Chris Paul seems angrier than usual in these NBA playoffs, and it's unclear whether that added aggression, that extra dash of feistiness, will be a good thing for the Los Angeles Clippers in the long run.
First of all, it's important to point out the significance of Paul playing with an extra edge. For a guy who spends every second on the floor looking for an advantage and willing to bend the rules to do it, it's really saying something when he's noticeably more intense.
It's not unusual for an NBA star to play with a fiery demeanor. For superstardom, it's basically a prerequisite. But Paul is in a class of his own when it comes to competitive drive.
He is single-minded, overrun with the desire to win at any cost.
We've all seen that desire manifest itself in the postseason. Paul disputes calls regardless of how obvious they are, snatches the ball from opponents during stoppages in hopes of inciting violence, flops like a pro and delivers surreptitious shots to kidney and gut at every opportunity on the other end.
All of his pet moves have been on overdrive in the playoffs, perhaps because Paul senses the urgency of this particular postseason run. The Clippers' future as an organization is uncertain, tied to what may be a protracted legal battle between Donald Sterling and, well...anyone willing to go to court with him.
It's also likely that Paul recognizes the quality of his team and the legitimate chance it has to contend right now. Whatever the source, CP3 is doubling down on the chippiness.
Approaching the game this way must be difficult, as it requires a strange combination of focus and frenzy.
The results are hard to ignore, as we saw when Paul leveraged his mental tenacity into a physical marvel, stifling Kevin Durant down the stretch of the Clips' comeback victory in Game 4 against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Per B/R's Kevin Ding:
It's par for the course that Paul is going to point fingers at referees and howl at them. It's fully accepted because that's consistent with how feisty he is in caring so much and trying anything to win.
Sure enough, with the game on the line Sunday, Paul was grabbing and crowding Durant with all his usual desperation and aggression, and the refs gave Paul the benefit of the doubt.
It's a sign of respect that CP3 gets away with as much as he does, especially when everyone watching—officials included—knows when he's riled up enough to try something dirty:
also, we have angry chris paul. protect yourselves when you set screens, thunder. #ifyouknowwhatimean— Bomani Jones (@bomani_jones) May 8, 2014
A toned-down version of Paul's leadership is the NBA ideal. You always want your best players to be the hardest workers, the most emotionally invested. Not everyone can be the kind of emotionless pillar Tim Duncan is, though. Paul's brand of guidance is far more extreme.
In fact, it could be dangerous.
We've all seen a version of Paul in pickup hoops games. He's the guy you always want on your team because he'll argue every call, eventually earning you one or two over the course of a couple of hours that win you a game and keep you on the court.
But guys like that, guys willing to fight for every inch of mental real estate and unafraid of being hated by the opposition, are always just a few bad plays away from turning on their own teammates. Paul's not quite on that level yet, but the added intensity of the playoffs makes such an outcome a risk.
Head coach Doc Rivers voiced concern about the way Paul reacts after bad games, per Vincent Bonsignore of the Los Angeles Daily News:
I don't know Chris well yet, in that. I'm learning, as this year goes on, that when he has a game he doesn't like, he gets real hard on himself, and I don't know if I like that or not, yet, to be honest. That's something I'll have to find out. That's ... I don't know yet with that.
Rivers' concerns are well-founded. When things go bad, Paul has a tendency to take things out on teammates, subjecting them to treatment that resembles the kind he usually reserves for opponents.
"Needless to say Paul's disposition all day Sunday after his very apparent struggles in Game 1 [against the Golden State Warriors] was anything but sunny. And that usually means a tough day for his Clippers teammates, who typically feel Paul's wrath on those rare occasions he's beside himself with himself."
For better or worse, Paul has been an obvious influence on his fellow Clippers. It's no secret where guys such as Blake Griffin have developed their reputations as chippy players who blend elite talent with a desire to irritate.
"It's not really Blake Griffin; it's all Chris Paul for real," Warriors forward Marreese Speights said, per Sam Amick of USA Today. "Chris Paul starts all of that stuff. Before Chris Paul came here, the team was not like that."
Paul's tendencies are new to the Clippers, but they've been a part of his game forever. Kobe Bryant summed up Paul's contagious impact last season:
Kobe on @CP3: "He's just a moody little dude. He's very feisty. He plays with a chip on his shoulder and that becomes infectious."— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) January 2, 2013
L.A. leads the league in flops, complaints and, probably, frustrated opponents. Its reputation is etched in stone now, and Paul's holding the chisel.
Look, Paul has taken the Clippers a long way. There's no question they're better than they've ever been, and it's no small thing when the league's most historically inept franchise has a legitimate shot to win a title.
In a league where it's easy for so-called leaders to collect checks and care too little, Paul's biggest flaw may be that he cares too much. As Marlo Stanfield famously said on The Wire, "that sounds like one of them good problems."
Maybe that's true. There are certainly worse problems to have.
But it's something the Clips will have to monitor.
As Paul gets older, maybe he'll mellow. It happens to the best of us, you know.
But if he can't get where he wants to go, which is a hastily erected stage at center court where he collects a Larry O'Brien Trophy from Adam Silver, it's also possible his seething competitiveness will boil over, consuming him and his team.
Either way, it'll be great theater.