|Chris Paul, with a big assist from Blake Griffin, is making the Clippers improbably appealing. (Getty Images)|
LOS ANGELES -- He stood in the backcourt with his hands on his knees and sweat dripping from his chin. This was Chris Paul, sucking in air and soaking in the challenge that he always knew would be his.
It was overtime at Staples Center, time to will the Clippers to another playoff victory, time to stun the Grizzlies just enough with his wizardry and toughness so that he would finally get away from them again. This time, with the monumental difference between a 3-1 lead and a deadlocked series going back to Memphis staring him square in the face.
Chris Paul stares back, and rarely blinks. He didn't blink when it was time to embrace this challenge -- transforming the NBA's purgatory into a legitimate, functioning basketball team -- and he didn't blink Monday night.
And just as it was back in December when the trade wheel spun, landed on Lakers, spun again and landed on Clippers, Paul got the kind of performance from Blake Griffin that lured him here in the first place.
They sat side by side at the interview table Monday night after beating the Grizzlies 101-97 in OT to take a 3-1 series lead, Paul's son sitting on his lap toying with his iPhone. Paul was asked if he knew how special Griffin would be, if he knew he would be a sidekick worthy of doubling down on the improbable task of winning playoff games in Clipperland.
"Shhh," Paul said, not finishing the word with his youngster within earshot. "I had NBA TV and all that stuff. Yeah, I knew. I knew."
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What Paul didn't know was how sane a decision it would be to agree to be a Clipper, when throughout his NBA career and for years before, becoming a Clipper was like getting kidnapped. Nobody ever went voluntarily.
"I didn't know what to imagine," Paul said. "I was excited about the opportunity to come here and what we had, but we haven't done anything yet."
Oh, see, there he's wrong. Paul has already done more for the Clippers than virtually everyone who has ever worn their jersey, and that includes Clipper Darrell.
And he did it again Monday night, a microcosm of his short but eventful life as a Clipper. A jumper off the dribble to open the scoring in overtime, and then another, and then back-to-back jumpers that pushed the lead to 99-93. The last two baskets, his final points on a night when he had 27 to go with nine rebounds and seven assists, came immediately after his sidekick -- the biggest reason he's here -- fouled out. Griffin went to the bench, and Paul went to work.
There was ugliness all around, poor execution by both sides in a game that the Clippers should've closed out after they had opened a 10-point lead, 84-74, with Paul on the bench for more than five minutes in the middle of the fourth. Griffin drew all the attention, scored 30 points and dished out seven assists and absorbed a head butt from Zach Randolph as he agitated the Grizzlies with his relentless drives to the rim. But the Clippers won because Paul made it so, the way he made it so in Game 1 with that incredible comeback from a 27-point deficit.
"He has the mindset that he has to win," Clippers GM Neil Olshey was saying before the game. " ... Knowing that's who he is, he wasn't going to come into a situation where he didn't think that was possible. Chris is one of those guys -- he doesn't lose. And he got everybody else here to believe that we could win."
He agreed to be traded to this place, this formerly godforsaken basketball wasteland, in part because he thought he could change it. But that wasn't a magnet enough; there was Griffin, too, a freakish potential recipient of Paul's eminently flushable lob passes. Of all the places where it was possible for Paul to map out the next couple of years of his career -- and more, the Clippers hope -- this was one of the few where the star he would be teaming up with was younger than he was.
"He's not joining a place that has a two- or three-year window," Olshey said. "He's joining a place that has a window for success for the rest of his career if he chooses to be here."
Now, Paul is in the moment -- in the crucible of an NBA playoff series that he warns is not over. Back in December, he was in recruiting mode, and it all started with Chauncey Billups.
Billups, MVP of the 2004 Finals with the Pistons, had been amnestied by the Knicks and claimed by the Clippers. He was distraught. How could one of the most recognized winners and leaders of his generation waste what little time he had left playing for the Clippers?
"It was nothing personal against anybody," Billups said Monday night. "It was more selfish of me. I'm worrying about me and my future and what I want to do and at this junction of my career. I don't want to go somewhere that's rebuilding and not trying to win a championship. I don't have that many years left. I don't want to waste them. I looked at it like, 'If they were the Clippers of old, it would be wasted.' "
Paul called and changed his mind, got Billups on board with sharing the backcourt with him and winning together as Clippers in Staples Center, with all those Lakers championship banners hanging overhead. Then, Billups became the recruiter, persuading former Nuggets teammate Kenyon Martin to come on board. Billups never got to play a single game with Martin due to his season-ending Achilles injury, but he had done his part to surround Paul with some more of what he needed.
"If this was anything like it used to be about not trying to win, then they should've never made the move with him," Billups said. "Because he's going to try to win every single game at any cost. That's just how he's rigged. That's who he is."
It's one more win to clinch a playoff series for only the second time since the Clippers have been in California. One more win for a chance to put Paul's uncanny will and breathtaking skill to work against Tony Parker, Tim Duncan and the Spurs. Another seemingly impossible challenge. Another mountain to climb with no shoes on for Chris Paul.
"I'm not arrogant or anything like that, but I believe in myself," Paul said. "I cannot go on the history of anything. All I can go by is what has happened since I've been here. And since day one, it's been nothing but a great family atmosphere. The organization is unreal. Everybody's a big family. I love it."
He paused and nodded in the direction of Griffin, seated beside him.
"It always helps to have a guy like this, too," Paul said, "when you're coming into a new situation."
One guy forced to be a Clipper, and one who chose to be.
"We've finally created an environment of 'want to,' not 'have to,' " Olshey said. "I think for a long time it was, 'Oh, I have to go to the Clippers.' This has become, 'I want to go to the Clippers.' "
Now, all they have to do is keep him. It would appear that he's worth it, as was an outsized gamble back in December by the best, toughest, strongest-willed little man in the NBA.
"The sky's the limit," Paul said.
And here, he was not paraphrasing Micheal Ray Richardson, because the ship most definitely don't be sinking. Not with Chris Paul at the wheel.