The Los Angeles Clippers' 10-point lead late in regulation had evaporated, and Blake Griffin stood helplessly at their bench with hands on hips after fouling out in overtime. A building full of red-shirted fans sat nervously, dreading another disaster for a franchise with more than its share.
Except Chris Paul wasn't around for any of the Clippers' bad times.
While everybody else worried, he calmly shepherded his club out of another perilous spot and onto the brink of something big.
Paul scored eight of his 27 points in a dynamic overtime performance, and the Clippers moved to the verge of their second playoff series victory in 36 years with a 101-97 win over the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday night, taking a 3-1 series lead.
"It's fun, it's exciting," said Paul, who atoned for his inability to score at the regulation buzzer.
"The worst mistake I probably made in the game was not getting the shot at the end of regulation," he added. "If I was at home watching it on TV, I'd be talking so bad about me. But you've got to get through it. The (best) thing about it is that I have teammates that have confidence in me. Everything that we do is a team win."
Maybe so, but the Clippers were ever so grateful to rely on their All-Star point guard.
Griffin had 30 points and seven assists before fouling out with 2:26 left in overtime for the Clippers, who blew an 84-74 lead over the final 4½ minutes of regulation before Paul took charge in the overtime. He played with the same intensity he showed late in regulation, heedlessly flinging himself over the front row of chairs in an attempt to save a loose ball.
"He's a great player, and that's what great players do," Memphis coach Lionel Hollins said.
Game 5 is Wednesday night in Memphis, with Game 6 back at Staples Center on Friday if necessary.
After Paul hit consecutive jumpers to put the Clippers ahead 99-93 with 44 seconds left, Mike Conley's layup with 8.1 seconds left trimmed the Clippers' lead back to two points. But after Mo Williams hit two free throws with 7.2 seconds left and Rudy Gay missed a meaningless 3-pointer, Griffin and Paul embraced while another frenzied sellout crowd of long-suffering Clippers fans roared.
"Chris is always intense," Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. "That's what makes him special. Chris is so good, not only at making plays for himself, but making the right play. That's what makes him a star."
Conley scored a career playoff-high 25 points and Gay had 23 on 8-of-25 shooting for the Grizzlies, who couldn't match Paul's late-game poise in another thrilling chapter of a highly entertaining series with four games decided by a total of 15 points.
"It's good TV, man, get the ratings up," Paul said. "We don't want any blowouts. There's a reason we finished 4-5 (in the Western Conference standings) with one game between us. We have a lot of competitive guys that don't give up in this series. We have two teams that are going to fight until the end."
In their breakthrough season since pairing Paul with Griffin, the Clippers need one more victory to win their second playoff series since the erstwhile Buffalo Braves moved to California. Los Angeles beat Denver in the first round in 2006, but hadn't been back to the postseason until this spring.
Caron Butler, playing with a broken bone in his left hand, scored 14 points for the Clippers, who still can't be comfortable after getting outrebounded 47-36 and giving away a big late lead.
After the Clippers rallied from big fourth-quarter deficits in their first two victories, Memphis rallied to 85-83 on Zach Randolph's jumper with 1:25 left. Gay hit the tying jumper in the final minute of regulation, and Paul drove for the go-ahead layup — his only points of the fourth quarter — before Randolph coolly hit two tying free throws with 20.4 seconds left.
Paul couldn't get a shot on the final possession of regulation, with Tony Allen and Gay swarming him — but he didn't quit.
"It's Chris Paul. He made his name off doing that," Gay said. "He's a tough guard. We can try and make it tougher on him, but still he's going to make plays and make his teammates better. That's what he's been doing."
The Clippers led 95-89 when Griffin fouled out, and the Grizzlies trimmed it to two points on jumpers by Conley and Gay. Paul went to work, shaking loose from defenders and hitting back-to-back jumpers sandwiching a turnover by Conley.
"Defensively in the overtime, we got three stops in a row, and Chris came down and hit big shot after big shot," Griffin said. "We keep telling ourselves, and we've said this all year, it starts on defense for us."
Fans filled Staples Center well before tipoff, donning their giveaway red T-shirts and standing to cheer on the majority of Los Angeles' possessions. They raised Staples Center's intensity to a level it hadn't seen since ... well, Sunday, when the Los Angeles Kings' fans roared throughout their second-round NHL clincher over St. Louis.
The tone was set in the first quarter: In a scintillating 2½-minute stretch, the teams combined for six 3-pointers, an alley-oop from Paul to DeAndre Jordan and a technical foul for Gay. Butler, who broke his hand in the opener and sat out Game 2 before surprisingly returning for Game 3, scored 11 points and checked out to a standing ovation in the first quarter.
Memphis kept constant pressure on Griffin, forcing the two-time All-Star to be resourceful while keeping his temper in check. Randolph got a technical foul in the second quarter when he fouled Griffin roughly on the shoulder and then chest-bumped him, but Griffin only chuckled while Randolph, the former Clippers big man, was pulled away from him.
The Grizzlies got tough, but the NBA's leaders in steals didn't get a single steal in the first half.