By Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com
LOS ANGELES – A man walks into a bar.
Here’s a better one:
Chris Paul defends Kevin Durant.
That’s it. No punch line. No laugh track. Just a 6-foot, 185-pound point guard sent to check a 6-foot-9, 240-pound forward who, in his spare time when he’s not busy being bigger than Paul, is the reigning scoring champion. Even people Durant’s own size are handed a cigarette and blindfold when they are given the assignment, and Paul gets word Sunday afternoon in a playoff game with his Clippers already trailing the Thunder 2-1 and 3-1 coming fast.
And CP3 was still upright Sunday night. Not just that, Paul on Durant, with a lot of double-team rescue missions, was part of the small lineup in the fourth quarter that keyed the improbable L.A. turnaround from 22 points down in the first period and 16 down with a little more than nine minutes remaining to the 101-99 victory at Staples Center.
“That’s called desperate coaching,” said the most desperate of coaches at Staples Center, the Clippers’ Doc Rivers.
Durant scored 10 of his game-high 40 points in the fourth, but didn’t truly step on Paul. The MVP took only five shots, half as many as Russell Westbrook and only two more than Reggie Jackson. Durant committed three turnovers and didn’t help the Thunder beat the double teams, with no assists in the 12 minutes.
The Clippers staff talked Saturday about how Durant had been beating them with his dribble, either getting to the basket himself or forcing the defense to collapse and creating openings for Thunder shooters, and decided a guard on him in Game 4 could be a counter. Plus, the coaches had nothing to lose by that point. The Clips were getting pushed out of their own building, a 3-1 hole with the Western Conference semifinals about to head back to Oklahoma City would have been close to insurmountable, and so, sure, why not.
Rivers put Paul, one of the best backcourt defenders in the league, on Durant some late in Game 3, but nothing like this. This was sticking with it. This was sending at least one extra body at KD every post catch and forcing him to either score from there, an acceptable alternative considering he wouldn’t be at the rim or threatening to put L.A.’s season on the clock with 3-pointers.
Durant was asked about the challenge Paul presents and said, “He doesn’t. It’s not a one-on-one. When I catch the ball, they sent a double-team. They did a good job of crowding me, making me get rid of the ball. When it’s one-on-one, I got the advantage.”
For all the Oklahoma City delight over Durant’s growth as a distributor the last couple years, the Clippers will obviously consider it a success anytime he has to pass out of the double-team rather than get a shot. Five shots in the fourth quarter of a close playoff game is somewhere around the success of winning the lottery.
“I really can’t answer that,” Jackson, the Thunder’s backup point guard, said of Durant being muted down the stretch. “We’ve just got to find ways to get (Durant) open shots. We’ve got to punish them for doing that, for making a call such as putting Chris Paul on KD. We’ve got to punish them for it. Size difference. Everybody sees it. We’ve got to find ways to get him the ball easier and if they double just make them pay.”
Said OKC coach Scott Brooks: “That’s something we’ll look at in the film. Kevin was having trouble getting the catches…. But it was physical out there. I’ll just say that. It was physical. But we have to do a better job of getting him open, freeing him up.”
Plotting the counter comes with the Clippers saying — saying — they won’t go Paul on Durant much when the 2-2 series resumes Tuesday night in Oklahoma City. Rivers calls it a “situational” maneuver, not a regular strategy that will be deployed moving forward. The physical toll on CP3 is too much.
“It’s tough,” Paul said. “He was the MVP for a reason, you know what I mean. Early in the game, when things weren’t going right, I went to Doc and said, ‘Might be 48 minutes tonight.’ KD is a great scorer. I don’t know. It’s tough at times because you try and defend him as well as trying to stay aggressive offensively. Same thing I went through last series (against the Warriors). At the end of the day, you’ve just got to do whatever it takes to win.”
It turned out that Paul had a slow day in Game 4. Only 45 minutes.
There’s the punch line. Cue the laugh track.