LOS ANGELES—The other shoe hangs above the Clippers like a guillotine, just waiting to drop on anything that might begin to resemble hope. For decades, the franchise was easily typecast as the Lakers' screw-up younger brother, guided by an embarrassing owner whose greed and ignorance produced year after year of mediocrity and sub-mediocrity. The potential for disaster has loomed, even as the franchise has built itself into one of the league's most successful in recent years. Blake Griffin missed his entire rookie season with a knee injury. An audio tape of Donald Sterling's racist thoughts spread worldwide as his team tried to focus on the 2014 playoffs. Multiple trades and signings backfired, leading coach Doc Rivers to acquire his own son. DeAndre Jordan, regarded as perhaps the most athletic center in the league by opponents, is perpetually one trip to the foul line away from being neutered. The Clippers are annually among the league leaders in pouting, griping and technical fouls and, while they readily acknowledge that they have a problem keeping their cool, they also can't really help themselves.
It's incredibly difficult to rewrite a reputation. The losing was so ingrained that Rivers famously covered up the Lakers' championship banners with giant photographs of his players, an esteem-building move if there ever was one, and he's gone so far overboard talking up his players that he isn't afraid to mention Jordan in the same sentence with Hall of Famer Bill Russell. This year, with L.A. near the top of the Western Conference standings, Rivers has been on message like a self-help guru. He tells his players to "hold the rope" when games get tough. "Resolve" was the keyword as his team entered a tough first-round series with the defending champion Spurs. The Clippers passed out shirts that read "We are relentless" before Saturday's Game 7 at the Staples Center. It would be impossible for a coach, a team and a fan base to be better prepared for things to fall apart.
When reliable franchise guard Chris Paul did fall apart in the 2014 playoffs, failing to reach the conference finals for the ninth straight year, it fueled some critics who see him as a "never going to win anything" prototype. It led others to wonder if somehow the Clippers had changed Paul, rather than the other way around.
On Saturday, Paul flipped that notion by delivering perhaps the most dramatic victory in Clippers history and the most memorable performance of his career to date. Paul arrived in L.A. in 2011 as the Clippers' supposed savior, and boy did he save them here, carrying the Clippers past the Spurs 111-109 to a conference semifinals date with the Rockets. Frankly, he saved himself too.
[daily_cut.NBA]When Paul was forced off the court late in the first quarter with a left hamstring injury, you could see all the old demons chasing him through the tunnel. Of course, a disastrous injury would happen at the worst possible time to the Clippers. Of course, the Clippers would tease their fans by going toe-to-toe with the Spurs for six games before the roof caved in during Game 7. Of course, Rivers's roster moves and the organization's testiness would come home to roost, when Rivers railed on the officials after his son committed a costly foul. Of course, the Spurs would stand taller under the pressure. Of course, some of the harsher voices might even say, Paul wouldn't be there when it mattered. "I was just overcome with emotion because I was frustrated," Paul admitted later. "Game 7 ... and my body is going to let me down?"
What unfolded instead was catharsis, as pure as you will ever see. After missing seven-plus minutes of game action, Paul returned to the court, clearly favoring his left leg. "When he came back, I asked him, 'What can you do?'" Griffin recalled. "'Can you do anything?'" He dragged his leg at times; he hopped at others. He trailed slowly through screens; he didn't really explode off the bounce. He tried to set up near his favorite mid-range spots; he turned to his improved three-point shot. He provided a taste of what was to come by banking a three-pointer at the end of the third quarter, a perfectly silly shot that stomped on the growing dread generated by a foul call on Austin Rivers that had so incensed his coach. In sum, Paul forced himself to stay on the court, to keep the Clippers pushing back against the Spurs.
"I thought about our team and all the things we've been through," Paul said. "I know that if it was any other guy on our team in a situation like this, they couldn't have laid down. I just tried to find a way."
Everyone responded to Paul's effort, his "spirit" as Griffin called it. Small forward Matt Barnes (17 points, 5 rebounds) played his best game of the series, draining a huge "no, no, no, YES" three-pointer during an intense back-and-forth end to the fourth-quarter. Griffin delivered a triple double (24 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists) despite looking exhausted after a marathon of a series. J.J. Redick (14 points) shook off a rough shooting start to knock down back-to-back three-pointers late. Jordan grabbed 14 rebounds in 34 minutes, even though the Hack-a-Shaq strategy eventually sent him to the bench early. Jamal Crawford (16 points) scored more points than any Spurs reserve, helping prevent them from running away with the game when Paul was on the bench, or when they came out hot to start the fourth.
