SALT LAKE CITY -- The Clippers squeezed another 38 minutes out of Chris Paul on Friday night, another 29 points and eight assists, another lesson on how to play point guard despite the fourth quarter that practically made him grimace, and another reason to believe anything is possible, even a big comeback against a quality opponent while Blake Griffin watches from the bench.
Especially a big comeback against a quality opponent while Blake Griffin watches from the bench. That’s why his Game 6 was so special, because just another game in what has become a series of great showings late in the regular season and into the playoffs was anything but just another, the moment when Paul held back the dam break of elimination as the Clippers beat the Jazz 98-93 at Vivint Smart Home Arena to tie the first-round series 3-3.
Just when it seemed like Paul couldn’t give anymore, he gave the Clippers everything: a chance, a Game 7 on Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles, with the winner advancing to the Western Conference semifinals against the Warriors starting Tuesday night.
Just when it seemed like coach Doc Rivers couldn’t say anymore than he did about 90 minutes before tipoff, he gushed again after the win in a tough environment, even while correctly noting the massive impact of the bench, especially when Paul and DeAndre Jordan took a collective break late in the first quarter into early in the second.
Rivers before: “Chris is a great player and great players tend to be great in great moments. That’s why they are great players. They just have the ability to rise and go places where us mortals can’t go. Chris Paul has been one of those guys.”
Rivers after: “It’s just Chris. I said it before the game. He is as competitive of a human being that I ever been around. When you put that with the talent and the will, that’s why he has performances like this in big games. ... Chris was amazing. He just willed the game for us.”
Paul must be tired. He must be drained after 37, 33, 36, 38, 38 and another 38 minutes in the series, must be worn after three-plus games without Griffin, who, Rivers estimated, handled the ball about 40 percent of the time when Griffin and CP3 were on the court together. Now that in-game relief is gone, just as the Clippers went the first four games of the series and the last six of the regular season as key backup Austin Rivers dealt with a strained left hamstring, forcing Paul to inherit more work.
He was not perfect Friday night, as CP3 was the first to admit after a couple turnovers in the fourth quarter that aided the Jazz comeback that fell short. But he was so good for much of the rest of Game 6, no matter what but especially while, as Rivers said, “willing” the Clippers.
“I think that whenever we ask Chris to step up and take over the basketball game he’s been able to do that,” Jordan said. “He’s so unselfish he wants to get other guys going, but sometimes we need him to get going. He’s been able to do that in this series and just take advantage of whatever they’re giving him and then still be able to get other guys involved and keep everybody engaged. As one of the leaders of this team he’s done a great job of that all season and even more in the playoffs.”
Paul had considered the possibility of Friday as the last stand, and not just for the series and the season. For the entirety of the Clippers as we know them, when another early playoff exit could have sparked major changes, no matter how many times Rivers, also the head of basketball operation, insisted the plan is to keep the core together. For the career of Paul Pierce as well, with retirement looming and Paul delivering a verbal message to Pierce that matched the statement on the court.
“This is what we talked about before the game,” CP3 said. “Doc said, ‘Go out there and give yourselves a chance.’ We knew that we couldn’t win both games tonight and we wanted to give ourselves a chance. I looked over at Truth during one of them timeouts, Paul, and I said, ‘You’re not ending your career in Utah, you know what I mean?’ We told him that. We just said, ‘We’re going to keep this thing going for him ...”
And then they did. The Clippers earned a Game 7 at home on Sunday, when Paul will undoubtedly have another day with big minutes in what – for the point-guard leader, for Pierce, for the entire roster – will not be just another day.
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