Clippers stage wild comeback in Game 1...

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Clippers stage wild comeback in Game 1...

From Comcast SportsNet

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) -- 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.

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Zach Sanford is making the most of his opportunity on the third line

Zach Sanford is making the most of his opportunity on the third line

Zach Sanford's first 20 NHL games were fairly unremarkable. The rookie forward did well to earn a spot in the lineup, but as time went on and the points were not coming, it was clear Sanford needed time in the AHL. Now he's back and he's making the most of his opportunity.

With Andre Burakovsky out of the lineup with a hand injury, that left an opportunity for a young prospect to earn some NHL playing time. Jakub Vrana, the Caps' 2014 first-round draft pick, seemed the obvious choice as his scoring acumen and similar playing style seemed well suited for the third line. Sanford, however, was already with the Caps when Burakovsky suffered the injury. The recall was more of a reward for good play in Hershey and Sanford was not expected to get into the lineup, but with only one game left before the bye week, he got the first crack at the third line.

Three games later, Sanford still has not relinquished that position.

"I think this past weekend was couple [sic] of my better games of the year I've played with the Caps," Sanford said.

RELATED: After a dry spell, Winnik rediscovers his scoring touch

Sanford scored his first NHL goal, the game-winner against the Anaheim Ducks, in Washington's last game before the bye. He was then sent back down to the AHL for the week. When the team returned to action, both Sanford and Vrana were recalled and it looked as if both players would compete for Burakovsky's spot on the third line. Sanford, however, won the competition before it could ever really start.

Sanford played in the Caps' fist game back on Saturday in Detroit and scored again. In his first 20 games in the NHL, Sanford had only one point to show for it, an assist. In his last three games, he has two goals. As a reslut, Vrana was reassigned to Hershey without getting into the lineup and Sanford now appears entrenched as Burakovsky's replacement.

The most encouraging sign for the Caps is not just that Sanford is playing well, it's that his addition to the third line has been relatively seamless. The combination of Burakovsky with Lars Eller and Brett Connolly had established itself as a dynamic line for Washington before the injury. The fact that it has not taken a step back with Burakovsky's absence speaks to just how well Sanford has played.

"It's a good opportunity for me with Burky coming out to step in and take advantage of it," Sanford said. "It's been easy to jump in on that line in his spot. They've been playing great, they just haven't slowed down. They've kind of helped me take advantage of that and put a couple in with some nice plays. That's been great for me."

Sanford's play of late reflects a remarkable level of development from the timid player we saw at the start of the season. Sanford looked overly cautious at times in his first tour with the Caps, leading to almost no production. With nothing to show for his efforts, Sanford's confidence began to drop which led to even more timid play. Sanford credits his time in the AHL for giving him the confidence he needed to succeed at the NHL level.

"A lot of that is from Hershey," he said. "Just being down there and getting the ice time and the touches and getting some points and making plays is huge for my confidence. It definitely shows when I got back up here, I feel a lot more comfortable, a lot more confident with the puck."

That's exactly the attitude head coach Barry Trotz wanted to see from Sanford.

"As I said to him, just go for it," Trotz said after practice on Tuesday. "You've got an opportunity, just go for it and you know what a good decision is and a bad decision. He's got really good hockey sense. He's a very grounded young man. He understands the big picture, he understands the smaller stuff. I think he just was playing a little safe and now he's just playing."

While there's never a good time for a team to suffer an injury, Burakovsky's injury did allow the Caps to get a better idea of just how much Sanford could contribute to the lineup down the stretch. With the trade deadline just a week away, general manager Brian MacLellan has to decide whether or not to bolster the team's lineup for what the Caps hope will be a lengthy playoff run. The longer the playoffs go, the more likely it is that the team may need to call upon its depth.

MacLellan has stated the plan for the team was to carry Sanford and Vrana as the 13th and 14th forwards. While three games is a relatively small sample size, that's a plan MacLellan may feel more comfortable with now given how Sanford has thrived on the third line.

Said Trotz, "[Sanford] looks like he is going to take this opportunity and not be passive about it, not be safe." And that's exactly what the team was hoping for.

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After a dry spell, Caps' Daniel Winnik rediscovers his scoring touch

After a dry spell, Caps' Daniel Winnik rediscovers his scoring touch

Although Daniel Winnik's job description is that of a checking line winger and penalty kill specialist, the veteran has the ability to get hot offensively, too.

Case in point: the Capitals’ last three games.

Winnik has two goals, including a clutch tally in Detroit, and a primary assist during that span. Only Nicklas Backstrom has been more productive.

The reason for the sudden uptick? He’s gotten back to what was working for him earlier this season. 

“I looked back at my goals and they had all been around the net,” Winnik said after Tuesday’s practice. “So I just put more of a focus lately on getting to the net.”

“Sometimes,” he continued, “I have the habit of being the corner guy, digging out pucks and passing to the point. Sometimes I’m not getting to the net. So when I don’t have the puck and someone else does, I’m just focusing on getting to that blue paint, and hopefully pucks get there.”

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Which is exactly how he helped the Caps rally to salvage a standings point against the Red Wings on Saturday afternoon. With five minutes remaining at The Joe and the visitors trailing by a goal, T.J. Oshie carried the puck into the offensive zone as Winnik made a beeline to the net. Petr Mrazek stopped Oshie’s shot, but Winnik outmuscled defenseman Brendan Smith and used his stick to bat the rebound out of midair and into the net to knot the game 2-2.

The goal was Winnik’s eighth of the season but his first away from Verizon Center. It was also his second strike in two games. Against the Ducks, Winnik scored his second shorthanded goal of the season thanks to a great individual effort that began in the Caps’ end. That also goal ended a 17-game drought for Winnik.

Earlier in Anaheim game, Winnik also had a highlight reel setup pass that left Tom Wilson with a layup.  

Coach Barry Trotz said he’s not surprised by Winnik’s recent offensive outburst. Trotz said he implored him to think more about producing more points.

“Winnie has a pretty good skill set,” Trotz said. “We’re using him in a defensive role. But the one thing that I told him…I trust you defensively and I think you can be a real reliable player in this year. But there’s more, you can bring some offense. He can keep people off the board and then get those important goals at important times because a lot of time he’s out against offensive lines that don’t think [defense first].”  

Although Winnik’s game is on the rise as the season enters the stretch run, this hasn’t been any smoothest campaign for the 10th-year veteran. From opening night until late December, he found himself scratched 10 times as Trotz searched for the right line combinations.

Winnik said he got through that difficult phase with the help of a sports psychologist that he began seeing over the summer and has continued to consult in-season.

“It was hard,” Winnik said of being scratched. “To be honest, if it weren’t for me seeing a sports psychiatrist this summer in San Francisco, I wouldn’t have been able to handle it so well. I give Dr. [Michael] Tompkins a lot of credit for how I handled the situation.”

With 24 games remaining and his role now well-defined, it’s possible Winnik will top his previous career-high of 11 goals in addition to being the Caps' second most important forward on the penalty kill. But as a veteran on a team with championship aspirations, he says he's focused on making sure the group is playing the right way down the stretch.

“I hope we’re not just looking at it as, ‘Hey let’s just get through these last 24 games,’” said Winnik, who turns 32 next month. “That’s what it was like last year when I got here [via trade]. There was such a big cushion that there weren’t many meaningful games. This year, it’s a lot tighter and more teams are in the playoff race, so we’re going have harder games to play in. Hopefully that—and learning from last year—will helps us.”

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