When the Los Angeles Clippers made the move to acquire Chris Paul in a blockbuster trade in December, management knew CP3 was the floor general they were desperately seeking to lead the laughing stock of the NBA back to respectability. Paul, who was suffering a similar dilemma in New Orleans, was in search of a team he could turn into a contender. The marriage between the two was consummated and later solidified as the truncated, lockout-compressed season, progressed. Paul elevated his game to become the unquestionable leader of the Clippers –which strengthened the argument that he’s the best point guard in the game– and led the franchise to its first playoff berth in six years.
As he had been all season, for the month of April, Paul was outstanding. CP3 was named the Kia NBA Western Conference Player of the Month, beating out the West’s elite in Memphis’ Rudy Gay, Oklahoma City’s Kevin Durant and San Antonio’s Tony Parker to claim the title. He averaged 20.7 points, 9.9 assists and 3 steals per game in April, only sitting out one of the Clippers’ 14 contests, due to a strained left groin. He had amassed seven 20-point performances and erupted for 30-points three times, including 31 in a road win at Oklahoma City and 33 points at home against his former club, the New Orleans Hornets, last week. In that stretch, L.A. went 9-5 as Paul led them to finish in fifth in the Western Conference playoff race.
Sure, Paul had support from rising superstar Blake Griffin throughout that span. But when veteran guard Chauncey Billups was sidelined for the season, the true point guard put the entire organization on his back. Much of their roster was put together in December when Paul, Billups and Caron Butler were added in the offseason. A few new pieces were acquired before the trade deadline –including swingman Nick Young– to fill in the gaps and provide some support, but still when the game was on the line and the Clippers needed a savior, they turned to Paul. The exhausting schedule began to wear down on the All-Star point guard and his body began to feel the effects, with the aforementioned groin injury.
Concern began to set in, if this young squad, sans Paul, was ready to compete in the postseason. Head coach Vinny Del Negro spoke about his team’s lack of playoff experience before the Western Conference quarterfinals against the Memphis Grizzlies began, saying he was doubtful they were ready. The Clippers have been a work in progress all season but for the final eight minutes in game one on Sunday, they showed everyone, including coach Del Negro –and most importantly CP3– that they are in fact ready to compete.
The postseason in the NBA is a playoff of ebb and flows. After being down by as many as 27-points, the Clippers trailed the Grizzlies by 21 with less than eight minutes remaining in the game. Del Negro was ready to surrender game one of the best-of-seven series to Memphis, before CP3 insisted otherwise. Del Negro had already seen starting forward Butler fracture his left hand late in the third quarter –becoming the third player, along with reigning MVP Derrick Rose (torn ACL and MCL) and Knicks’ rookie Iman Shumpert (torn ACL), to suffer sever injury in the first round– and wanted to sit his starters down but was implored by Paul to give his young team a chance to rally back. That pivotal moment between the coach and point guard changed the tide of the game.
Suddenly, Memphis’ 21-point lead was slashed to 10. The Clippers closed out the game on a 28-3 run to upend the Grizzlies, 99-98, and completed the greatest comeback in NBA playoff history and the greatest victory in franchise history.
Sometimes lack of experience can hinder a team’s progress. But in other situations, experience is learned on the job. On Sunday, CP3 proudly watched his young Clippers grow up in an improbable comeback victory to become the contender he was desperately in search. By stealing game one, and home court advantage away from the Grizzlies, the Clippers front office witnessed their offseason plan come to fruition. Now, they hope that CP3 can keep it all together moving forward.