|Chris Paul says losing to the Spurs will only make the Clippers hungrier. (Getty Images)|
LOS ANGELES -- Chris Paul's son, little Chris, was waiting for him at his locker when dad arrived after the game. There's nothing like the smiling innocence of a toddler to lighten the mood after a playoff loss -- another playoff loss to the Spurs for Paul.
The father had turned the ball over and missed an off-balance shot in the final 30 seconds Sunday night, sealing the Clippers' fate in a 102-99 loss to the Spurs, who remained undefeated in the playoffs -- and 18-0 since April 11 -- while advancing to the Western Conference finals with a 4-0 sweep.
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The son was sitting quietly and sucking his thumb when dad arrived. Then, he proved that there's also nothing like the unfiltered honesty of a toddler to put things in perspective.
"Daddy, you made a bad shot," little Chris said in his adorable little-boy voice.
"I tried, buddy," Paul said. "I tried."
Paul tried. He lifted the Clippers up and carried them on his back this season, all 34 years of futility in Southern California no match for his incredible basketball gifts and ruthless competitive fire. But there was only so much he could do. The Clippers' fifth playoff appearance since the team moved to San Diego in 1978 ended with a sweep, but not without the promise of a bright future.
"I want to win, so this is not a great feeling sitting here," Paul said. "I think this is just going to make us hungrier. I tip my hat to the Clippers fans, to the Clippers faithful that came out and supported us. And I want them to know that this isn't it."
For the second time, Paul was ousted from the playoffs by the Spurs -- a model organization of the NBA and of sports, and the best team standing right now in the NBA playoffs. Last time it happened -- a 4-3 loss in the 2008 conference semifinals -- Paul's team, the New Orleans Hornets, never recovered.
"I wanna beat 'em ," Paul said, his son sitting on his lap now in the interview room. "But unless they're gonna make it a nine-game series, I won't have a chance this year. So I've just got to keep working. Last time it was seven games; this time four games. So I've got to get better. I've got to get better personally so I don't have this feeling again."
Paul led the Clippers back from a 27-point deficit in the first round against Memphis, and carried his team to a Game 7 victory on the road to get here. Then on Sunday night, against the wondrous Tim Duncan and the machine-like Spurs, he had two chances to extend this series and this first season for him in Los Angeles. Two chances that will haunt him all summer.
Out of a timeout with 23.1 seconds left -- and after a frantic scramble for a loose ball that went out of bounds off the Spurs -- Paul drove the lane and threw a wild, errant pass for Randy Foye that was scooped up by the Spurs with 10.8 seconds left. Danny Green was fouled and made both free throws to give San Antonio a 101-99 lead.
Paul had one more chance -- one more possession to keep his season alive. He drove again on Green, lost his footing and lofted a wild, off-balance 10-footer than grazed the front of the rim. Tony Parker made one of two free throws at the other end, and the Spurs swept their second straight playoff series.
"I messed up," Paul said. "Bad decisions. Bad decisions. All on me. ... To let my team down in that situation is probably the toughest part of the season and something I'll think about for a while."
Sitting next to him in the interview room was Blake Griffin, a bandage on his upper lip covering the four stitches he needed at halftime from a shoulder to the mouth -- his first taste of the playoffs tinged with blood. Griffin, awarded to the Clippers in the draft lottery two years ago this past weekend, has experienced one season in the NBA without Paul and one season with him. If all goes as planned in Clipperland, they'll experience many more together.
"The way he plays on the court, that's a given," Griffin said. "Everybody sees how good he is. But it's when he comes and talks to you about a certain situation, when you learn the game through his eyes. He's in constant communication with all the guys, and that's the way you get better."
The Clippers soon will offer Griffin an extension, a subject Griffin said he hasn't given "an ounce of thought to," he said. A decision will be made soon on coach Vinny Del Negro, who has a team option for next season.
Paul is under contract for another year, part of the deal when he agreed to the December trade from New Orleans. It was always understood that this would be a trial run for Paul with the Clippers, but also that the path to the most money for him during this seven years of his career would be to opt in for two years with the Clippers and sign a new five-year deal with them in 2013.
"The sky's the limit for this team," DeAndre Jordan said, "if we stay together."
No one should take Paul's words lightly when he says, "I want to win." Because unlike some of the young stars in the NBA, he means it when he says it. He wants to win the way Kobe Bryant and Derrick Rose want to win -- the way Duncan has always wanted to without having to say it.
"I think it's a good sign for our team that there's no moral victories," Paul said. "It's not like, 'Oh, we made it to the playoffs. It's all good and well.' We feel like we should've still been playing.
"I've never been one of those people who believed you've got to have stepping stones and all that different type stuff to get to the next level," he said. "But I think it's great that our team got a little taste of the playoffs, and I think coming into camp next year we're going to expect more – lots more. It's going to be a big summer for all of us."
Paul came to the Clippers and lifted a franchise, carried it as far as he could. Now, the real work begins.