Kevin Durant may be the league's Most Valuable Player, but that doesn't mean he's the most pivotal in the Oklahoma City Thunder's second-round matchup against the Los Angeles Clippers.
This is Russell Westbrook's series to lose.
And Chris Paul will have something to say about it.
It was Paul who exploded in Game 1, tallying 32 points and 10 assists on an electric 12-for-14 shooting night from the field. He made all six of his three-point attempts in the first half and looked absolutely fearless in his offensive attack.
For his part, Westbrook had a solid series debut, scoring an efficient 29 points and serving as one of OKC's few bright spots in an otherwise lopsided loss.
But Westbrook was better than solid in Game 2. He posted a triple-double—his third of the postseason—with 31 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. Just as importantly, he led the charge on the defensive end, limiting Paul to just 17 points this time.
Neither of these point guards is any stranger to the big time. They've been through the playoff routine before. They've shouldered pressure. They are two of the very best at what they do, and they do it in very different ways.
The knock on Westbrook is that he needs to pass more. The knock on Paul is that he sometimes passes too much. And despite the knocks, both of these guys continue to do what they do—brushing off the second-guessing and dominating in their respective ways.
This clash of titans doesn't involve the biggest guys on the floor. In this series, it doesn't even involve the biggest names—especially with Blake Griffin's emergence this season as a viable MVP candidate.
Nevertheless, this is the clash that matters—the one that will in all likelihood decide who advances to the Western Conference Finals.
From a purely physical standpoint, this seems like a matchup in which Westbrook should have the upper hand. He's bigger, longer and arguably the fastest guard in the league along with Washington's John Wall. Westbrook can jump out of buildings, posterize anyone. He's a physical specimen, more like a combo guard than a pure point.
Paul is 6'0" and far more gravitationally grounded.
But he's not the least bit intimidated by Westbrook's athleticism. Paul is strong enough to deal with most adversaries, and it's his mental toughness that typically gives him the edge.
CP3 makes the right decisions. He's surrounded by dominant interior presences and very good perimeter shooters, and he makes the most of them. Though we might prefer he sometimes look for his own scoring a bit more often, the Clippers wouldn't be the same team without Paul's unselfishness. He's the epitome of a balanced floor general.
He's also consistent and impressively mistake-free. His 4.57 assist-to-turnover ratio led the league this season by a wide margin. His ratio led the league last season, and came in second place to Jose Calderon the season before that.
The Clippers will have their hands full throughout this series, but they know they can count on Paul to be reliable.
We're still due for a close game between these two teams, one that will be determined by little things like turnovers and half-court execution. That's the scenario in which Paul will prove most valuable. Capable as Westbrook is of taking games over, no one's better than Paul when it comes to controlling the action in a close game.
That's where Westbrook sometimes struggles. As ESPN.com's J.A. Adande notes, "The maddening thing with Westbrook is the uncertainty. His tendency to help or hurt the team can vary within games, quarters, even possessions. It's the constant battle between Good Russ and Bad Russ."
Bad Russ is especially susceptible to turning the ball over, a mistake he can't afford to make against a team that thrives in the open court.
Still, there's an unmistakable consistency to his game. Head coach Scott Brooks gave him credit for that much after Game 2 (per Adande): "I know I'm going to get a competitive Russ. That's what I look for every game. He's going to give you everything he has. He's not going to make every shot, but he's going to compete."
Paul took notice, saying, "I think Russ played harder than all of 'em combined. He was all over the place."
"All over the place" sometimes has multiple connotations, even if not especially when applied to Westbrook.
Paul meant it in the best possible sense. Westbrook was playing inspired basketball on Wednesday night. His energy was infectious, his effort on full display. Hidden underneath his monster stat line is the fact that six of Westbrook's 10 rebounds were on the offensive end. He also had three steals.
Suffice it to say, this isn't just about padding impressive numbers. Westbrook set a tone in Game 2. And he did it early on, much as Paul had in Game 1.
The Oklahoman's Jenni Carlson recounts the opening moments:
On the first possession of the night, he snagged a steal, then in the process of gathering the ball and heading up court, he ran counterpart Chris Paul into an official. It was whistled a foul on Paul. Then, Westbrook got an offensive rebound and drew a foul on Blake Griffin. Then, he dished an assist to Kevin Durant.
Early fouls knocked Paul off his game on Wednesday, but make no mistake about it: Westbrook's aggressiveness had a lot to do with it, as well. Per Carlson, "[Westbrook] just kept coming. He crashed the boards. He looked for contact. He drove to the basket."
In the process, he solicited buy-in from his teammates. This game belonged to them, and there was an unmistakable statement to be made.
Much of the attention understandably focused on Durant and Westbrook's impressive offense, but this was a defensive victory, and it was fueled by Westbrook's constant activity. It wasn't a defensive victory in the sense that anyone was shut down. But after giving up 122 points in Game 1, the Thunder held Los Angeles to just 101 in Game 2.
It wasn't the product of brilliant adjustments. It spoke instead to much-improved effort and physicality. It spoke to the little things that differentiate regular-season defense from the defense that wins playoffs games.
Westbrook was the first line of that defense.
That said, there are plenty of reasons for the Clippers to have hope. Paul is as cerebral as any player in this league, and he'll take his game to another level. It's also doubtful that the Thunder's motor will continuing running like it did in Game 2.
And when it slows down, Paul will be ready. He's a master of controlling tempo and methodically guiding his team's offense. The moment Oklahoma City lets its foot off the gas, Paul will ensure momentum swings Los Angeles' way.
Driven as Westbrook appeared in Game 2, Paul has his eyes on the prize. He knows he'll only have so many opportunities to win a title, according to The New York Times' Billy Witz: "You feel like you’re always going to be back there, and that’s not the case. The team here, I think, is a special team. Not only do we have a good team, but also it’s fun to be around each other."
Don't confuse Paul's sentiment with desperation. It's a sense of urgency. These chances are few and far between. With a return to Staples Center and a home crowd urging them on, Paul could once again be the one setting the early tone.
If you're trying to decide which side has the edge at the point position, just give up. It's a comparison between apples and oranges. Both of these guys will give everything they've got every night. Both of them have incredible talent. Both have postseason experience on which to rely.
While differences between these two abound, you'll be hard-pressed to find a discernible advantage.
The series will come down to who gets hot, who does the little things, whether the Clippers can actually grab a rebound or two. It will come down to supporting casts and three-pointers. It will come down to far more than Westbrook and Paul, but the point guards will have their say in crunch time.
And it will be a pleasure to watch.