SALT LAKE CITY — He knows the scorching pain, both the physical and most devastatingly the psychological, from past experience in these situations. Chris Paul and the Clippers don’t do injuries very well in the post-season, partly the reason Paul and the Clippers habitually trip in the post-season.
And so, what do you do, if you’re Paul, when Blake Griffin once again proves fragile and limps to the locker room for good with bruised right big toe? There’s only one option: You play a Game 3 in April like it’s a Game 7 in June. You do whatever’s needed to avoid putting you and your team in a bind against the Jazz and risk hearing about and dealing with a repeat of playoff failure, easily the scarlet letter on your otherwise Hall-of-a-career.
Therefore, Paul was a man possessed Friday in a vocally-hostile Vivint Smart Home Arena, constantly sucker-punching the wind out of the home team, finally rising in the fourth quarter here in this building like no other playoff villain since — and this is no exaggeration — some guy pushed off on Bryon Russell at the top of the key.
Layups, jumpers, steals, pinpoint passes, it was all there in the clutch from Paul for the Clippers, now up 2-1 in the series after their 111-106 win. It was exhausting yet beautiful how it all unfolded, with Paul scoring 13 points in the final four minutes. And if you thought his energy and lungs were spent by then, think again.
“Yeah!” yelled Paul, as time expired. Then again, only louder: “Yeah!”
The only question now is, can he do it again if needed?
He doesn’t have a choice. The Clippers announced Saturday that Griffin is done for the playoffs. He made an innocent looking move in the second quarter, landed, and then immediately did a wincing bunny-hop, never a good sign. He turned and walked off the court with an injury that sounds innocent, but apparently it wasn’t.
The biggest fear, that the Clippers’track record in these matters is somewhere between dreadful and rotten, was realized. This is the second straight post-season where Griffin’s status was interrupted by injury. Last season he sat the entire first-round against the Blazers with a quad injury. Now this. Griffin hasn’t played 80 games in a season since 2013-14 and this year played only 61 games.
“We obviously won’t be able to play through the post as much,”said Paul. “It’s a different feeling without him on the court.”
Injuries have killed the Clippers lately. In addition to Griffin’s absence, Paul broke his hand three games into that series against Portland and was done for the playoffs. The Clippers lost the series, and while they had a solid excuse for doing so, it was another knife to the gut with regard to their playoff results in the Rivers-Paul-Griffin-DeAndre Jordan era.
They’re still looking to reach the conference finals -- conference finals! -- with three All-Stars in their prime. Can you name another team similarly constructed with such a feeble record in springtime? It seems cruel and unfair, yet you can chalk it up to Clipper Luck, the ailment that has haunted this team ever since Bill Walton re-injured his foot not long after signing a rich contract when the club was based in San Diego almost four decades ago.
At least for the final two quarters on Friday, Paul was having none of that, just the way he seized control of the game, rallied the Clippers, snatched the lead and kept it. There was a stretch where the Clippers ripped through a 15-0 run; Utah went over five minutes without scoring, possibly because they were shell-shocked by Paul.
“Nothing new to us,”said teammate Jamal Crawford. “That’s what he does. And the one thing about Chris is he’s a high-IQ player. Put aside the talent for a moment. He knows what to do and when to do it in that situation.”
In the three games of this series, Paul has averaged 26.7 points, 10.3 assists and 5.3 rebounds while shooting 55.4 percent overall, 46.2 from deep and 100 percent form the line. No player in NBA history has averaged 25/10/5 on 50/40/90 shooting in a single post-season.
Mainly, though, Paul has taken ownership of the second halves, proof of his clutch-ability. He scored 20 in the second half of Game 1 —and would’ve been the hero if not for Joe Johnson getting a lucky bounce on the game-winner for Utah —then 14 in Game 2 and finally a whopping 24 Friday. Only a select handful of NBA players bring the right mix of talent, leadership, smarts and courage necessary to put themselves on the line when it matters and, more often than not, come through.
“It wasn’t me,”said Paul, modestly. “It was us. I’m just trying to manage the game, pick my spots. We have been through tons of injuries; unfortunately, we’ve been in these situations before. But I told the guys to be ready. That’s our motto —be ready.”
It’s fair to say, although Paul might not admit it, that his latest trick was partly motivated by desperation. This is usually a heartbreak time of year for Paul, maybe the best current player without an appearance in the NBA Finals. Five years ago he arrived with the Clippers, detoured from the Lakers via the David Stern veto, bringing plenty of hope. The Clippers had a young Griffin and a raw Jordan, both of whom would rapidly grow into solid pros, then added JJ Redick and Doc Rivers. From the outside, this was the recipe for success, which unfortunately has eluded the Clippers.
More than the others, Paul’s reputation has suffered the most, fair or not. That’s due to his greatness as a player; the common perception is someone with his talent should’ve had a few cracks at sipping champagne by now. That hasn’t been the case for reasons within and beyond Paul’s control.
Besides last season’s injury-marred finish, he missed the first two games of the second round two years ago against Houston with a sore hammy —after playing splendidly against the Spurs in the first round —and the Clippers lost in seven. The year before that, Paul uncharacteristically flamed out against Oklahoma City and volunteered to take the heat.
The clock isn’t on his side right now. He’s 31 and facing free agency, as is Griffin—did Blake just play his final game as a Clipper? A first-round ouster against the Jazz might sound the alarm for change within the organization or at least an accountability check conducted by Steve Ballmer if the reclusive owner becomes restless.
Or maybe Paul wants to win this series simply because he’s a competitor and isn’t thinking about the potential fallout.
“Phenomenal”is how Rivers described Paul in Game 3. “He really was on both ends. He’s just good. He trusts the actions that we are running and he has an amazing will. He’s just a tough, tough guy. he’s stubborn in a very positive way. All the great ones have that in them. They are stubborn enough, like, they aren’t going to lose. That’s how he felt.”
What Paul did was make you forget how Gordon Hayward dropped 40 points for the Jazz and sizzled in the first quarter, when he had 21, the best quarter in franchise playoff history, even better than anything Karl Malone mustered. However: Hayward didn’t stand out when the game was on the line, not for the lack of trying.
Another issue for Utah: Rudy Gobert’s absence is killing them. Once again, the Clippers punished the Jazz inside, where Paul in particular scored a batch of his fourth-quarter buckets. Derrick Favors is giving up size and talent to Jordan in the middle, offering none of Gobert’s defensive intimidation. Favors played 38 minutes, had five fouls, six rebounds, two points, no blocks and was minus-17 on the floor. Ouch.
And now this series is suddenly about who’s missing as well as who’s playing. Can the Clippers make do without Griffin? At least the Clippers are comforted knowing Chris Paul is healthy and feeling it. That might be enough for now.
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