rebounds and seven assists to lead a balanced Memphis attack that saw six different players score in double figures. Gay had 16, Mike Conley and O.J. Mayo 13 each, Marreese Speights 12 and Zach Randolph had 10 points and 12 rebounds.
The Clippers were led by Paul with 21 points and six assists. Blake Griffin had 19 and DeAndre Jordan had a 14-14 double-double.
Also Monday, the Lakers, playing without Kobe Bryant, came from behind to win in New Orleans to move a game and a half ahead of the Clippers, who remain a half game ahead of Memphis. However, in the loss column the Lakers lead is a single game over both the Clippers and the Grizzlies.
The bad news for Memphis is that it loses the head-to-head tie-breaker with both of the L.A. teams, so it's not enough to finish the season in a tie -- it has to pass them in the standings. The good news is that of the three teams currently fighting for the third seed, the Grizzlies have by far the easiest schedule. Memphis plays six of its final seven games against teams with losing records. Meanwhile the Lakers have three games remaining against the red-hot Spurs and one against the Thunder, while the Clippers play the Thunder twice and will be on the road for six of their final nine games.
So while Memphis is still in fifth place as of Monday night, it may not be there for much longer.
For all of Monday's NBA box scores, check out SI.com's NBA scoreboard.