The final period was a "hold the rope" tutorial video, as L.A. managed not to falter when San Antonio finally conjured a little magic from Manu Ginobili, when Danny Green got a rare and-one layup, when Tony Parker hit a go-ahead basket late, when Tim Duncan continued to toss in his signature shots, and when the Spurs seemed to grab 30 straight offensive rebounds against a Jordan-less lineup. Rivers used just six players during the fourth quarter: all six scored and four of them registered assists in the period.
But the stoic, team-first showing was still at risk of being forgotten as the contest entered its final minute. That old reliable one-two combination—"The Spurs did it again" and "The Clippers blew it again"—was ready and waiting with 8.8 seconds left, once Paul and Duncan traded free throws to tie the score at 109.
It would be Paul's ball on the Clippers' final play. Nothing else would have sufficed, not after only three playoff series victories since the franchise moved to California in 1978, not after last year's off-court debacle, not after Paul's mishaps against the Thunder in the 2014 playoffs, not after another year of doubts about the franchise's resolve, not after an incredible first-round series in which a grand total of three points separated the two teams after seven games, not after 10 seasons of people questioning Paul's ability to deliver, not after Paul missed a potential game-winner in a Game 2 loss, and not after Paul made the decision to return to the court. Paul's team, Paul's reputation, Paul's comeback, Paul's ball. "We've been in that situation a lot of times already this year, and most of the time I hadn't made it, to tell you the truth," Paul said, sounding almost like another fan who was preparing for the worst.
He began by retreating to near mid-court, sucking Green just far enough out that he would be able to turn the corner. Going right, Paul kept driving and driving, with Green riding him step for step. Green blocked five shots on the night, some of the spectacularly, and he seemed to be seeking a sixth. Paul was aware of Green, and he was aware that he wouldn't be able to get the full corner, that his drive wouldn't be ending at the rim because a helping Duncan was waiting. For a moment, Paul looked stuck, and even one of his family members admitted having doubts about what he was doing. Was there a plan?
Plan or not, one of the league's best improvisers went into his bag of tricks, stopping quickly to shake Green and leaning back and to the right to dodge Duncan. His off-balance shot came from a weird angle, perhaps to prevent a block, and seemed to originate from his pocket. Don't call it a prayer, though, because it banked cleanly in with just one second remaining. "Just an unbelievable last shot over two of us," Duncan said later. "He's just a great leader and it was amazing to watch. I wish I wasn't on the other end."
As the Staples Center erupted, Paul was back to hopping gingerly, and his celebrations would wait until the Clippers made one final defensive stand to secure the victory. "He's a street fighter," Rivers said of Paul, who finished with a team-high 27 points and six assists. "I love him to death because of his will. ... I'm so happy for him. No balance on the shot, falling backwards, amazing."
Paul's victory lap included hugs with his brother, owner Steve Ballmer, and long-suffering Clippers fan Billy Crystal. The actor played himself in this movie, and dozens of fans squeezed forward in the lower bowl to capture the embrace with their smartphones. "He's been a season ticket-holder through and through, and so to see him, it meant a lot," Paul said. A crowd that often comes across as too dubious to go nuts was totally losing its collective mind.
The Clippers had actually done it. They had survived a brutal first-round matchup that only occurred because of the NBA's funky seeding rules for division champions. They had survived losing two home games during the series and an elimination game on the road against the reigning champions. They had survived San Antonio's depth, experience, and composure advantages on paper. They had survived "Hack-a-Shaq" on Jordan and extended stretches of brilliance from Duncan. They had survived the potential of a real crisis in the immediate aftermath of losing Paul. They had survived even though Paul's injury was serious enough that a "very" concerned Rivers said that he "guessed" that Paul would miss Game 1 against the Rockets on Monday. They had survived a game and a series that went down to the absolute final second. Paul's last-second game-winner, series-winner had made sure of it.
After all his preaching, Rivers seemed so genuinely proud and exhausted afterward that he bordered on astonishment. "That's a series for the ages," he said, repeating that he wasn't ready to look ahead to Houston. "I'm a better person because I went through this series. I guarantee you that."
For once, everything went right at the best possible moment. For once, the other shoe stayed in the box.