By Sam Amick
February 18, 2012

LOS ANGELES -- As the elevator doors opened and Chris Paul walked toward the sunlight in the Staples Center tunnel on Saturday afternoon, the counter-intuitive occurred.

He didn't make a break for the shadows.

The Clippers point guard who threw away Saturday's game - a 103-100 overtime loss to San Antonio -- still had his head held high. He even had a conversation on his cell phone, walking and talking in a sleek gray sweater with the sort of composed and confident look not typically seen from a player with so much egg on his face.

He was the same way in the locker room after the game, calmly describing the end-of-regulation mishap and taking the blame for the Spurs' winning streak extending to 10 games at the Clippers' expense. Ryan Gomes' ill-timed in-bounds pass to Paul became a hot potato with about seven seconds left, Paul running into the backcourt and tossing the ball upon arrival for fear of a violation. Spurs guard Gary Neal intercepted the loose ball above the arc, nailed the three to tie it up, and the Spurs finished the job in the extra period.

But Paul's steady reaction said everything about the Clippers and the state of their affairs these days. Even after the toughest of losses -- this one coming against a fellow division leader and one of the two teams above them in the Western Conference -- there is a belief and confidence here that should have the rest of the NBA concerned.

Yes, the Clippers are for real. And, no, the construction that continues with them won't slow down because of one fluky play.

"It's our first year and we've got to get that [chemistry] down, but it does feel a lot more natural now than it did a month ago," said Clippers power forward Blake Griffin, who scored 22 points and grabbed a career-high 20 rebounds in the loss. "We go into every game thinking we should win. That's our mindset.

"It just came over the time and the more comfortable we got. That's how that happens, and it's a good thing. We've got to keep it that way."

A Jan. 11 win over the league-leading Heat. A Jan. 14 win over the Lakers. A Jan. 18 win over the defending champion Mavericks. A Jan. 30 win over the Thunder. It's a trend that Clippers fans have rarely, if ever, seen, before this season, and it's one that isn't likely to go away.

They gave this one away, of course. But in what was another sign that this group has long-term potential, everyone wanted a piece of the blame afterward. Gomes, who should have waited a split-second longer to deliver the pass to Paul in the fourth quarter, tweeted after the game that he was the culprit. Paul, however, wasn't looking to share the blame. I wanted the ball in the backcourt and I'm running so fast that if I stop right there in the frontcourt, they could possibly trap me," Paul said, in what was one of four waves of interviews on the same topic. "One second later, the game is over.

"I didn't even see who that was who I threw it to. I don't know if it was Caron [Butler]. I think it just shocked me that the ball came to me and I was about to turn it over.

"Hindsight's 20-20, but I would've thrown the ball out of bounds. I would've done anything to [not] do what I did. It's probably the worst play I've done made since I've been in the league. ... That's probably going to be a 'SportsCenter Top 10 Dumbest Plays of the Week.'"

Never mind that the game wouldn't have been so close if it weren't for Paul's 17 fourth-quarter points. If the greatest concern for Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro is whether his future Hall-of-Fame point guard can be a consistent closer, then Del Negro has a pretty sweet gig. Just two nights before, Paul's 13-point fourth quarter put the Clippers over the top in a 74-71 win in Portland.

In reality, the Clippers' challenge between now and April is to find ways to emulate the opponent that downed them for the second time this season. The Spurs -- who continued their quiet roll but may have lost Manu Ginobili (oblique strain) again, as well as big man Tiago Splitter (strained right calf) -- had their share of gaffes. Right before Paul's fourth-quarter turnover, Neal bobbled a pass from Tony Parker and lost it to Randy Foye with nine seconds left and the Spurs trailing by three.

As midseason games go, it was rich material when it came to the fine line that separates goats and heroes. But the Spurs have experience on their side, with the 10-plus years of Tim Duncan & Co. resulting in, so far, another gem of a season for all of us to enjoy. It's Duncan whom Griffin should pay most attention to, studying the endless ways in which he beats his counterpart without the athleticism that the Clippers' high-flyer has in abundant supply.

While Griffin had the first 20-20 game of his career, he failed miserably on numerous possessions. The pass out of double- and triple-teams -- the art in which Duncan waits until the precise moment a defender comes his way to deliver the right pass -- is a skill Griffin will improve over time. It's that next step for the 22-year-old, one that he's determined to develop.

"It's not necessarily the points, but his passing -- the pass that leads to the pass that leads to the shot," Griffin said of Duncan, who had 11 points, 17 rebounds and three assists. "That's the kind of stuff that makes him so solid. He hasn't dropped off at all. He's arguably one of the best power forwards to ever play, so any chance I have to go up against a guy like that or watch a lot of film on a guy like that, I try to take something away."

A loss is a loss, but this was hardly the 115-90 debacle in San Antonio on Dec. 28 that raised early red flags about the Clippers. "Lob City" was in full effect Saturday, with Griffin and center DeAndre Jordan catching their share of alley-oops while jumping out to a 13-point lead in the second quarter. They showed the necessary poise in the second half, too, coming back from a 15-point deficit in the third quarter.

All of it, however painful, was another teaching moment for the postseason. And come playoff time, it's the Clippers' Western Conference foes who may be running for the door.

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