HOUSTON — Los Angeles Clippers point guard Chris Paul asserted control over the 62nd NBA All-Star Game early and maintained it late, scoring 20 points on 7 for 10 shooting, dishing 15 assists and grabbing four steals in just 27 minutes as the Western Conference All-Stars defeated their Eastern counterparts, 143-138, at the Toyota Center on Sunday night.
Nine of Paul's 20 points came in the fourth quarter, including two big 3-pointers in the final 3 1/2 minutes — one to stem an East run and put the West up by six, the other a body blow that pushed the lead to 11 inside two minutes. Between his late-game scoring and his early facilitating, with four first-quarter dimes, including a couple for huge alley-oop finishes by his regular L.A. running buddy Blake Griffin, the six-time All-Star showed the kind of overall command of the festivities to earn his first All-Star MVP honors, and the first All-Star MVP award in Clippers franchise history.
"Make it quick — I've got to get to Vegas," Paul joked as he entered the interview room, MVP trophy in hand, after the game. The 27-year-old point guard, who's averaging just under 17 points and 10 assists per game for the Pacific Division-leading Clippers, called winning the MVP "pretty special" and "something that I definitely, coming into the game, I wasn't trying to achieve, or thinking that it might even be possible."
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"I told [Kevin Durant] early in the first quarter, I said, 'Man, if they score anything, you run,'" Paul said. "'I'll get you the ball, you score. I want to be the one to give it to you.' In games like this, it's so uptempo and fast-paced — a guy like me that's a facilitator, I enjoy [that]."
Durant, who won MVP honors in last year's All-Star Game, was a strong candidate this year, too, leading all scorers with 30 points — his third consecutive 30-point All-Star Game — on 13 for 24 shooting in 31 minutes. But the Oklahoma City Thunder star freely acknowledged that Paul was the right choice Sunday.
"He deserved it," Durant said after the game. "He had great passes, making steals, made big buckets. He played a hell of a game, and congratulations to him. It was a pleasure playing with him."
Paul also received plenty of praise from the opposing bench.
"He was unbelievable," Miami Heat star LeBron James said. "He's one of the best players we have in this league, the number one point guard we have in this league, and it doesn't surprise me what he did on the floor tonight."
"As you see, [Paul] controlled the All-Star Game," said Miami Heat guard Dwyane Wade, who scored 21 points on 10 for 13 shooting and seven assists on the night. "[...] With guys like LeBron and KD, who fill up the stat sheet, he does get overlooked, but not to us as players. We know he's a very — he's the most valuable player on the Clippers team. They're one of the better teams in the NBA, so it puts him right up there."
Paul received eight of 12 MVP votes. Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant (nine points, eight assists, four rebounds, two steals and some uncharacteristically-stiff-for-the-All-Star-Game defense, especially on James) was the only other player to receive multiple votes, getting two. Durant received one, as did James, who had an off night by his standards (19 points on 7 for 18 shooting and five assists) but did convert several big dunks.
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The combination of Paul, Durant and Griffin (who finished with 19 points on 9 for 11 shooting) outstripped the East's top trio of James, Wade and New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony (an East-leading 26 points on 8 for 14 shooting and 12 rebounds). The disparity was especially clear down the stretch — while Anthony was hot for the East late, scoring nine points in the final frame, both James and Wade went scoreless in the quarter, as the West pulled away with a 10-2 run over a 90-second stretch and then held on late for the win.
The proceedings kicked off with lengthy player introductions featuring liberal intercessions by many dancers surrounding R&B singer/"Battle: Los Angeles" co-star Ne-Yo. Bryant, James and Houston Rockets guard/hometown hero James Harden received the biggest props from the Toyota Center crowd, while Lakers center Dwight Howard (nine points and seven rebounds in 14 minutes, all played before the midpoint of the third quarter) actually received a smattering of boos.
After the pageantry, the two teams got to business. (Well, such as "business" goes in half-speed exhibition games.) The West took a quick 7-0 lead on to a pair of hookups for dunks by the Clipper tandem of Paul and Griffin and a deep 3-pointer from Durant. The East regained some momentum on two big James alley-oop dunks, one from Wade and the other on an aerial feed from Anthony, but the West parried their thrusts and held a 31-26 lead after 12 minutes.
Durant, Griffin and Paul continued to do the bulk of the West's damage in the second quarter, with the Thunder star scoring 12 points in the frame, the L.A. power forward putting on his own personal dunk contest off alley-oop feeds from Bryant and Paul, and the Clippers point guard showcasing his lethal handle by dribbling through the legs of Heat center Chris Bosh on a drive to the basket. San Antonio Spurs point guard Tony Parker "nutmegged" Bosh, too; it wasn't the finest outing for the Miami big man, who also threw up multiple first-half airballs and finished with six points on 3 for 9 shooting in 23 minutes.
The East stayed within hailing distance, though, thanks in large part to a strong second quarter from Wade. The nine-time All-Star and 2010 All-Star Game MVP finished the half with an East-leading 12 points on 6 for 7 shooting and six assists, including a sweet setup for a massive alley-oop dunk by Knicks center Tyson Chandler just before the half, sending the East into intermission down four, 69-65.
Wade (nine points), James (eight) and Anthony (seven) continued to carry the scoring load for the East in the third, while the West featured a more balanced attack, with 11 players scoring and five players putting up five points or more. Each side managed 39 points in the frame, sending the two teams into the fourth quarter — when things usually tend to pick up in these affairs — still separated by four points, 108-104.
The two sides largely traded blows and short spurts through the first eight minutes of the fourth, with an Anthony offensive rebound and tip-in drawing the East within three points at 129-126. From there, Paul took over with his two big 3-pointers, including one over the outstretched arm of Chicago Bulls center Joakim Noah, who drew the Clippers point guard on a switch and worked hard to cover the mismatch. It didn't work, as Paul rose and fired to dot the big man with the deep J.
"Part of me wanted to try to some moves to get by him," Paul said. "I love his defense — like, his energy and stuff like that. And he's one of the best, if not the best, big-man defenders, especially on the ball screens. He just backed up, so I figured I'd shoot it. Don't waste any time."
While the action occasionally looked sloppy, especially in the early going, both coaches said they were pleased with the effort turned in by their respective conference squads.
"These guys, they're the best in the world, and they competed — they worked hard," said Spurs and Western Conference coach Gregg Popovich, who improved to 2-1 in All-Star Games (a loss in 2005, a win in 2011). "They respected the game. They respected each other. Nobody got hurt. The fans had a great time. That's what it's all about."
"I didn't really know what to expect coming into this, but I think the teams and players gave the fans what they wanted," Heat and Eastern Conference coach Erik Spoelstra said. "It was a fourth-quarter game, it was decided at the end, so it was a lot of fun."
Especially for Paul, who — while generally a patient, meticulous tactician who prefers to slow it down in half-court sets — said he felt remarkably comfortable at the controls of a more up-and-down affair.
"In games like this, it's up-tempo, it's fast-paced; you just want to play fast," he said. "I like to throw the lob. I like to see guys hit threes. When we're out on the court with all that firepower, why wouldn't you want to make passes? You've got KD filling one of the lanes, you've got Blake [on the other], Kobe on the wing ... there's nothing like it."
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