By Teresa M. Walker/The Associated Press
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Chris Paul begged coach Vinny Del Negro to put him back into the game for the fourth quarter and not give up despite being down 21 points.
The result was another Clippers comeback — one of the greatest in NBA playoff history.
Paul hit a pair of free throws with 23.7 seconds left, and the Clippers rallied from a deficit that had been as much as 27 to stun the Memphis Grizzlies 99-98 Sunday night in the opening game of their Western Conference series.
The key, Paul said, is to keep believing.
“Unfortunately, that’s how we play,” he said. “We get killed in the first three quarters and in the fourth quarter we like to try to stand up for ourselves, and we found a way to win tonight.”
The Clippers tied the NBA playoff record for largest deficit overcome at the end of three quarters, when they trailed by 21.
“I don’t think I’ve been part of a game like that ever,” Clippers forward Blake Griffin said. “It was unbelievable.”
Rudy Gay missed a 15-footer with 0.9 seconds left after the Grizzlies squandered a lead they held for the first 47 minutes, with a 24-point cushion disappearing in about nine minutes.
“Obviously, we gave it away, and everybody’s kind of down,” Gay said. “We’re still into it. It’s a long series, and we’re ready to fight. That’s all this means. We’ve got to fight hard.”
The Clippers lost Caron Butler to a broken left hand, and he said he thinks he caught his hand in Gay’s jersey on a screen. Del Negro said other players will have to step up.
Nick Young did just that, scoring 19 points off the bench with three 3-pointers in the midst of the Clippers’ 26-1 run. Paul finished with 14 points while playing a team-high 38 minutes despite a groin injury that kept him out of the regular season finale against the Knicks. Griffin had 17 and Butler 12 before leaving the game.
Young said he didn’t even see the score, being on the court down the stretch for a change. He said he looked up late and saw they had a game when he started hitting his shots.
“It’s crazy. It’s a blessing,” Young said. “It shows how hard we fought. How we rallied together as a team, and just made stops down the end.”
Gay finished with 19 for Memphis. Mike Conley and O.J. Mayo had 17, and Marc Gasol scored 14.
Game 2 is Wednesday night.
The Clippers outscored the Grizzlies 35-13 in the fourth quarter, the most points in the final period by a Memphis opponent this season. Los Angeles also hit 13 of 17 from the floor, including 5 of 6 beyond the arc after hitting only one the first three quarters.
The Grizzlies looked ready to roll as they ran out to a 20-point lead in the first quarter and were up by 27 twice in the third, the last on a pair of free throws by Mayo with 1:34 left.
The Clippers finally got going in the fourth, as the Grizzlies looked like they shut it down way too soon. They had five turnovers in the fourth. Even though the Clippers had seven themselves, the Grizzlies looked lost as they just lost the ball going into the lane or put up shots that had no chance of going in.
“We just got careless,” Memphis coach Lionel Hollins said. “We just lost a little bit of our discipline from a defensive perspective. But offensively, we just started walking it up and trying to throw it into the post instead of running it in. We ran earlier. We attacked. We were in transition earlier. We just stopped doing that and got conservative and it cost us.”
Reggie Evans gave the Clippers their first lead at 97-96 when he scored inside with 58 seconds left.
Gay answered with 28 seconds to go with a 10-foot jumper on the right baseline over Paul, ending a drought where the Grizzlies went nearly 9 minutes without a field goal.
Tony Allen fouled Paul, sending him to the line for the clinching free throws.
Boston came back from 21 down after three quarters against New Jersey on May 25, 2002.
The Grizzlies had won six straight overall and the last 11 on their home floor to grab the No. 4 seed and start this series at home. Mayo said there would be no sleep until they fix what went wrong.
“We turned something that we worked so hard for — home-court advantage — to an ugly loss in Game 1,” Mayo said. “We’ve got to come back Game 2 with the attitude we can’t quit.”
The Grizzlies seemed to be clicking all across the board. They even hit 11 of 16 from 3-point range after ranking 25th in the NBA this season beyond the arc at 34.5 percent. Against the Clippers, they opened by hitting their four. So did Conley, and he hit three straight, the last with 7:19 left in the third, putting the Grizzlies up 69-48.
Memphis fans couldn’t have been more ready for this chance to start the postseason at home with a sellout crowd on hand. With a good luck charm in a St. Jude patient singing the national anthem, fans had their free T-shirts on and waving the free towels before tipoff.
The Grizzlies were ready too. They opened the game hitting their first five shots and seven of the first 10 in jumping out 15-6, forcing Del Negro to take a timeout. They quickly led by as much as 20 and had a 34-16 lead by the end of the first quarter, tying the most points scored this season in that period.
This is the Clippers’ first trip to the postseason since 2006. Paul has plenty of playoff experience with 23 games while in New Orleans, but this was the postseason debut for three starters — Griffin, Randy Foye and DeAndre Jordan — along with four of their teammates.
Paul looked a little rusty in the first half with only one point and three assists, all in the first quarter. He sat out the Clippers’ final game of the season with a strained groin, and Los Angeles lost that game to the Knicks along with the chance to start this series at home. Paul picked up his third foul with 6.5 seconds left in the first half.
The Clippers made a run in the second quarter and got within 50-39. But after Gay missed a pull-up jumper, the Clippers had a shot clock violation. The Grizzlies scored the final eight points, the last on a dunk by Gasol just before the buzzer for a 58-39 halftime lead.
Notes: The Grizzlies scored 34 in a quarter three other times. … The Grizzlies went 17-1 when leading after the first and 16-1 when leading at halftime. The lone loss came in double overtime March 13 to the Lakers. … The Grizzlies made nine 3-pointers twice during the season, the last on April 3 against Golden State.