LOS ANGELES – In between hugging actor Billy Crystal and Los Angeles Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, Chris Paul gave the longest congratulatory hug Saturday night to his brother C.J., repeating one word of joy over and over.
"Finally," Chris Paul said. "Finally."
The "finally" was in respect to the San Antonio Spurs. Paul finally took down the reigning NBA champions during a memorable 111-109 Game 7 victory in a thrilling end to a classic first-round series.
The Spurs have been the dominant NBA team during Paul's 10 seasons thanks to a battle-tested core of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and coach Gregg Popovich. San Antonio swept Paul and the Clippers in the second round of the playoffs in 2012. The Spurs also beat Paul and the New Orleans Hornets in seven games during a second-round series in 2008.
Paul was set to go toe-to-toe with the Spurs once again on Saturday only to have a hamstring injury initially limit him. But when the Clippers needed Paul most, he nailed a game-winning 9-foot shot on one leg over two much taller Spurs with one second left.
"Those guys right there are legends, seriously from Pop to Tim to Tony to Manu," Paul said. "And like we've been saying all series, they're not going to beat themselves. Down the stretch our team has a thing that we say, what [Clippers coach] Doc [Rivers] said: 'Don't let go of the rope.' At any time we could have let go of the rope and just thought, 'It's these guys,' we fought hard and we could have just conceded. But we kept fighting and guys made plays in order to win."
No Clipper, however, had to fight harder or made a bigger play than the injured Paul.
Paul exited the game with the hamstring injury with 1:52 remaining in the first quarter and immediately went back to the locker room. Eventually, he returned to the bench and stretched during a timeout before returning to the game with 6:27 left in the second quarter. Paul had nine points and five assists in 16 minutes in the first half to give the Clippers a slim 57-55 lead.
"He's just a tough kid," Rivers said. "That's it. … He's a street fighter. He really is. He's a street fighter. I love him to death because of his will."
When Paul returned from the locker room, Blake Griffin asked him if he was OK.
"I thought about our team and all the things we've been through, and I know that if it was any other guy on our team in a situation like this, they couldn't have laid down," Paul said. "So I just tried to find a way."
Paul's will pushed him to 18 points on 6-of-9 shooting from the field and 4-of-5 made 3-pointers while playing 20 second-half minutes. His biggest shot of the night was set up with 8.8 seconds left after Duncan made two free throws to tie the game at 109.
Paul said Rivers talked to him and Griffin during Saturday morning's walkthrough about their game-winning play. It included Griffin getting the inbounds pass and giving it to Paul to freelance for a shot. Paul said that "most of the time" this season he didn't make the shot.
After getting pass, Griffin gave Paul the ball near half court with about seven seconds left. The 6-foot Paul took off to the basket with a 6-11 Tim Duncan and a 6-6 Danny Green on his heels. Somehow, Paul was able to get some room with a step back, one-legged fade jumper to get the ball over the outstretched hands of Duncan and Green. While the Clippers and the crowd roared in excitement when the shot went in, Paul was super cool as if it was expected. The Clippers took the lead and the game ended after a botched alley-oop attempt by the Spurs.
"That was huge for us, just the shot," Rivers said. "I'm so happy for him. The shot alone, no balance on the shot, falling backwards, amazing."
Based on how Rivers also sounded, it will be surprising if Paul is available for Game 1 of the Clippers' second-round series against the Houston Rockets on Monday night.
The well-rested Rockets and the Clippers split their four-game season series. Paul averaged 16.8 points, 9.5 assists and 3.3 rebounds in 36.3 minutes per game in four contests against the Rockets this season. The Rockets are without injured starting point guard Pat Beverley. And if Paul is out, the Clippers will have to turn to reserve Austin Rivers and seldom-used reserve Lester Hudson.
"Chris may play or may not play the first game, but the game is Monday … my guess right now if I had to guess, I would say no," Rivers said.
Sitting at the podium answering questions long after the game, Paul looked like he was ready to celebrate. He wore a cool, black Varsity jacket and a black top hat. But from the waist down, he had on Clippers basketball shorts, ice on his knees, church dress socks and vintage black and red Air Jordan sneakers.
Paul didn't care how he looked. And after beating the Spurs in perhaps the best first-round series in NBA history, who was going to question him?
"It's crazy that that was the first round of the playoffs," Paul said.