When the endgame gambit fails: The Chris Paul story

May 15, 2014; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Oklahoma City Thunder forward Nick Collison (4) defends against Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul (3) during the fourth quarter in game six of the second round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

I sometimes find it interesting to delve into deep philosophical thoughts about the nature of human competition – about what it really means to “win,” and whether that’s the be-all and end-all goal that we assume it is. Maybe there’s something else worth aspiring to – a higher level of self-actualization.

Here’s an example – and I acknowledge it’s a bit weird, but bear with me. On December 8, 2013, the biennial world championship of Scrabble was decided in the Czech Republic. The two best players on the planet, Nigel Richards and Komol Panyasophonlert, were embroiled in a best-of-five series to decide the title. Nigel – the quiet, enigmatic New Zealander with a beard like a ZZ Top member and a brain like a supercomputer – had lost Game 1 to Komol, the stylish, finely coiffed Thai who speaks little English but has a deeper vocabulary than virtually everyone who does. Nigel was down 1-0, but he had a blowout lead in Game 2 and was applying the finishing touches.

Toward the end, something subtly amazing happened.

Nigel had a comfortable lead heading into the preendgame, 420-319, looking virtually certain to pull out Game 2 and even the series. With just one tile in the bag, it was his turn, and the eight tiles unseen to him – the one remaining, plus the seven on Komol’s rack – were ABGILNSV.

Several observers on the scene noted that there was one possible way for Komol to steal the win – from an open H in the top-left corner, Komol could potentially play HALVINGS if the B was in the bag, netting him 107 points and a narrow victory. It was Nigel’s turn, and all he had to do was block it – something piddly like HOOP would work just fine.

The thing is: HALVINGS isn’t a word. HALVING is a verb, meaning to divide into two equal parts, but it has no plural. But Nigel can’t know this for sure, can he? There are 267,751 total entries in Collins Scrabble Words, a seemingly impossibly large number to memorize, and the -INGS words are notoriously bizarre, including a range of verbs like VOTINGS and BREAKDANCINGS and HOBJOBBINGS. HALVINGS looks incredibly plausible when you think about it, and given the circumstances (world championship on the line!), Nigel has to block the game-winning play, even if he’s 99.99 percent sure it’s not valid.

But Nigel was 100.00 percent sure.

So he made a different play on the opposite side of the board, blocking other lower-scoring plays that Komol might have, knowing with absolute certainty that he couldn’t lose. At this point, it was merely cosmetic. The win was in the bag, and he was just looking for the optimal sequence to end the game. It was a pride thing – he wanted to make the right play for making the right play’s sake.

Here’s what Nigel’s saying to Komol with that play. He’s saying “This is how goddamn sure I am. I know exactly what you’re going to do next, and I know for a fact that it’s going to fail. Try me.”

What happened? Sure enough, Komol played HALVINGS, and sure enough, Nigel challenged it off the board and played out and won easily. The final score was a laugher, 471-319… and oh, by the way, Nigel went on to win the series in five and capture the trophy and the oversized check for $10,000.

The HALVINGS play makes an interesting study in game theory. Nigel’s only able to pass up HOOP if he has absolute confidence in his vocabulary. If he doesn’t block HALVINGS and he’s right, he’s pretty badass; but if there’s even the slightest bit of doubt, he’s just greedy. He should play it safe.

I relate this anecdote for two reasons:

1. World-class Scrabble is awesome, and situations like this are fascinating.

2. Nigel Richards makes for a very interesting contrast with one Christopher Emmanuel Paul.

As I look back on Chris Paul and the Clippers and their attempt to overcome the Thunder and break into the Western Conference finals, I keep thinking about the nature of CP3’s competitive spirit, about what drives him. I think on some level, there’s a part of him that cares about more than just winning the ballgames. I think he sometimes looks past the “right” play and tries to make the badass play. Unfortunately for him, it doesn’t always work out.

Reflecting on the Clippers’ demise last night, postmorteming, trying to pinpoint exactly what went wrong, I keep going back to the real turning point of this series – the moment when Paul began to come undone and the series started slipping away. It came in Game 5, of course, but it wasn’t when Paul tried to drive for the game-winning bucket in the final seconds and was thwarted by Serge Ibaka, and it wasn’t a few seconds earlier, when all that craziness went down with Matt Barnes and Reggie Jackson and the refs. It was the play before that.

