By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com
OKLAHOMA CITY – Before Chris Paul scorched Oklahoma City for 32 points with a hand so hot from downtown it would make Steph Curry melt, an Oklahoma City Thunder player suggested anybody stepping onto the floor should just keep their pains, sprains and strains to themselves.
It was a little shot at the Clippers’ All-everything point guard. Plenty of Los Angeles hand-wringing has gone on lately with Paul nursing a strained right hamstring that needs rest and a sprained left thumb that is best off avoiding contact. And maybe the worry was for good reason: Paul’s scoring drooped against Golden State, his shooting percentage sagged to 40 and even his assists had slipped. Coach Doc Rivers contorted his face into a puddle of concern when asked about Paul’s speed.
Then came Paul’s takeover of Game 7 of that uniquely emotional first-round series. He punished the Warriors for 22 points, 14 assists and four steals in 42 minutes, advancing the Clippers into the conference semifinals against speed-demon counterpart Russell Westbrook and the soon-to-be-named MVP Kevin Durant.
“Man, just got done with Steph and then go right on to Russell, right?” Paul said following Saturday’s Game 7 win. “Y’all say a special prayer for me tonight.”
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“You could see it, like [Sunday] he wasn’t moving well,” Rivers said. “Today at shootaround, you just felt like he was moving better.
No one could have predicted what would happen Monday night: 32 points that stacked up with eight rapid-fire, rub-your-eyes 3-pointers raining from every angle on the floor. Paul hit all five of his attempts in the first quarter. That tied his career high. His sixth came after teasing Derek Fisher at the left arc, tip-toeing, spinning and firing. No. 7 was an impossible heave from the corner as 270-pound Thunder center Kendrick Perkins body bumped him to the floor without a call. No. 8 in a row came on a step-back against Caron Butler, caught in no man’s land trying to protect against Paul slicing-and-dicing him to the paint.
Finally, at the 5:19 mark of the third quarter, Paul missed his lone attempt from deep. But, seriously, 8-for-9?
“That’s what I do, that’s what I do,” Paul said grinning. “That is a lie. … This one definitely goes down in the history books for me. Don’t count on it for Game 2.”
The barrage ended Game 1 of this Western Conference semifinal almost before it began. The Thunder jumped out to a 16-10 lead and then, wham-o, it was gone and the running Clippers, with hometown kid Blake Griffin sensing Paul’s sizzle and working to free him with screens on possession after possession, were off. It was 39-25 after one quarter and 69-52 at the half.
Paul exited with 38.1 seconds left in the third quarter and sat out the rest of the 122-105 victory.
The Thunder, coming off their own grueling, seven-game series against Memphis, simply stated the obvious after being blow away by CP3.
“He hit eight 3s,” said the Thunder’s Westbrook, who led OKC with 29 points on 9-for-14 shooting. “You can’t do too much but contest. He hit some tough shots. We’ll live with that.”
Rivers compared Paul’s level of aggressiveness, which included 12-for-14 shooting overall, 10 assists and a pair of turnovers in 28 minutes, to only one other night this season, when he attacked Dallas for 31 points and nine assists the night after going an unthinkable 0-for-12 at New Orleans.
“Other than that, not this aggressive,” Rivers said. “We needed it though. We needed a tone-setter because turning around that quickly [from the Warriors series], I think he felt that he needed to set the tone.”
Nagging health issues have come into question in each of his two postseasons with the Clippers. In his ninth season overall, the seven-time All-Star has never made it beyond the second round, and this one is only Paul’s third appearance in the semifinals. He got there in his first season with L.A., but a groin issue and Griffin’s knee injury from the first round paved the way for a Spurs sweep.
In 2008 with the New Orleans Hornets, Paul, David West, Tyson Chandler and Peja Stojakovic lost Game 7 at home to the Spurs.
Paul, who turns 29 on Tuesday, is arguably the game’s best player never to make it to a conference final. He’s widely considered the league’s most dangerous point guard, but he knows whatever accolades he accumulates, the postseason is where a player’s legacy is ultimately written.
It’s a weight he bears.
“I’ve never been past the second round,” Paul said. “Every year you feel like you’re on that team. I remember that team I was on in ’08, we lost Game 7 to the Spurs and you just feel like you’re always going to be back there and that’s not the case. This team here I think is a special team. Not only do we have a good team, it’s fun to be around each other.”
They stuck together through one of the most emotionally taxing weeks any of them will ever have during the Donald Sterling disaster. They persevered against the Warriors and now have a fast lead on the Thunder and their two 25-year-old stars who have already played in two West finals and one NBA finals.
Maybe this is his time. Paul has a co-star, a deep and talented team around him and coach who seems to have the pulse of his players.
Paul’s pains, sprains and strains might be out in the public forum. And maybe he plays them up at times for dramatic effect. The drama he delivered Monday night was real, and so too are his Clippers.