They’ve said a lot of things about Chris Paul. One of them is that he crumbled in the clutch. His game winning basket and overall performance in a game 7, leading the Los Angeles Clippers to a 111-109 win and 4-3 in the series over the San Antonio Spurs, proved all those critics wrong.
Paul scored 27 points despite a hamstring that was bothering him all game long, forcing him to head down to the locker room at one point to receive some treatment. It might affect him down the road but for one moment, one game, Paul forgot about the paint, desperate to get the Clippers past the defending NBA champions, a team most favored to claim the series despite not having home court advantage.
Paul had three big, special moments in this game. First was his buzzer beating 3-pointer to end the 3-quarter and put the Clippers up by one point despite hobbling all the way down the court before making the shot. Second came his jumper to win the game with one second left, somehow shaking off Danny Green and shooting above Tim Duncan. And then came his hug with Duncan, a fellow Wake Forest star, and everything came pouring out of Paul.
The Spurs had this game in their hands. They dominated the offensive glass with 13 rebounds, led by Tim Duncan with 27 points, 11 boards (four of them on offense) and playing 37 minutes. It’s easy to forget how old he is, but he doesn’t look like a player on the cusp of retirement. But despite his big game, and Tony Parker coming to life with 20 points, the Spurs defense couldn’t contain Paul, or Blake Griffin with another big game (24 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists), or the 3-point shot, as the Clippers hit 51.9% of theirs.
The Spurs took a 105-102 lead after two layups from Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard, both coming after a few misses yet grabbing the offensive rebound each time. The Clippers seemed helpless under the basket with DeAndre Jordan out of the game at that point, Rivers not wanting to risk the Hack-a-Jordan tactic (3-of-9 from the line). And then Matt Barnes hit a 3-pointer in transition and tied the game at 105-105 with 2:15 left.
The ending? Tony Parker and Jamal Crawford trading shots, Kawhi Leonard missing, Chris Paul hitting two from the line, Tim Duncan making two from the line and then Paul’s huge basket. That left the Spurs with one second, one inbound play to make. Popovich drew up a play, it got delayed for some reason and then went for the same play again. Matt Barnes swatted it away from the basket, and the Clippers got past the Spurs. Barely, but still.
The questions and clouds now hover over the Spurs, just like they did in 2013, although things are a bit clearer now. Kawhi Leonard is the man to play behind. He’s the guy this franchise will turn to very soon, if not already. But still, Duncan and Ginobili are questionable for next season, especially Manu. Gregg Popovich needs to make a decision about his future as well. It’s all up in the air.
The Clippers don’t have much of a bench (22 points, 16 of them by Crawford) and prefer benching their center in the clutch because his free throw shooting. But they have Griffin, raising his game as the season goes deeper into the playoffs, while Chris Paul, even with one hurting leg, is the best point guard in the league, and a player who knows what to do in order to win games, even when sometimes it doesn’t work out for him.