LOS ANGELES — There’s so much Cliff Paul out here, from the debut of another national State Farm commercial shown on the video board before Saturday’s game, to the jumbo Cliff Paul head cut-outs the fans behind the basket waved every time a Grizzlies player stepped to the free throw line, to Cliff’s glasses and mustache that are routinely passed out at Staples Center.
There’s so much Cliff Paul you forget which twin these red-clan fans love more, Cliff the assisting insurance agent or his twin brother Chris, the best point guard in the NBA. Or that Chris Paul actually has a real brother, C.J., who’s a little more than two years Chris’ elder, who moved to Encino with his wife, Desiree, when Paul got traded, and sits baseline at darn near every game.
“I don’t think they want Cliff to play. At least I hope they don’t,” C.J. joked after his brother, Chris, had 23 points, seven assists, two steals and one turnover to lead the Clippers to a 112-91 Game 1 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies.
Paul had seven points and four assists in the first quarter to set the early tone and a 29-21 lead. He opened the third quarter with seven consecutive points, a steal and a rebound to build an 11-point lead. Still, the Grizzlies, despite off nights from Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, hung in thanks to a big night from the bench.
Jerryd Bayless had a team-high 19 points and shot the Grizzlies to within one point, 77-76 with 10:11 to go. That’s when the Clippers bench that ran 11 deep and is led by speedy guard Eric Bledsoe, shifted gears and pushed the margin to 90-79 by the time Paul finally checked into the fourth quarter with 5:02 to go.
It was just enough time for him score five more points, including a 3-pointer that officially put the game on ice and dish out a couple more assists.
“We have the best bench in the league and when we bring it like that, I mean we sat in the fourth quarter till maybe like five minutes,” Paul said. “Most teams can’t do that.”
It’s why coach Vinny Del Negro called his team “unique” before the game and said he’d play 11 guys just like he always has. During the postseason, most benches shrink and starters log heavier minutes. Paul? He hit his career-low average of 33 minutes and will be as fresh as a daisy for Monday’s Game 2 back at Staples.
So much of what is happening on the red side of L.A. is credited to Paul being a magician with the basketball and a remarkable leader, on the floor directing his teammates and seeing the floor, and inside the locker room. Just as with his real brother, and that fake one, too, today’s Clippers culture is a true family affair.
As Paul was dressing at his locker, his young son, “little” Chris and Jamal Crawford’s little boy were bopping each other with Thunderstix. Little Chris kept asking his dad for a second Thunderstix.
“Man, be cool,” said Paul, looking rather Cliff-ish with his cell phone secured in a holster and clamped to his belt.
As Del Negro exited the locker room, he gave a fist bump to each little boy and smiled on his way out the door.
A few minutes later, Paul, ready to head into the press conference room, nodded his head at little Chris, “C’mon homie.”
Left behind to close out the locker room was Matt Barnes’ twin boys. Willie Green’s son is also a locker-room regular.
And some still think there’s a chance Paul, a free agent in July, will leave all this, leave largely what he’s cultivated with a franchise that’s scrapped bottom forever.
“For C.P., he’s locked in,” Crawford said. “I think free agency is in the back of his mind. He’s locked in on trying to win a championship.”
There’s a long way to go for that, but the Clippers made a strong statement Saturday night, outrebounding Memphis 47-23 and 14-4 on the offensive glass. They overcame Blake Griffin scoring just 10 points and playing barely 26 minutes because of foul trouble.
“He feels like they can win and can win now,” C.J. said of his brother. “He feels like this team can do it.”
A sellout crowd seems to be feeling that vibe, too. As usual they were out in force early. How many times has that been said prior to Paul’s arrival about a Clippers crowd?
“It’s exciting, it’s exciting. There’s nothing like it,” Paul said. “You know, it’s really two different seasons, it’s the regular season and it’s the playoffs. When we ran out for warmups tonight, it means a lot when the fans are here early. We run out for warmups and you see them up and they’re excited. We have a different type of crowd here. They have fun, they’re excited all game long. When they see us playing hard and the way we know we can, they really are a sixth man and we need them in order to do what we want to do.”
Look at Paul, even taking shots at the Lakers crowd now.
Yes, the Clippers are Paul’s team, and it certainly feels like it could last a while.
“I keep telling people,” C.J. said, “if they win a championship it will make things a lot easier.”
That’s a tall order for a team put together on the fly during the lockout-shortened season and added upon this offseason with extra firepower. This series and a rugged Western Conference won’t be easy to navigate.
Still, win it all or not come June, Paul’s created a family atmosphere in a Clippers organization that most couldn’t wait to leave, and a love affair with a fandom no longer afraid to show it.
And so this fact remains strange to say, but is 100 percent accurate: Where else is Chris, Cliff and C.J. going to find a better situation than that?