LOS ANGELES -- As the ball slipped through the net, Chris Paul did not raise his arms or pump his fists or beat his chest. He barely even broke a smile. He simply pulled out his mouthpiece, a subtle yet revealing response.
Paul despises his mouthpiece. Years ago, he refused to wear it, because he talks constantly on the court and feared his teammates couldn't hear him clearly. But he kept getting hit on the bottom lip, and every time the cut healed, he was left with a painful canker sore that made it difficult to eat. He hated the canker more than the mouthpiece, so he went back to it, but he still cannot stand to get hit on or around his lower lip.
With six seconds left in Game 2 and the Clippers tied with the Grizzlies on Monday, Paul stood just inside the half-court line against Tony Allen, the best on-ball defender in the NBA, who has built his reputation by lining up across from the league's premier perimeter players at crucial moments and climbing right in their grill.
The Clippers were desperate to keep Paul away from Allen, which is why they inbounded the ball to Jamal Crawford. Paul set a screen for Crawford, in hopes Mike Conley would switch onto him, and for a moment he thought the plan worked. But the Grizzlies allow the fewest points of any team in the Western Conference for a reason. Allen switched back to Paul. They paired off, 45 feet from the basket, and Paul glanced up at the clock. He wondered if he'd even get a shot off.
Paul made three moves to his right, just to reach the three-point line, and Allen was still wearing him like a second jersey. They exchanged hand-checks, and Paul leaned into Allen slightly, gaining a sliver of separation. He lunged toward the right side of the key, and off one leg, lofted a short runner over the outstretched arm of Darrell Arthur, a power forward with a 7-foot-3 wingspan. Paul turned his back as the ball brushed off the glass and through the hoop. The crowd at Staples Center, dressed in red, rose like a crimson tide. Blake Griffin wrapped Paul in a suffocating headlock.
"There are a lot of reasons we got him," Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. "But that's obviously one of them."
Sixteen months after the Clippers acquired Paul in a trade that permanently altered L.A. basketball, he delivered a 93-91 win, a 2-0 series lead and a jolt for the entire 2013 playoffs. Paul made only one field goal in the first half and the Clippers were left begging him to shoot, a common occurrence. Crawford, fresh off a snub for Sixth Man of the Year, scored 13 points in the first half with an array of high-difficulty shots that belong on mix tapes. Griffin added 15 first-half points and outplayed Zach Randolph. During timeouts, Griffin sought out Paul. "Be aggressive," he pleaded. Paul just wanted to slow Conley, who was breezing past him for layups. "The way he was blowing by me, the least I could do was make a couple shots," Paul said.
He finally responded late in the fourth quarter, while the Clippers were squandering a 12-point lead. Paul nailed three straight long jumpers, keeping his team aloft. With 30 seconds left, he was in position to close the Grizzlies out, but he was stripped on a drive and scrapped with Allen for the loose ball. Paul hopped up from the scrum as if he'd been hit on the lip. He beat Allen for the ensuing jump ball, despite giving up four inches, but rushed a desperation three-pointer and the Grizzlies tied the score on the other end.
Paul had one more chance. He was not getting stripped again. Asked about Allen, Paul said: "You can't guard everybody." Asked about Paul, Allen said: "It's my fault." When teammates interjected, insisting that Allen was not to blame, he replied: "That's what we do. We man up. We take ownership." He was even tougher on himself a few minutes later via Twitter: "I'm fully responsible Home team! I got 2 get that stop that's what I do!"
Memphis is the stingiest defensive team in the West, but Monday was the latest reminder that taut playoff games are often decided by a single dynamic scorer. Miami has LeBron James. Oklahoma City has Kevin Durant. The Knicks have Carmelo Anthony. The Clippers have Paul. That's why they are a threat, not only to the Grizzlies but also to the Thunder. Paul scored the Clips' final eight points, the last two at the buzzer, against the guy who surrenders nothing.
"We put our best defender on him," Conley said. "In big-game moments, that's what we want. He hit a tough shot. It's what great players do."