Chris Paul's playoff problems

After 10 years in the NBA, at age 30, his greatest achievement remains his "twin brother" commercials, Chris and Cliff Paul, both played so convincingly by him.

If only Chris Paul played basketball a little less like if he were Cliff Paul, who dedicates his life to helping State Farm customers in need of insurance "assists."

If only when Chris Paul's team needed him most -- in a Game 6 or 7 against Houston -- he played less like his nerdy alter ego in black-framed glasses, trim little mustache and Argyle sweaters and more like the quick-tempered CP3 known for hitting big shots and taking below-the-belt shots.

In Games 6 and 7, the Clippers desperately needed the little battler with the mean streak and the boulder of a chip on his shoulder. They mostly got low-key good guy Cliff.

When you watch Chris Paul on the playoff stage, you often sense he is fighting two battles, one against his nature and one against his opponent. His nature is to pass the basketball, which is why he has led the NBA in assists four times, including the past two seasons. Yet his coach keeps pleading with him to shoot more, to be a little more selfish, to take over more and take it to the opposition.

The identity crisis rages inside a pass-first point guard who is at his best when he plays with rage. As a purely pass-first point guard, Chris Paul is a star, an eight-time All-Star. But when his eyes flash anger and he starts attacking, using his fullback's physicality and ballerina's balance to create space for his jump shot, he can be a superstar.

Can be. But isn't.

CPZero, I've called him. As in, zero rings.

A superstar gets to at least one conference final in his first 10 seasons. CP3 has yet to get past the second round. A superstar refuses to let his team, up 3-1 in a second-round series against an inferior foe, lose three straight games by a combined 46 points. For sure, a superstar sees to it that his team does not blow a 19-point lead late in the third quarter of a closeout Game 6 at home.

And if it does come down to a Game 7 back in Houston -- a game Chris Paul's team was favored to win by two points -- a superstar does not allow his team to trail from start to finish and lose by 13, not to a Houston Rockets team it had beaten by 16 in Game 1 (without CP3), by 25 in Game 3 and by 33 in Game 4.

Chris Paul, president of the NBA Players Association, can lead an entire league but can't lead his team when it really counts.

Feel free to blame coach Doc Rivers for the Clippers' epic Game 6 collapse. He deserves some blame for failing to push the right psychological or strategic buttons. But the team leader deserves more. Chris Paul's team led 89-70 late in the third quarter and got outscored 49-18 the rest of the way. 49-18 at home?

By sheer force of will, Chris Paul couldn't say or do the right thing to inspire his teammates to snap out of it? He couldn't finally tell them in a timeout huddle, "Give me the damn ball, and get out of my way because we are not losing this game"?

No doubt, Chris Paul, as usual, put up superstar numbers in this year's 12 playoff games: 22.1 points and 8.8 assists while shooting 50 percent from the field and 42 percent from 3. But his team was 6-6. His overall playoff record is now 28-37.

That's not a superstar. Something is missing in Chris Paul.

You can blame CP3's playoff failures in New Orleans and with the Clippers on lack of depth. You can argue Blake Griffin (who plays full-tilt to a fault) wore down and finally out by Game 7. You can argue J.J. Redick (2-for-9 from 3 with six turnovers), Jamal Crawford (3-for-9 from 3) and Matt Barnes (0 points in 22 minutes) just ran out of mental gas. All are fair points.

But the larger point is that "little" Chris played biggest only after a shocking event occurred in the second quarter of Game 7 at home against the Spurs in round one: He felt his hamstring begin to pull late in the first quarter. At first, he appeared devastated, as he sat on the bench with his head in his hands. He went to the locker room, then, just as shockingly, returned to the game five-and-a-half minutes into the second quarter.

Returned mad. Returned with the attitude, "No way I'm going to let this stop me." If the hamstring had torn, no amount of courage could've overcome it. But apparently, it was just strained, and he gutted through the pain and fear of a potential tear to play his greatest playoff game.

Clearly his teammates went from deflation to elation. Word is, this isn't a particularly close team. The stars get along OK but don't exactly love each other. Jealousy and finger-pointing sometimes rear their ugly heads behind the scenes. And sometimes on the court, CP3 wears on teammates with his constant complaining to refs and occasional complaining to them about blown assignments.

Maybe Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan haven't responded to his leadership the way friends would. Yet CP3's damn-the-hamstring demeanor in Game 7 against the Spurs inspired his teammates in ways he couldn't against Houston in Games 6 and 7. The Spurs had seen this CP3 once before, in Game 7 in New Orleans in 2008. Then, Spurs insiders told me they feared CP3 because he could channel his psycho side -- his rage to win -- into a virtually unstoppable offensive force.

This is where I disagree with my First Take debate partner, Stephen A. Smith, who always reminds me Chris Paul is only 6 feet tall, so his "superstar" ceiling is lower. Stephen A. calls Chris Paul a superstar point guard but not a superstar, period.

Sorry, not buying the 6-foot ceiling. When Chris Paul decides to be CP3, look out above. The Spurs overcame him 91-82 in that '08 Game 7. But not this time.

Take it from a Spurs fan: Every time the ball left CP3's hand in this year's Game 7, I thought it was going in. He made nine of 13 shots, including 5-of-6 from 3. He was just too quick and shifty, even protecting his hamstring. He got a "superstar" call with 13 seconds left -- on the great Tim Duncan, no less, who was called for not giving CP3 room to come down on his jump shot. Of course, he made both free throws (he was 48-for-51 in the playoffs).

Then, with the game tied, Chris Paul ignored the Cliff Paul inside him and took the shot himself, blowing past Danny Green, somehow launching a runner over Duncan's outstretched fingertips with one second left, high off the glass ... and in.

That was the CP3 we failed to see in Games 6 and 7 against the Rockets.

Maybe too often, he tries to live up to being president of the players' association or the twin good guys in the State Farm commercials. Maybe the commercials have done his psyche more harm than good. Deep down, the real Chris Paul is the one Doc Rivers calls "a street fighter."

Playing for Wake Forest, that CP3 once punched Julius Hodge in the privates midway through the first half at North Carolina State. CP3 eventually won that game with a buzzer-beater.

In frustration, CP3 got a running start on a free throw attempt and cheap-shotted Marc Gasol near the end of closeout playoff loss at Memphis in 2013. This season, a CP3 jab caught Chris Kaman below the belt.

This certainly isn't to say Chris Paul needs to do more of that, just that he needs to summon and channel his competitive anger more. If not, at this rate, he'll be best remembered for selling insurance.