Chris Paul tried his best to keep his composure as he took a seat on the bench during a timeout toward the end of the game. As Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City blasted the Stray Cats’ “Rock This Town,” Paul licked his lips and fiddled with his mouthpiece before putting his head down and screaming an expletive.
Paul had done everything in his power to put the Clippers in position to pull off their biggest win of the season on the road against the Oklahoma City Thunder, but it didn’t seem like it would be enough.
Moments earlier, Paul had cut to the basket, missed an off-balance layup and amazingly tipped it in over Oklahoma City’s Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka to give the Clippers a 98-93 lead with 1:19 left in the game. The next time down the court, Paul passed the ball to Blake Griffin in the paint with a 98-95 lead and 45 seconds on the clock. Griffin panicked; he passed the ball to Kenyon Martin, whose three-pointer was blocked. On the other end of the court, Kevin Durant tied the game, 98-98, with a three-pointer after being left open thanks to a textbook screen on Paul by Perkins, who dropped the 6-foot point guard.
After Paul picked himself off the ground, he sat on the bench during a timeout as Vinny Del Negro drew up a play. After the huddle broke, Paul gathered Del Negro and the coaches together for a quick huddle as if to say, “With all due respect to whatever you just said, I’m doing whatever I have to do to win.”
Every Thunder player on the court knew Paul would take the last shot for Clippers. As Paul dribbled the ball all the way down to two seconds on the shot clock and 10 seconds remaining in the game, they all seemingly braced themselves for the inevitable. Every last one of them was within arm’s length of Paul as he drove past them and scored what would be the game-winning basket to give the Clippers a 100-98 win.
Paul finished with a game-high 31 points, six rebounds and four assists; even more impressively, he scored 24 points in the second half and 11 points in the fourth quarter, hitting five of six shots in the final period. This season, in the last five minutes of games with the Clippers within five points, Paul is third in the NBA with 119 points. He is only behind Kobe Bryant and Durant in such situations. Despite being down by double-digits in the second half for the second consecutive road game, he would not let the team be denied, as it was Monday night against the Memphis Grizzlies, when they came back from a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter only to lose.
“This wasn’t the same team that played in Memphis the other night,” Paul said. “We defended well and we need to watch this tape and learn from it.”
After the Clippers lost to Memphis, the coaches wrote a number of telling statistics on the dry erase board in the visiting locker room. They had been outrebounded by 12 and only posted 15 offensive rebounds and 15 assists. The numbers showed a lack of effort and teamwork that simply wasn’t going to cut it with 10 games left in the season and seven of those on the road. The Clippers not only responded after that loss, but they answered with the kind of win that may make some rethink their playoff predictions now.
“This is a big win for us in a hostile environment,” Paul said. “It was a playoff-type game where we had to make adjustment after adjustment and our bench was huge for us.”
The win was even more important considering the Los Angeles Lakers beat the San Antonio Spurs and the Grizzlies beat the Phoenix Suns on Wednesday. A loss would have dropped the Clippers to the fifth seed in the West and virtually eliminated them from any hope of winning the Pacific Division. Now with games coming up against the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Golden State Warriors, the Clippers are just a game and half behind the Lakers and are still a half-game in front of the Grizzlies -- and hold the tiebreaker with Memphis.
“We needed that to keep our playoff run alive,” Paul said. “We haven’t locked up a spot yet but that’s what we’re trying to do.”
After the way they Clippers played Wednesday night, it looks like the Clippers might do a little more than just lock up a playoff spot by the end of the month.