With about 14 seconds left and the Clippers up two, Paul carried the ball up the right side of the floor, anticipating that Russell Westbrook would bring the quick foul. With the lead and the ball and the knowledge that he’s an 86 percent career free-throw shooter, there’s no way Paul should lose the game in his position. Do what you’ve gotta do – just curl up into a ball, let Westbrook hack, get to the line eventually and sink your free throws – and you’re home free.

What happened next was a blur, but it looked to me like instead of taking the easy foul, Paul instead flails at the oncoming Westbrook and tries to draw a foul in the act of “shooting” a 65-foot “jumper.” Rather than make the winning play – letting the guy smack into him – he goes for the badass play. He tries to get three free throws, right there and right then, even though he really doesn’t need to.

That’s the play that looks awesome if you’re 100 percent sure it’ll work. If you’re only 99 percent? Well, let’s just say you’re risking a whole lot more than you stand to gain.

In other words, Chris Paul is the guy in the Scrabble game who lets the other guy play HALVINGS, even if it might be a word and he’s not sure. He’s the guy messing around with a sure win, risking it for no good reason. In a way, he’s unlucky, because even with the needless risk in that situation – up two with the ball and 14 seconds left – he’s unlikely to lose the game, and it just so happens that his unlikely loss came in the biggest game of his life. It ultimately cost him a shot at his first Western Conference finals. That sucks.

It also seems sort of karmic. Paul’s coach, Doc Rivers, has a saying that “if you mess around with the game, it’ll mess around with you.” Indeed, that’s exactly what happened in Game 5 on Tuesday night.

The phrase “knowing how to win” is an ugly, ugly cliche, and when the talking heads lazily toss it out there, I’m liable to cringe and turn off the TV pronto. But in this particular situation, it might be applicable. Chris Paul might be guilty of, quite literally, not knowing how. I can’t claim to be inside CP3’s head, but it sure seems like in that moment, he had other motives in mind beyond winning the game. He wanted to do something flashy and cool, and maybe win the game by five points instead of four. But instead, he squandered a near-certain victory.

Of course, no one ever said pro athletes were required to prioritize winning above all else. Some guys play the game for the money; others for the fame. Maybe some guys – and maybe Chris Paul is one of them – think less about W’s and L’s than they do about making memorable plays in big moments. Maybe he’s just actualizing his talents in a different way. Hey – it’s not as though “winning basketball games” is anywhere on Maslow’s hierarchy.

I know for a fact that Chris Paul is a guy who cares a great deal about his reputation. He’s worked hard to establish himself as the consummate point guard, emphasizing the nature of his position every chance he gets. He’s got a nationwide ad campaign with State Farm where he showcases his passion for the “assist.” He engineered a trade from New Orleans to Los Angeles, way back when, so he could reinvent his career under the bright lights of Hollywood. All these things point to an image-conscious Chris Paul.

If Paul’s flailing 3-point shot into Westbrook’s contact had worked, Paul would have been a hero. The image of that play would have been immortalized on posters and TV highlight reels for years. And Paul, who’s spent a lifetime honing basketball skills like that, was confident he could pull it off.

It’s been said that “irrational confidence” is a must-have trait on a basketball team – your roster needs at least one guy who shows it. I think maybe the outcome of that Game 5 says otherwise. Rational confidence works a hell of a lot better.

The NBA playoffs are all about impossibly small edges. Every team left standing features a collection of the world’s best players; they’re all capable of winning at the highest level. In a game when only one team can do so, it often comes down to intuitive, split-second decision-making. That requires keeping your ego in check and knowing the precise limits of your capabilities.

During that moment, late in Game 5, I felt some doubts about how well Paul really knows himself and his game. In his mind, was he 100 percent sure of what he was doing? He was mistaken if so – basketball isn’t Scrabble. It’s an inexact science with a lot of fluky events and sometimes, a lot of psycho Russell Westbrook careening right at you. Chris Paul will never fully solve it, nor will anyone else.

Evans Clinchy

  • Dominic Domino

    This is good writing, thanks.

  • George Durr

    You have a lot of time on your hands! I wouldn’t trade Chris for any other point guard!