By Ben Golliver
HOUSTON -- The incessant advertising campaign suggests that Chris Paul has a long-lost twin brother who shares his virtues, helping regular folks just like the Clippers' point guard assist his teammates. If the spots were true to life, there would be moments where the candy corn plot veered off into something darker. Perhaps the insurance agent version of Paul puts a pushy client in his place; perhaps he tells off a lazy cop who doesn't want to fill out the paperwork.
"These guys are always saying I have a little-man complex," Paul, who finished with 20 points and 15 assists, joked while receiving the MVP award after the West defeated the East 143-138 in the All-Star Game on Sunday night.
LeBron James' commercials go way out of their way to make him family friendly; Kevin Durant's "KD is not nice" ads attempt the opposite. Paul, though, effortlessly exists as both cutthroat and corny, alternating between the two modes as quickly as he shifts the ball from his left hand to his right and back. He bear hugs his mini-me son with the same hands he uses to indignantly shove a defender's hand off of his hip. There's never any hint as to when the broad smile will morph into the hard glare.
The internal dichotomy was on full display in a thorough, start-to-finish performance. The night opened with Paul feeding Clippers teammate Blake Griffin for a pair of easy dunks and it closed with him scrapping for a jump ball, taking a shot from a man nearly a foot taller than him and delivering a three-pointer that proved to be the dagger. In between, he managed a play that was simultaneously beautiful and cruel, pushing the ball between the unsuspecting legs of Heat forward Chris Bosh.
Paul's individual greatness stood out, in some measure, because of injury absences to Bulls guard Derrick Rose and Celtics guard Rajon Rondo. That left 20-year-old Cavaliers phenom Kyrie Irving as his foil. While Irving acquitted himself nicely in his All-Star debut, finishing with 15 points and four assists and playing down the stretch with the vets, Paul was the schoolmaster on Saturday, pushing the attack and distributing to targets both inside and out.
"He was unbelievable," LeBron James, who finished with 19 points, five assists and three rebounds, said. "The number one point guard we have in this league and it doesn't surprise me what he did on the court."
Paul deflected: "I've got the easy part, all I've got to do is give them the ball."
This was his sixth career All-Star Game and the fifth time he's posted a double-figure assist total; his 12.4 assists per game in All-Star appearances is the best in league history. This is old hat to him by now and he had an embarrassment of offensive riches at his disposal, with Griffin dunking everything in sight on his way to 19 points and three rebounds and Durant going for a game-high 30 points on the wing.
"You have to pick your poison," Paul said. "You take Blake at the rim for the dunk, you're leaving KD wide open for the three. One of them is going to go in."
It was Paul's on-ball mastery that left the longest-lasting impression. In addition to "nutmegging" poor Bosh, he set up Bryant for an early basket with a beautiful double-fake around the back. It was the type of sleight of hand that gets him compared to a magician, or Magic Johnson for that matter, and he went to a signature fake pass maneuver at least twice that left defenders reeling.
When the game turned serious, or at least more serious, with seven minutes remaining in the fourth, Paul had his hands all over the West's 24-20 closing push, scoring nine points and dishing two assists in the stretch. His dagger three over the outstretched arms of Bulls center Joakim Noah, who had switched onto him, came after an electric series of crossovers.
"Part of me wanted to try some moves and try to get by him," Paul explained. "He's one of the best, if not the best, big-man defenders, especially on the ball screens. He just backed up so I figured I'd shoot it. Don't waste any time."
A late flurry of East threes wasn't enough to extend the game and Paul, after assisting on the West's first points, added his team's final point from the free throw line.
"He had great passes, making steals, made big buckets," said Durant, who was another leading candidate for MVP. "He played a hell of a game. ... It was a pleasure playing with him."
Bigger showcase; familiar pattern. Whether it's a midseason exhibition or the Olympics gold medal game, Paul's ability to shift between happy-go-lucky distributor and take-no-prisoners closer ensures that his teammates are happy and, more often than not, that he goes home a winner.
The next step is to carry his team to a deep postseason run, to lead the attack that conquers deep, balanced teams like the Thunder and Spurs. This season presents the best opportunity of his career to reach that goal. Clippers management has surrounded him with capable veterans, some of which he hand-selected, and they've performed, at times this season, as well as any team in the league. Of course, when Paul went down recently with a bruised knee, the ship took on water with L.A. posting a 3-6 record during a two-week stretch without him.
There's just no replacing Paul's vision, command, competitiveness and basketball intelligence. He hasn't been as overwhelming as James or Durant this season, but he remains just as indispensable as the league's two top regular-season MVP candidates, largely because he's honed his unique mental balancing act.
"I watch basketball all day, every day ... I'm on this thing called Synergy all day," Paul said of the electronic service that allows users to call up individual plays instantaneously from a vast video archive. "I'm 27, as you get older you have to start playing with your mind more than all the athleticism. I'm far away from dunking on people. That's my not game. So I have to play with my mind." Both sides of it.