Chris Paul Serves Emphatic Reminder That Los Angeles Clippers Are Still His Team

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Chris Paul Serves Emphatic Reminder That Los Angeles Clippers Are Still His Team
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Don't mistake the Los Angeles Clippers for anything other than Chris Paul's team.

Not right now.

Blake Griffin's rise from overrated superstar to Paul's equal has been something to appreciate and a much-needed boon for the Clippers' NBA title chances. But even now, there is no one associated with the Clippers—including Griffin and Doc Rivers—who rivals Paul's importance and relevance.

When he first arrived, the broken Clippers became his team. Nearly three years later, a lot has changed.

One thing, however, has not: This is still Paul's team.

And it shows.

 

Game 1 Explosion

Richard Rowe/Getty Images

Coming out of a hard-fought seven-game series against the Golden State Warriors that was compounded by Donald Sterling's latest jaunt into headlines left many to wonder how Paul and the Clippers would respond.

The Thunder themselves were emerging from a protracted first-round skirmish with the Memphis Grizzlies, but their series wasn't as complicated and was inevitably aided by Zach Randolph's Game 7 suspension. And they were hosting Game 1 to boot. 

On top of all the that, the Clippers were showing signs of exhaustion and jet lag. Paul was nursing a sore hamstring. Players were falling asleep during film sessions—the point guard included.

"We flew here, and as soon as we landed, we came here and we watched film—we watched a lot of film," Paul said, per USA Today's Sam Amick. "I think we were going to go through a lot of players (for individual defensive assignment work), and once he got through Reggie Jackson and Russell Westbrook I was nodding off…(Lue) just said enough."

By the looks of Game 1, Paul's catnap worked wonders. In what appeared to be an attempt to avoid further injury, Paul did what Paul typically doesn't do: live on the perimeter.

Paul shot 12-of-14 from the floor, including 8-of-9 from deep. He finished with 32 points and 10 assists and helped put the game away early.

The outside hot streak was uncharacteristic of Los Angeles' point man, who is a lifetime 35.7 percent three-point shooter. But his onslaught from downtown could not have come at a better time. 

To win this series, the Clippers would need to steal at least one game in Oklahoma City. Paul willed them to get that requisite win out of the way early, adjusting to Oklahoma City's defense while catering to his hammy.

When he shoots like that in addition to everything else he can do, there's no defending him or the Clippers. He can already dismantle defenses off the dribble and within pick-and-rolls. There's a lot to like about his mid-range game as well. If he catches fire from deep, forget it. You're screwed.

“When somebody has it going like that, you just want to stay out of the way as much as possible,” Griffin said after the game, per Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver.

Indeed you do. 

Griffin wasn't his usual, demonstrative self in Game 1. He pieced together a solid performance with 23 points, five rebounds and five assists on 7-of-16 shooting, but it was Paul who took over and provided the impetus that put the Thunder away and the Clippers in control.

Just as the team's primary leader should.

 

Equal, But Not Really

Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

Make no mistake: Griffin and Paul have become equals—to an extent.

What Griffin did during the regular season was masterful. He came of age and emerged as a key part of the MVP discussion while Paul sat with a shoulder injury. For the better part of two months, the Clippers were his team.

Now they're Paul's again.

For all the things Griffin still does, Paul remains the Clippers' primary catalyst. Their offense still needs him to make plays and create scoring opportunities; Griffin still needs him to make plays and create scoring opportunities.

According to NBA.com, Paul assisted on 31.6 percent of Griffin's made baskets in the regular season. That's with the point guard missing 20 games, mind you. 

Nothing has changed during the playoffs. Paul has assisted on 34.2 percent of Griffin's buckets thus far. The latter is also shooting 55.2 percent with Paul on the floor compared to 36 percent with him off, per NBA.com (subscription required).

Disrespect toward Griffin isn't intended. He has been extraordinary this year, improving by leaps and bounds with and without his safety net. Never was it more clear that Paul needed Griffin. But it remains clear Griffin and the Clippers need Paul more than anyone else.

"I know that he can't do it alone and I can't do it alone," Paul said of himself and Griffin, via ESPN.com's J.A. Adande. "And then...I just want to win. Winning conquers all."

On some levels, Griffin is equal to Paul.

On others, he, along with everyone else, is not.

 

The Pressure Is All Paul's

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Which person is under the most pressure this postseason for the Clippers?

Whose legacy is at stake?

All the pressure, all the legacy-shifting talk, belongs to Paul. 

Through five postseason campaigns, Paul has never made it out of the second round. He only just won his first second-round game since joining the Clippers. His reputation will never approach Carmelo Anthony levels of disappointment and criticism—the likability factor helps—but as Amick explains, it's getting there:

And therein lies the reason that Paul—whether he cares or not—is on the star-player hot seat that drives so much of the discussion surrounding the NBA. He has never had a coach with this much credibility, never had a co-star like Blake Griffin. He's never had supporting scorers like Jamal Crawford and J.J. Redick or a dominant rim-defender like DeAndre Jordan all at the same time.

This is his best chance yet. He knows this, whether we tell him or not.

If the Clippers weren't his team, Paul's playoff follies and shortcomings would be secondary to someone else. It wouldn't be Paul who remains the ultimate barometer for where this team stands. 

The evolution of Griffin and arrival of Rivers has only increased the already heavy burden on his shoulders. He is out of excuses.

When the team needed to make a statement, he made it in Game 1. And he'll need to keep making it moving forward.

"We're chasing it just like everybody else that's alive," Rivers admitted after Game 1, via Adande. "And I think Chris understands that better than everybody."

Of course he does. He has to.

He needs to.

This is his best chance to win, and it shows.

The Clippers are still his team, and through his complete ownership of their postseason campaign, it shows.

 

*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com (subscription required) unless otherwise noted.

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