Chris Paul has a well-earned reputation as one of the NBA's premier late-game offensive options, not only for his ability to orchestrate offense for teammates with that nonstop probing dribble, but also for his skill at creating and knocking down his own shot when the clock's winding down. He's ranked 11th in the league or higher in "clutch" scoring — defined by 82games.com as points scored with less than five minutes remaining in either the fourth quarter or overtime, with neither team ahead or behind by more than five points — in four of the last five seasons; only in the 2009-10 season, when he missed 37 games due to ankle, knee and finger injuries, did he fall off.
During his first season with the Los Angeles Clippers, he's right back among the league leaders, producing 40.6 points per 48 minutes of "clutch" time this year, fifth-best in the league. While the sample size is small — just 136 minutes spread out over 28 games — it jives with what we know: CP3's a killer when the game's tight. Just ask the Western Conference-leading Oklahoma City Thunder, whom the All-Star point guard laid out late Wednesday night in what could be a latter-round West playoff preview.
With the score knotted at 98 and time ticking away, Paul dribbled a few steps past half-court, defended by Thunder lockdown specialist Thabo Sefolosha. Clippers big man Kenyon Martin stepped out to set a screen about 30 feet away from the basket, bringing OKC center Kendrick Perkins out to hedge. Paul took a hard dribble right, blowing right past Perkins and stepping lightly around opposing point guard Russell Westbrook, who didn't really bite on Paul's head fake toward Randy Foye in the corner but was still a shudder-step slow in his attempt to cut CP3 off.
Once at the rim, Paul twisted to his right and lofted a layup just over the outstretched arm of prime shot-blocker Serge Ibaka that bounced home, giving the Clips a two-point lead with 8.8 seconds remaining. A Kevin Durant 3-pointer in the closing seconds found no purchase, and L.A. escaped with a 100-98 victory that helped them keep pace in the tightly bunched middle class of the Western Conference playoff race.
With eight games remaining in their regular season, they now sit in fourth place out west at 35-23, 1.5 games back of the Pacific Division-leading and third-seeded Los Angeles Lakers and just a half-game ahead of the surging fifth-place Memphis Grizzlies, two teams that also scored big wins on Wednesday night.
Paul led the Clippers with 31 points on 11-of-20 shooting in the win, adding six rebounds, four assists and two steals in just under 37 minutes of playing time. He scored 24 points in the second half, including 11 in the fourth quarter and nine of the Clippers' final 11 overall, and Vinny Del Negro's squad needed every last one of them. Though there was no doubt Paul would hold the Clippers' fate in his hands
After the game, according to Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times, Paul called the Wednesday night matchup "one of those games you just can't lose" if you want to be a title contender. It's the kind of game the Clippers have always lost, even when they've been interesting and fun; now, they've got a puncher's chance against anybody. For all Blake Griffin's dazzling dunks, this is Chris Paul's team, and on Wednesday night, Chris Paul's team won.
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