If there's one thing we've learned from the first round playoff series between the Los Angeles Clippers and the Memphis Grizzlies, it's that Chris Paul is the difference-maker. The Clippers built a 3-1 lead through four games based primarily on Paul's magnificence in late game situations. He has been by far the best player in the series, Memphis has had no answer for him, and without him the Grizzlies would have swept the Clippers and would be preparing for a rematch with the San Antonio Spurs right now. (You have to figure the Spurs are pulling for the Clippers, eh?) With Chris Paul, the Clippers built a lead in the series from which very few teams in NBA Playoffs history have ever come back.
If the injury Paul suffered Wednesday night in Game 5 of the series (won by the Grizzlies 92-80 to stave off elimination) is serious, if it limits him in the remaining games, if it keeps CP3 from being CP3, then the Grizzlies will likely become just the ninth team in NBA playoff history to win a series after falling behind 3-1.
The Clippers managed three wins without Paul when he missed five games with a strained hamstring in January. However, only one of those wins was against a playoff team, and the games occurred before Chauncey Billups was lost for the season with a torn Achilles. It would be highly unlikely that the Clippers could win a playoff game without Paul or Billups to lead them.
Which all begs the question: why would Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro have risked further injury to his franchise player by reinserting him into the lineup with four minutes remaining?
In the history of the NBA, teams leading 3-1 have a 194-8 record of winning the series. However, they have a record of 18-46 in Game 5 when the game is played on the road. In other words, 72 percent of the time a team in the Clippers' situation loses Game 5, which doesn't alter the fact that 96 percent of the time they still win the series and advance.
Paul first sustained the injury when he went for a rebound with just under seven minutes remaining and the Clippers once again in the midst of coming back from a 24-point deficit in Memphis. At that moment, the Clippers were on a 22-6 run that trimmed the deficit to eight and must have felt eerily familiar to the Grizzlies and their fans. Paul reacted right away, and immediately started grabbing at the injury (first diagnosed as a strained groin, though later the diagnosis was modified to a strained hip flexor). He tried to tough it out, and the Clippers cut the lead to six on their next possession, but after limping through a couple of possessions, he signaled to the bench that he needed to come out. You have to realize how significant that is: Chris Paul is possibly the most competitive person in the world -- he NEVER wants to come out of a game, and certainly not in a close out game in the midst of a comeback with a few baskets to go to get over the top. Almost immediately after signaling to the bench, Paul changed his mind and indicated that he wanted to stay in, as his competitive drive overwhelmed his common sense. But with 5:16 remaining in the game and the Clippers once again down eight, L.A. substituted Randy Foye for Paul.
Almost immediately, with the Clippers now down 10, he was back at the scorer's table waiting to check back in to the game. The smart thing to do at that point, down double digits with less than four minutes remaining, was to live to fight another day. Based on the earlier results in this series, no one would have been the least bit surprised had an uninjured Paul and the Clippers completed the comeback and left Memphis with their close-out complete. In fact, it's probably what most people expected to happen. But that all changed when Paul pulled up lame. Rather than playing Paul in a quixotic attempt to win Game 5, clearly the smart play would have been to start resting and treating the injury as soon as possible in order to get him as healthy as possible as soon as possible for the remaining games. Strained muscles need rest and ice immediately to reduce inflammation and begin healing. Playing on a strained hip flexor only serves to delay healing at best, and could aggravate the injury at worst.
Given the stats concerning 3-1 series -- the trailing team usually wins Game 5 at home, but the leading team almost always wins the series anyway -- pointing toward Game 6 in L.A. would clearly have been the smart play. Let Memphis have Game 5 (or more specifically, let Mo Williams and Randy Foye and Eric Bledsoe try to win it) -- but don't risk Chris Paul's health. Because the one way to shift the odds, which still strongly favor the Clippers, in the Grizzlies direction is to get your difference-maker injured.
Obviously Paul wants to go back into the game, obviously he wants a chance to win it. That's who he is. That's how he's wired. But someone has to be the grown-up and say "No" in this case.
Do you cut Del Negro some slack, knowing in a similar situation nine days prior, with the Clippers down 24 and Paul on the bench recovering from a strained groin, that Del Negro acquiesced when his point guard begged to go back into the game and was rewarded with the greatest comeback in NBA playoff history? No. Because in that game, Paul showed no signs of still being injured. Wednesday night, Paul was clearly hurting and had no business being on the floor.
According to the Fox Sports sideline reporter working the game, during Paul's two and a half minute stretch back on the floor, Clippers trainer Jasen Powell went up the sideline to speak with Del Negro not once but twice. After the second time, Paul was removed once and for all, with 85 seconds left and Memphis up eight. One presumes that Powell was advising, perhaps even imploring, Del Negro to get Paul out of there before he hurt himself worse. And one presumes that Powell had similar advice for Vinny when Paul was removed the first time.
There's no way to know if putting him back in the game caused any additional damage. There's no way to know if he would be better off on Friday had he not played 143 more seconds on Wednesday. We can however be pretty certain that even if it didn't hurt, it sure as hell didn't help. The fact that Paul was clearly hurting and was completely ineffective when he was back in the game just makes the decision more absurd.
It's worth noting that an incident concerning the overuse of an injured player led to a confrontation between Del Negro and his GM John Paxson when Del Negro was in Chicago. According to reports, Del Negro exceeded minutes restrictions imposed by the team's medical staff on center Joakim Noah after he returned from injury, and Paxson was so upset that he almost got into a fight with Del Negro. So Vinny would seem to have a history of making short-term decisions that ignore his players' health and the team's long-term goals.
Paul insists that he'll be OK, that he'll play on Friday, but it's too early to tell. Clearly, that's what he'll want to do. He'll get some rest and some treatment, and we'll see. No doubt he'll do everything within his power to play in Game 6. Unfortunately, Del Negro faces another difficult decision on Friday. There's really no chance that Paul will be completely healed in two days -- the best case scenario is that he can play somewhat effectively despite the injury. But holding him out of Game 6 and giving him three full days of rest versus one could conceivably make a significant difference in his recovery. Do you play Paul in Game 6, on the assumption that Game 6 at home is the best chance to close out the series? Or do you keep him out and try to get him closer to full strength for a Game 7 in Memphis?
We know what Chris Paul will want to do. And it seems we know what Vinny Del Negro will do. It doesn't mean it's the smart thing to do.