LOS ANGELES – Staples Center is usually filled with the color purple in May, and yet Saturday afternoon a sea of red surrounded the court. After six long years, the Los Angeles Clippers had returned for the playoffs. There's an unfamiliar feeling of optimism and confidence that somehow, some way, the other NBA team in L.A. can win on any given night.
And it’s because of Chris Paul.
“I can’t let this team lose," Paul said after rallying the Clippers to another come-from-behind victory over the Memphis Grizzlies. "It’s never anything personal. I just hate to lose."
Paul totaled 24 points, 11 assists and four steals to rally the Clippers to a gritty 87-86 victory and give them a 2-1 advantage in the first-round series. Forward Blake Griffin is an All-Star, but he's also a playoff novice. For these Clippers, there's little question who they're following in their long-awaited return to the postseason.
It was Paul who primarily sparked the Clippers' 27-point comeback in Game 1, and it was Paul who helped lead this latest rally.
"Chris just understands situations," said former Clippers guard Sam Cassell. "He understands time. He understands score. He has had a knack since college of making the right play. That’s Chris Paul. People ask me to define Chris Paul. He makes the right play. He makes average guys good."
[Photos: Chris Paul leads Clippers past Grizzlies]
Cassell, now a Washington Wizards assistant coach, brought young Wizards point guard John Wall with him to Game 3 specifically to watch Paul on the playoff stage. Wall left impressed.
"He dictates what he wants to do with the ball and gets everyone involved," Wall said.
Injured Clippers guard Chauncey Billups, the 2004 NBA Finals MVP, said he doesn't need to say much to Paul. And Paul's performance in this series – he's averaged 22.3 points, 9.3 assists, 3.7 rebounds and 3.3 steals in the three games – has left his teammate in awe.
"That’s why they call the great players great," Billups said. "He is going to have to carry us."
That's a lot of responsibility for one player, but Paul is accustomed to doing the heavy lifting. He carried the Hornets for six seasons and even threw a scare into the Los Angeles Lakers a year ago when the Hornets pushed their first-round series to six games.
“It’s been like that pretty much all season,” Paul said of his closer role. “[The weight] is nothing I can’t handle. It’s not extra weight."
The Grizzlies entered the fourth quarter of Game 3 with a seven-point lead. Griffin had struggled with his shot – both from the field and the foul line – while having to battle Memphis' physical frontline. If the Clippers were going to rally, Paul would have to lead them.
Paul answered by opening the final quarter with a 3-pointer. His jump shot with a little more than two minutes left put the Clippers in front. He followed that with a pass to Griffin for a dunk.
The Clippers' poor free-throw shooting – Paul made 7 of 8 while the rest of the team made 6 of 22 – nearly led to their undoing, but Rudy Gay's missed 3-pointer at the buzzer allowed them to escape with the victory. Paul scored seven of the Clippers’ 23 points in the fourth and had two steals.
"He’s tenacious. He’s one of those guys that doesn’t give up," Memphis coach Lionel Hollins said of Paul. "He’s not going to take no for an answer."
No superstar in these playoffs – not Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Paul Pierce or Tim Duncan – is having to shoulder a bigger load. After all these years, the Clippers have finally found someone capable of carrying them.
"What can I say that he didn’t just show you?" Clippers president Andy Roeser said. "Before we got Chris, as good as he is, I had no idea that he could get a shot like that anytime he wanted. And that’s a difference-maker in a game like this when you have someone who can just close it out for you."
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