CP3 says hopes rest on Blake Griffin

LOS ANGELES -- Chris Paul quickly became the leader of the Los Angeles Clippers when he was traded in December 2011.

But as far as he's concerned, young forward Blake Griffin is the key to the franchise's title hopes.

"Blake is one of those guys, where his age has nothing to do with anything," Paul said in a wide-ranging phone interview with ESPNLosAngeles.com this week. "People may say he's a young guy, but he's been special in this league, he's been an All-Star. His voice carries a lot of weight and I think our team will definitely go as Blake goes.

"He's our guy, and he's good enough to do so."

Griffin made his third straight All-Star team this season, but his season averages in scoring (18.0) and rebounding (8.3) fell off slightly from his career averages (20.4 points, 10.4 rebounds) as he played nearly three fewer minutes per game during the regular season, at 32.5, in an attempt to stay healthier for the playoffs.

Griffin's assists rose to 3.7 per game in 2012-13 from 3.2 in 2011-12, while his steals rose from 0.8 to 1.2 per game over the same period.

The relationship between Paul and Griffin hasn't always been perfect in their two years as teammates. There have been some differences of opinion in terms of their visions for how the team should be playing.

But after spending a significant amount of time together this summer -- travelling to Asia as part of a tour for Nike's Jordan Brand and filming a national commercial for FootLocker, which will be released Tuesday -- Paul says their bond, and understanding of each other, has deepened.

"It's been a great summer for us. I think we've both had an opportunity to grow," Paul said. "As you get older you realize it's all about winning and I think we both realize we really need each other in order to do that."

Paul said he's 100 percent healthy now after suffering an assortment of injuries near the end of the season. He played through all of them, and never used them as an excuse for the Clippers' disappointing first-round playoff loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, but said the way the season ended still gnaws at him.

The Clippers took a 2-0 lead but ultimately lost four straight games to the Grizzlies. Griffin badly sprained his ankle in practice before Game 5 in Los Angeles and was severely hampered by the injury in the final two games.

For Paul, though, the details are irrelevant. The Clippers lost, and he failed to advance past the second round of the playoffs again.

"There's no excuses," Paul said. "For me, years from now I'll never remember we won 56 games in the regular season [in 2012]. The only thing I'll remember is we were up 2-0 and we lost 4-2. That's all I remember. I just know we lost.

"It's something I think about every day. I'm going to keep fighting until something gives. Ricky Bobby said it best," Paul said, referring to the "Talladega Nights" film starring Will Ferrell. "'If you're not first you're last' and I've been last the past eight seasons."

Paul signed a five-year, $107 million contract to remain with the Clippers last month. Griffin signed a five-year, $95 million extension last July. The Clippers also locked up coach Doc Rivers to a three-year, $21 million contract, traded for shooters J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley, and signed backup point guard Darren Collison.

But as far as Paul is concerned, it means nothing unless the team does better in the postseason.

"I'll never forget. My first year in the playoffs," Paul said of 2008 with New Orleans. "Our team had a dinner where everyone on our team -- wives, girlfriends, too -- everyone had to say something. One of my teammates stood up (it might have been Mike James) and said, 'Savor this moment, take full advantage of this opportunity because you're in the league for a certain amount of years and you don't get this opportunity to be in the playoffs every year.'

"I was up for the MVP award that year. They hadn't announced it yet, but I had a really good shot at getting it. And I was sitting there, I'll never forget, I was thinking to myself, 'Man, whatever. I might win MVP this year. I'm going to have a chance to win every year.' That was my third year in the league. Now I'm going into Year 9 and I still haven't got close to the championship. It really does go fast and you don't have those opportunities because of injuries and things like that every year."

He also didn't have opportunities off the court in New Orleans like he does in Los Angeles.

Like Griffin, Paul is quickly establishing himself as one of the NBA's most marketable stars, headlining the popular national "Cliff Paul" campaign for State Farm insurance and starring with Griffin in the commercial for FootLocker.

"You know what, it's fun and I have a great time trying to show my personality and things like that," Paul said. "But at the end of the day, one thing I never do is let it take away from basketball. That's my biggest focus, winning basketball games. That's my first priority."

Griffin, in an interview with ESPNLosAngeles.com this spring, acknowledged there's been friction as he's had to change his game to play with Paul, with the Clippers' offense primarily flowing through the dynamic point guard rather than through him, but said overall "it's making me a better player."

"When I feel I'm playing at my best, I'm facilitating," Griffin said then. "I like having the ball in the post -- not because I need to score every time, but because I like to make plays from there.

"Playing with CP has changed the way I play, but for the better. It's still a work in progress, but I think it's making me a better player. I want to play with great players. I want to play with guys who want to win like he does.

"Somebody tried to say last year, 'Man, you went from Batman to Robin real quick.' But honestly, to me, it was like, 'Batman and Robin always saved the day.'"