Falling to the floor, Paul tossed up a shot that would have likely topped his feats of daring do. Of course, for seemingly the first time all year, the ball skipped off the rim and the Clippers' magical run eclipsed.
After the game, a 102-99 loss to the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs, Paul reiterated his belief that there are no moral victories. He's said it since he arrived in Los Angeles five months ago and said it again after the Spurs toppled the Clippers 103-100 in a wild regular-season game in February.
Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich on Clippers effort:
"It was a hard fought game. My congrats to the Clippers. In a really quick season, without a real training camp, I thought they did a great job. [Clippers Head Coach] Vinny [Del Negro] has got them playing great. They're aggressiveness, their toughness was there every single night, and we had to get through that. We were fortunate that we could get through this one tonight. It looked unlikely at different points in the game, but down the stretch, we finally got some loose balls that they got most of the game. Their effort, and their determination were terrific and I congratulate them for that."
"There have been a lot of ups and downs this year," said Randy Foye, who had three steals and routinely took on whatever defensive assignment asked of him. "But the main thing is we stayed together and we continued to fight as a unit."
It was perhaps the fight that outshone the highlights.
Blake Griffin, hobbled by a sprained left knee, threw down two consecutive left-handed dunks around certain Hall of Famer Tim Duncan. He was marvelous most of the night at the rim and permitted a peak into the future with a couple of step-back bank shots. But he also played the second half with a bandage covering four stitches in his lip from an inadvertent head butt he received before halftime. He put his body on the line all season, Sunday was no different.
"We played hard to the final buzzer," DeAndre Jordan said. "If we continue to that, we'll make strides."
Griffin's frontcourt mate, mired in a series of playoff woes, made strides on his own playing with the sort of reckless abandon that had shown up in flashes throughout the season. He flew around the court, protected the rim, knocked people down, and battled with Duncan for 31 minutes.
Another youngster, Eric Bledsoe, who along with Griffin and Jordan was participating in just his 11th postseason game, refused to let the Clippers die without a fight. He played 26 minutes of exhausting defense on Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. At 6-foot-1, he was regularly out-jumping Tiago Splitter, who is nearly a foot taller, for rebounds. His energy and shot-making keyed the Clippers in their quest for the lead and with about four minutes left he rested both hands on his knees prior to a Spurs out of bounds play, it was likely all he could do to avoid collapse.
"Even though it was 4-0 [in the series], I think we did a good job coming in and playing," Bledsoe said. "I think we did a great job just playing hard for this last game."
The operative word is "we." The Clippers received effort from the entire team. Reggie Evans was there, doing what he always does. Mo Williams took fearless shots as the 24-second clock expired and bounced around the perimeter on defense. Bobby Simmons, who had not scored since Game 2 of the Memphis series, canned his first shot of the game, spelling
Jordan in the first half. There was also Nick Young and Kenyon Martin and, of course, Caron Butler.
"This is about how much I appreciate the guys and their effort this year, the way they stuck together through things and battled injury," head coach Vinny Del Negro said at his postgame news conference. "You have Caron Butler, who played with an injury, he played with a broken hand, this stuff just does not happen. I appreciate his leadership by doing that. He gave us whatever he could. Things like that make me proud and happy."
While there may be no moral victories in Los Angeles late Sunday night at Staples Center, there is certainly no reason to feel cheated either. The Clippers did what they've done this entire season-they never quit.
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