LOS ANGELES -- Chris Paul wears two rubber bands around his left wrist, and on his way to the locker room after Saturday's game, he removed one and slipped it to a toddler in the stands. At first, the little boy could not reach the rubber band. Then, he could not grip it. Paul stood in the tunnel for about 30 seconds, silently holding the band aloft, until he coaxed it safely into the child's grasp.
This is the role Paul has played for the Clippers ever since he arrived, easing passes into recipients' hands, no matter how unsteady they may be. With 85 seconds left in Game 3 on Saturday, and the Clippers leading Memphis by two points, Paul dashed around O.J. Mayo and through the middle of the paint. Three Grizzlies shuffled over, and when Paul looked up, he saw all those eyes looking at him.
He also saw another set of eyes, belonging to Blake Griffin, staring him from the baseline. "He made the Blake Face," said Paul. To illustrate the Blake Face, Paul solicited assistance from his 2-year-old son, Chris Jr., who dutifully tilted his head down and looked menacingly at his dad.
"I just walked around until he passed it to me," Griffin said. With four defenders occupied, Paul threaded a sublime bounce pass to Griffin, who cut along the baseline and threw down a dunk that shook the stanchion.
Paul is rarely mentioned as the best closer in the NBA, but he is at least the most versatile, ending some games with his drives, others with his jumpers and even more with his telepathic passes. In his home playoff debut as a Clipper, he demonstrated all of the above, with 24 points and 11 assists, good for an 87-86 win and 2-1 series lead. "When the game is on the line," Clippers head coach Vinny del Negro said, "he's as good as there is."
Paul deflected credit to the Clippers' crowd, red-clad and leather-lunged for its first postseason experience in six years, and a teammate who scored only four points. Before the game, Del Negro stood in the Clippers' locker room and pointed at Caron Butler, the starting small forward who broke his left hand six days ago. The hand was wrapped in a black protective cast, but Butler was in full uniform. "If he can fight with a broken hand," Del Negro said, "what can the rest of us do?"
The Clippers did not expect Butler back this series. Many of them didn't expect him back this season. When he tried to practice Friday, Paul asked him: "What are you doing?" When Butler said he planned to play in Game 3, Paul told him he was crazy. But Butler took the court with Paul on Saturday, and when Paul went to the bench after the third quarter, Butler told him: "Bring us home."
"It would have been easy for him to say, 'I'm done, I'm going to take care of my hand, and I'll be ready next year,'" Paul said. "His energy and toughness motivated the rest of us. That is unreal to see the pain he is going through out there and playing through."
The Clippers were admittedly manhandled in Game 2 -- "Punked around," Reggie Evans put it -- but they pushed back in a series that grows more rugged with every possession. Griffin picked up a technical for swiping at Zach Randolph. Paul dove along the courtside seats after a loose ball. Five players joined one dog-pile under the basket. "They did all the things we usually do to teams," said Grizzlies forward Rudy Gay. "They really imposed their will."
Trailing by seven points after the third quarter, Del Negro put Eric Bledsoe on Memphis point guard Mike Conley and left him there for the duration, to ease Paul's defensive responsibilities. Bledsoe preserved Paul's stamina, but nearly cost him a win. The Clippers missed five straight free throws in the last 13 seconds, three by Bledsoe, and let a six-point deficit melt to one. They seemed to be giving away a game, just as the Grizzlies did last Sunday.
Memphis got the ball with 6.9 seconds left, but was out of timeouts, and Gay forced a double-clutch three-pointer at the buzzer. In the old days of the Clippers, it might have gone in, but Paul has changed the entire feeling around this franchise. Suddenly, the Clippers are the ones making unfathomable comebacks and avoiding spectacular collapses. Gay's 25-footer bounced out.
There is no sense in nit-picking playoff wins, not for the Clippers, who have enjoyed so few of them in their history. The last time they were on this stage, in 2006, Sam Cassell was their point guard. As a reminder, Cassell returned to Staples Center on Saturday and was treated to a loud ovation.
In his day, Cassell was the leader of the Clippers. Paul is the leader, the playmaker, the closer and so much more, the one who can put the ball in anybody's hands and ensure they don't let go.