After season in spotlight, Paul exits early

LOS ANGELES -- This season didn’t truly begin until Chris Paul got involved in it. After countless days of long, closed-door meetings and rhetoric-soaked addresses, the announcement of a tentative agreement on a new collective bargaining agreement in the wee hours on a cold, late-November night was hailed across the Internet-tethered league instantaneously. But not until trade talks centering around shipping Paul out of the Bayou started up did it really feel like we had returned to the NBA we know and love, where the rumor is far mightier than the jumper.

After the splash, the Los Angeles Clippers never quite made the wall-to-wall-coverage-inducing impact some may have expected, never truly followed in the Miami Heat's footsteps and became the next great microwaved title contender. But almost every step of the way, Paul seemed to be there, even if it wasn’t always at the forefront.

There was Paul in the center of MVP discussions. There was Paul rising up out of nowhere to throttle Twitter feeds with his fourth-quarter explosions. There was Paul when his new team burst out of the gates. There was Paul having to fend off questions about his new team possibly imploding. There was Paul holding his adorable son in the postseason news conference.

But now here we are, just midway through May and with weeks’ worth of basketball left to play, watching Paul walk out of Staples Center one last time in his crisp designer wear, watching him glide away from the NBA for the summer without doing the one thing that, through it all, he ever expressed to give a damn about (besides his adorable son).

“Not really,” Paul said when asked if he took solace in any of the strides the Clippers had taken in his first year much farther west. “It’s cool in order to --. … I mean. I don’t know. I wanna win.”

They came as close as as they have to doing just that in the fourth of four games against the top-seeded San Antonio Spurs, an organization Paul, a master game manager, has lauded for their machine-like efficiency. After being blown off the court in two games in Texas, and having a monster run volleyed right back at them in Game 3, here the Clippers were, down one with 23.1 seconds left, with everything on the line, with the ball in the hands of the player that the team has orbited around since this whole Lob City Experience was set in motion.

After three straight rough outings, through dings and dents to most of his lower half, Paul finally looked like himself (23 points on 9-for-18, 11 assists, 6 rebounds, 2 turnovers), and looked to finish this off like he has so many times before to leave, if not a lasting impression, at least a reminder of his place in the league, his impact on a single team or game.

But after setting himself up at the top of the key and winding the clock down to just 16 seconds left, Paul sped in the paint, Danny Green suctioned to his right hip, barreled into the circle where two more defenders were waiting, lifted into the air, spun the ball around and around to avoid the limbs all over him and effectively finished his wild season-long ride with a Chris Paul cardinal sin: a turnover.

Not another crunch-time bucket or a pass to an open teammate, but a no-shot and a pass to no one in particular.

After one of two Green free throws extended the lead to two, Paul lofted up a runner in the left side of the paint before falling flat on his back, but this was off the mark too.

No trip back to San Antonio or reason to put Paul in the spotlight any longer. Just a 102-99 defeat, a 4-0 sweep, and another impressive victory by the seemingly unstoppable Spurs.

“I think that’s the toughest thing for me, as far as this game goes, to know that I had two opportunities,” Paul said. “We’ve been in that situation all season long. A lot of times I was able to come through. To let my team down in that situation is probably the toughest part of this season and something I’ll think about for a while.”

For the first time this series, Paul looked spry -- his cuts were sharp, his handle was careful (two turnovers after 16 through three games), his ability to wiggle and weave his way through traffic as on-point as it has ever been. Paul, who some say saves his best for the end, just let everything out.

“He has not had that extra burst that he usually has, that extra pop,” Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. “[But] we are not in the second round of the playoffs without Chris Paul. He gives you everything he has, all the time; he is as competitive as they come. I cannot say enough about everything he has brought to the team, the organization, to the city, and the fans in terms of competitiveness and what he brings on and off the court.”

But even the fiery point guard didn’t have enough in him. And even if he did, the Spurs and his injured legs had already done a number on his series: 3-for-13 shooting in Game 1, 8 turnovers in Game 2, 5-for-17 shooting in Game 3. Even if he had pulled a win out of a hip pocket, the odds of turning it all around, to turn the league upside sound again with a four-wins-in-four-days comeback were too big for even a star of Paul's stature.

Yet while Paul wasn’t up for a moral victory, is never up for a moral victory, the impact on teammates, on the franchise, on the NBA will surely have a lasting impact, even in the loss.

“Not only from the way he plays on the court -- that’s a given. Everybody sees how good he is and the things he does. But it’s when he comes and talks to you about a certain situation, you learn the game through his eyes and see what he sees," Blake Griffin said. "He’s constantly in communication with all the guys and that’s the way you get better, especially with somebody that’s going to have the ball in his hands for your team.

“He’s the quarterback out there, so for us to be on the same page is great. I learned a lot from him this year. Not only on the court, but the way he thinks about the game and how to approach certain situations.”

It’s not a win now, but, with a year-wiser Griffin by his side again, the odds of an even more Paul-centric season grows the closer we get to next fall.