LOS ANGELES — Seemingly the only person inside the 93rd consecutive sold-out house not overwhelmed by Chris Paul’s drive and impossible bank shot that dropped for the game-winner with one-tenth of a second left on the clock was Paul himself.
The super-clutch superstar of these burgeoning Los Angeles Clippers didn’t raise his arms, didn’t let go a primal scream. He beat Memphis’ tremendous defender Tony Allen, giving him a hitch at the corner of the key, a high-step to the right side and released a one-handed leaner that just out of the reach of helping defender Darrell Arthur.
Bank and ballgame, 93-91.
As Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford were first to embrace him and then as his teammates mobbed him, realizing they’d just snuck out with one and will take a 2-0 series lead to Memphis for Thursday’s Game 3, CP3 stood firm, seemingly rising above the fray, his chest puffed out, his face unflinching as if to say, “Get used to this, folks.”
Paul scored eight points in the fourth quarter and they just happened to be the Clippers’ final eight after L.A.’s offense went stale and allowed the Grizzlies to scrap back from an 85-76 deficit with 6:53 to go.
From that point on, CP3 did it all. Delirium shook the Staples Center and 19,000-plus couldn’t decide on the chant as “C-P-3! C-P-3!” cross-channeled with “M-V-P! M-V-P!”
“Chris made the plays down the stretch,” Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. “He has a knack and a will and a desire to step up in those moments. That’s what star players do. That’s the best part of the game. If you’re competitive, that’s what you love, and Chris Paul loves that part.”
Memphis coach Lionel Hollins had Allen, his best on-ball defender, guarding Paul on the final sequence that started with 13.9 seconds on the clock and the game tied at 91. Allen was having a tremendous night with 16 points and 10 rebounds, while charged with holding down Clippers explosive sixth man Jamal Crawford after his 6-for-6 start in tearing up Jerryd Bayless (Crawford went 0-for-4 after that).
When Allen went toe-to-toe with Paul, he was deep into his 38th exhaustive minute. He might have expected Paul to go left, but instead the 6-foot, 175-pound whiz gave the hitch, stutter and poof.
“We tried to get Mike Conley to switch on me because we know Tony Allen is their best defender, but [Allen] did a great job staying on me,” Paul said. “Every time I went to go left, he took the space up.”
So this time, after that brief stop-and-go, Paul went right and created the space he needed to leave Allen a step behind.
“What can you do? The kid made a great shot,” Hollins said. “That’s what great players do and he’s a great player.”
Paul ruined a sensational bounce-back game from Conley, the Memphis point guard who doesn’t generate nearly the headlines he deserves. He finished with 28 points and nine assists, the final one coming as he patiently waited for the play to develop then drilled the cutting Marc Gasol with a pass for an uncontested dunk that tied the game.
Memphis has two days to figure out how to get back in this series on its home floor. Paul, with 47 points, 16 assists and just two turnovers in the series, is just one problem. The Clippers’ bench is whole other animal. Del Negro has made good on his promise to keep his rotation deep and to use players as he sees fit. He’s used six players off the bench in each of the first two games with stunning results.
Crawford, disappointed earlier in the day when he found out that he finished second in Kia Sixth Man of the Year voting to the New York Knicks’ J.R. Smith — comparing it to the slight he felt when passed over for the All-Star team — made his first six shots of the game. He finished with 15 points and three steals.
He led a second unit that should seriously alarm the Grizz. Five Clippers subs opened the second quarter with the score tied and Memphis using two starters and three subs. Seven minutes down and L.A.’s super subs had a three-point lead.
This kind of thing just doesn’t happen in the NBA playoffs. Five subs don’t take on five starters. Yet that was the case in the fourth quarter when the group of Crawford, Eric Bledsoe, Matt Barnes, Lamar Odom and Ronny Turiaf began the fourth quarter with an 8-0 spurt for an 83-71 lead.
That came with Conley and Zach Randolph playing with three subs. It didn’t last long, as Hollins quickly got his starting five back in there to keep from a second consecutive fourth-quarter blowout.
The Clippers’ razzle-dazzle second unit whips the ball around, finds cutters and slashers for dunks, make steals and chases down rebounds.
“For us, when teams get tired or get weaker, we get stronger,” Crawford said. “That can be a huge advantage.”
When that group finally petered out and the proud Grizz made a charge, CP3 or MVP, whatever you want to call him, was there to finish the job.