The Los Angeles Clippers entered their final two-game road trip of the season knowing they needed just one more win to secure home court advantage in the first round of the NBA Playoffs. For a team that was 32-50 a year ago, the turnaround has been remarkable, and a top-four finish would exceed most of the suddenly elevated expectations placed on the team after the pre-season acquisition of Chris Paul.
The team lost its penultimate game in Atlanta Tuesday night, and in the process Paul tweaked his groin muscle. With what was described as a slight strain of the muscle, the Clippers faced a dilemma heading into their final game against the New York Knicks in Madison Square Garden: should they play Paul and increase their chances of winning the game and securing home court advantage, or rest him and avoid potentially injuring the groin further or delaying his recovery?
The stakes were fairly evident. A loss in New York, coupled with a Memphis win over Orlando on Thursday, would give the Grizzlies the home court advantage in the opening round series between L.A. and Memphis. A win in New York and the Clippers would definitely enjoy the home court edge. A loss, and the Clippers would have to hope for the Magic to defeat the Grizzlies, not a likely prospect with Orlando missing Dwight Howard and with nothing to play for.
In the end, though, it was no choice at all. A healthy Chris Paul in the playoffs is much more important to the Clippers than home court advantage, and so the team decided to rest its team leader. Without Paul, the team struggled in the half-court offense and lost to the Knicks, 99-93.
The Knicks led most of the way, building an 11-point lead in the second quarter, but the Clippers would battle back to make it a game. Then the game really seemed to get away from L.A. when New York opened the fourth quarter on a 16-6 run to establish its biggest lead of the evening at 18.
But the Clippers had one more run left in them. At this point, one has to understand what was happening elsewhere in the league Wednesday night. At the beginning of the game, the Knicks were still harboring their own aspirations of climbing into the sixth spot in the Eastern Conference and avoiding the Miami Heat in the first round. But when the Magic defeated the Bobcats in a game that concluded sometime in the second half of the Knicks-Clippers game, Orlando clinched the sixth seed. The Clippers began to mount a comeback with Knicks starters Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler on the bench, and as the lead got smaller and smaller, they remained on the bench, as the Knicks no longer had anything to play for. L.A. reeled off a 16-1 run to cut the lead to three with two and a half minutes remaining before J.R. Smith nailed a three-pointer to stop the bleeding. L.A. then scored the next five to pull within a single point with just under a minute left in the game.
Once again it was Smith to the rescue for the Knicks, as he hit a tough jump shot with the shot clock winding down to boost the lead back up to three with 30 seconds left. On the subsequent possession the Clippers turned the ball over and Smith hit a pair of free throws to seal the game.
Smith led the Knicks with 21 points, including those crucial seven in a row with the game on the line when no one else could score. Five other Knicks scored in double figures, including Anthony with 17. The game marked only the second time in a month that Anthony, Stoudemire and Chandler have played together for New York.
In contrast to the balanced New York attack, for the second time in two nights the Clippers received huge games from two players and very little from the rest of the team. With Paul out of action, Griffin (29) and Randy Foye (28) scored 57 of L.A.'s 93 points while no other player scored in double figures. It was a terrific all-around performance for Griffin, who led his team not only in scoring but also in rebounds (10) and assists (6) while shooting 11-14 from the field. Unfortunately, he also missed half of his 14 free throws, which made a huge difference in a game where the Clippers trailed by a single point in the final minute.
The Clippers conclude their regular season at 40-26. Despite losing their final two and three of the last four, it is still the best season in franchise history in terms of winning percentage, besting the 1974-75 Buffalo Braves of Bob McAdoo. Unfortunately the loss drops the team's road record to 16-17 and it misses out on a chance at the first winning road record in Clippers history. The team closed the season winning 14 of its final 19, even including the stumbles at the end.
The Knicks improve to 35-30 with the win. They are currently tied with the Philadelphia 76ers in the East standings, but New York owns the tie-breaker and is therefore in seventh with the Sixers in eighth. New York will open the playoffs against the Miami Heat unless it loses its final game Thursday against Charlotte and Philadelphia beats Detroit.
For all of Wednesday's NBA box scores, check out SI.com's NBA scoreboard.