The Los Angeles Clippers are in a must-win situation on Thursday night. No one knows that better than Chris Paul, whose very reputation stands to take a hit should L.A. fall to the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 6.
Paul is the best point guard in the NBA, but in Game 5 on Tuesday night he hardly looked it. After an unimpressive shooting performance, Paul closed out the final minutes against the Oklahoma City Thunder with what was perhaps the worst 17 seconds of his NBA career.
First, on a play that wasn’t Paul’s doing but in which he was nonetheless involved, Kevin Durant scored on a fastbreak opportunity with the Clippers guard defending, cutting the L.A. lead to 104-102. On the ensuing possession, Paul found himself trapped on the right sideline on his own end of the floor by Thunder guard Russell Westbrook. As Westbrook reached for the ball, Paul leaped and attempted a 3/4 court shot, a typically veteran move. Instead of a foul call, Westbrook was able to dislodge the ball, sending it bouncing to the middle of the floor where Reggie Jackson scooped it up and raced toward the basket.
That’s when things got crazy.
Jackson went up for a layup but was stripped by Clippers wing Matt Barnes and the ball went out of bounds. Officials signaled Thunder ball, and after replay proved inconclusive, Oklahoma City retained possession with just 11 seconds remaining.
On the next play, the Thunder inbounded the ball, pairing Westbrook against Paul on the left side of the arc. Westbrook isolated on Paul and took an ill-advised pull-up three-pointer. Paul appeared to touch Westbrook on the elbow, and he was whistled for the foul. Calmly, the Thunder All-Star stepped to the line to sink three free throws and give Oklahoma City the lead, 105-104.
With 6.4 seconds left and his team trailing, Paul had a chance to redeem himself. He drove right, giving an in-and-out dribble to Serge Ibaka, who had switched onto him after a Blake Griffin screen. A hesitation move at the elbow gave Paul enough space, and he darted for the rim. Paul pulled up for a short floater, and promptly lost the ball.
The sequence was a letdown, not only for Los Angeles after having controlled much of the game in hostile territory, but for Paul’s reputation. Fans around the league seem to have a love/hate relationship with the star guard, praising him for his crafty moves and calm demeanor or demonizing him for flopping, sticking his rear end out on drives and working officials.
What will plague Paul most is if the Clippers fail to beat Oklahoma City Thursday night in Los Angeles. The final result of Game 5, like it or not, has as much to do with Paul’s errors as it does with Kevin Durant hitting a ridiculous pull-up three-pointer with 43 seconds left to pull the Thunder within four points. Paul has long held the top spot among the NBA’s elite point guards, but doubt will likely creep into the mind of the NBA faithful if his team gets bounced.
This is, of course, is ridiculous on its face. Just last week, it was Paul who went 8-of-9 from three as he dominated the Thunder for 32 points in Game 1. L.A.’s top player has been the Rookie of the Year, seen the All-Star game seven times, and at age 29, is 29th all-time in career assists.
Last season, Manu Ginobili had one of the worst Finals performances by a key player we’ve ever seen, capped by a turnover and a desperation three-pointer in the final 24 seconds of Game 7. Talk was that Ginibili was done. This season? His play has been the subject of continual praise, as it has for years.
Put simply, a playoff series does not make or break a player.
Those watching Game 5 on Tuesday were quick to write of Chris Paul’s misdeeds. Many forgot to mention that, with 49 seconds left, Paul put down an isolation jumper from the right elbow to extend the Clippers’ lead, 104-97, a crucial play in crunch time of a huge playoff game. But the NBA Gods giveth and taketh away.
If Los Angeles lose on Thursday, it will still be on Paul, as all losses weigh on the shoulders of star players. But if the Clippers win?
That’ll be on him, too.