LOS ANGELES -- For seven minutes in the fourth quarter Chris Paul sat on the bench, in his blue and gray sweat-suit, watching the team he may stick with for the next five years of his life. He saw Blake Griffin spar with Zach Randolph. He saw Jamal Crawford turn down an open three-pointer and hit Matt Barnes under the basket. He saw Eric Bledsoe run a 90-foot dash and DeAndre Jordan assault a rim. When he finally peeled off his warm-ups, the Memphis Grizzlies were weak-kneed and wobbling, ill-prepared for basketball's Mariano Rivera. After a dizzying sequence of crossovers on Jerryd Bayless, Paul tossed in a fade-away three, and the Clippers celebrated a playoff-opening 112-91 win at Staples Center. Last year, the Clippers had to rally from a 27-point deficit to beat Memphis in Game 1. This year, they made it much easier on themselves.
In less than three months, Paul must decide whether to sign a long-term contract with the Clippers or head elsewhere, and on a night like Saturday it seemed impossible that he would leave. He led all scorers with 23 points, but six other players reached double figures. Five finished with five rebounds or more. The bench extended the margin in the fourth quarter. Paul might be able to find a superior sidekick in another city, but it's hard to imagine he could wind up with as many sidekicks as he has with the Clippers. There may be no other NBA team where the franchise player can afford to sit for seven minutes of the fourth quarter in a contested playoff game, but such is the broad support system around Paul.
Two years ago, when he was still with the New Orleans Hornets, Paul came to Los Angeles for a first-round playoff series and walked from the hotel to Staples Center before Game 1. He wanted to feel the energy in the air. "It was the excitement of basketball," he said. That series was the last time he played for New Orleans, and in some ways, that stroll helped set his future in motion. Paul forced a trade from the Hornets to the Lakers, and when it didn't go through, a trade from the Hornets to the Clippers. Over the past 16 months, Paul has given the Clippers everything they could have hoped, and vice-versa. They allowed him to create the culture he wanted, build the bench he wanted and play the style he wanted. They've been active in free agency. They've permitted kids in the locker room. They've hosted summer pick-up games for other NBA players. They've skimped on nothing.
Paul's contract expires July 1, but the subject of his free agency is rarely broached, because his stay has been so successful. He enjoys L.A., the Hollywood connections he's made, and the opportunities they offer. Those close to him assume he will sign an extension with the Clippers. While Dwight Howard's status is a daily topic of debate, Paul's seems a foregone conclusion, even though he has made no public statements about his intention. In some ways, he's been less revealing than Howard. Paul is a demanding leader, and while the Clippers were satisfied to have won a playoff series last spring and a first Pacific Division championship this season, standards have risen. "We want to keep building this in the right direction," said head coach Vinny Del Negro. "The only way to do that is by winning in the biggest moments."
The stakes are higher than ever, not because Paul will leave if the Clippers don't capture a title, but because he is so eager to see progress. The Clips are better than they were a year ago, and fresher, too -- Paul averaged a career-low in minutes thanks to that brimming bench. It's easy to forget the Clippers won 17 straight games in December and entered January with the best record in the NBA before coasting a bit. Paul is famous for pacing himself through the regular season to conserve for the playoffs. "The regular season doesn't matter," he said, back on that morning he walked to Staples. Letting kids in the locker room is nice, and so is adding Willie Green and Grant Hill, but all those welcome gestures only matter if they yield results in April and May. Now is the time for the Clippers to ensure that Paul spends the next five seasons with them.
On Saturday evening, Paul walked onto the court at Staples Center and felt a familiar energy in the air. "There's nothing like it," he said. "It's two different seasons. It's the regular season and the playoffs. The fans are here early." The Clippers outlasted the Grizzlies in seven games last spring, and since then, they appear to have improved in every way but one. They lost interior toughness, provided by Reggie Evans and Kenyon Martin, and interior toughness happens to be Memphis' hallmark. The Grizzlies knew they could not contain Paul, but at least they could control the front line. That was their hope, at least, and perhaps their only one.
"Very surprised," said Memphis coach Lionel Hollins, after the Clippers out-rebounded his team 47-23 and out-scored them 25-5 in second-chance points. Center Marc Gasol, a leading candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, pulled down two rebounds in 40 minutes. Randolph grabbed four. Bledsoe, a 6-1 guard, had as many rebounds by himself. The Clippers can apparently survive without Evans and Martin. "We got beat at our own game," Gasol said.
Gasol and Randolph both landed in foul trouble, along with point guard Mike Conley, but so did Griffin and Jordan. The Clippers, whose bench logged the most minutes in the NBA this season, are equipped for such absences. The Grizzlies, who rank 27th in bench production, are not. Depth usually doesn't matter as much in the playoffs, when breaks are longer and rotations shorter, but the Clippers bench is an insurance policy that can be tapped if needed. Eleven players shredded the stingiest defense in the Western Conference without throwing a single lob. The Clippers, who have demonstrated in countless highlights their ability to jump over opponents, showed they could plow through the most rigid of all.
Paul, who must evaluate this team with the discerning eye of a scout, had plenty of time to sit back and watch.