Before the "Replay Seen 'Round the World," there was a collapse of epic proportions. Before Reggie Jackson had his hands stripped off the ball by Matt Barnes, it was Chris Paul who was flustered by Russell Westbrook's interference and fumbled the ball away with uncharacteristic ease.
"The turnover with [13.9] seconds left, assuming they were going to foul, is the dumbest play I ever made," Paul said after the game, via Yahoo! Sports. "To even put it in the officials' hands to call a foul on a three is just bad basketball."
That three to which Paul referred, of course, is the one he went a step too far in challenging: the ill-advised pull-up three by Westbrook on the left wing with a shade over six seconds remaining. Three free throws later, and a Los Angeles Clippers lead that seemed insurmountable just moments earlier—13 points with under four minutes to play, seven points with 49 seconds left on the clock—had vanished into thin air.
What chance Paul had of making up for his mistakes and carrying his Clippers to victory was poked away by Jackson and collected by Serge Ibaka on the final play, to seal a 105-104 victory for the Oklahoma City Thunder
"You know we lost and it’s on me," Paul said of that last possession, via The Los Angeles Times. "We had a chance to win on the last play. We didn’t get a shot off and that’s just dumb. I’m supposed to be the leader of the team."
Up until Game 5, up until the second half on Tuesday night—heck, up until those few frantic minutes—that's all Paul had ever been, and all he figures to be as he and the Clippers attempt to stave off elimination in Game 6.
Paul's loaded resume and stellar reputation were and are staked on far more than a few unfortunate, uncharacteristically awful plays at the end of one game. He'd racked up 36 assists against just a single turnover between Games 3 and 4 and the first two-and-a-half quarters of Game 5. He'd appeared in six playoffs and seven All-Star Games, was selected to five All-NBA and All-Defensive teams, won Rookie of the Year and All-Star MVP honors, led the league in assists three times and in steals six times and generally established himself as the Best Point Guard on Planet Earth.
All before Chris and Cliff Paul seemed to switch places, like the two halves of a young Lindsay Lohan in The Parent Trap.
It's for that well-established track record that pundits far and wide, Charles Barkley included, had lauded Paul for his leadership and poise under pressure. It's in that wealth of great plays and memorable moments that the Clippers and their fans should take heart as their team, with Paul at the helm, looks to extend this topsy-turvy series to an all-important Game 7 in Oklahoma City on Sunday.
Paul's poor play at the end of Game 5 doesn't fit with any prior pattern of behavior, but unfortunately it does settle all too comfortably into an old, tired but never-dead narrative: that Chris Paul Can't Win the Big One.
A narrative born of a 21-31 career record in the playoffs, including Tuesday's defeat. One more loss to the Thunder, and Chris Paul, for all of his accolades and all of his greatness, will have gone nine seasons as a pro without a single appearance in the conference finals.
His closest call yet? The 2008 playoffs. He guided his New Orleans Hornets to a 3-2 series lead against the San Antonio Spurs, only to see the Big Three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili stomp their way to unsettlingly easy victories in Games 6 and 7.
That's what Paul's Clippers will have to do if they're to crack the Western Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history. Like those Spurs—and likely in order to face San Antonio in the next round—they'll have to hold the fort at home in Game 6 and become just the latest addition to that 20 percent of teams who've won Game 7 on the road.
To do so, Paul will first have to pick himself up and dust himself off from what he described as "probably the toughest thing I've been through basketball-wise," via Yahoo! Sports.
"You got to keep playing," Paul added. "But this one is bad, though."
There's no doubt about that. Nor should there be any doubt that Paul will bounce back, that he'll have many better, brighter moments going forward. If this is rock-bottom for CP3, then he has nowhere to go from here but up.
And we've seen how high up Paul can go. In this series alone, we've seen him shoot L.A. into a lead out of the gate, as he did with his eight three-pointers in Game 1. We've seen him spearhead an epic comeback, as he did in flustering Kevin Durant on one end and steadying the Clippers' efforts on the other in Game 4. We've seen him dazzle and amaze with his skills and his intellect, both on and off the court, for years now.
Who's to say we won't see the same from him in Game 6, or Game 7 should the series come to that? Surely, nine years of "Chris Paul, Point God" weren't undone, like the Clippers' double-digit lead, in those fateful few minutes of Game 5. Surely, the guy who hit a jumper to put L.A. up seven with less than a minute remaining wasn't subsumed by the guy who gave it all away immediately thereafter.
Surely, Paul won't have all of his tendencies—good, bad or neutral—come back to bite him all at once again, as Grantland's Andrew Sharp noted:
That’s when I remembered that, as much as I love watching pissed-off Chris Paul go crazy and take over games, the flip side is that sometimes he tries to do too much, he tries to be too smart, and it all gets counterproductive. That’s always been true with CP3, I know. But man. We’ve never seen it get counterproductive like THAT.
As singularly responsible as Paul may be for the Clippers' tragic shortfall, he can't be expected to rectify the situation all on his own. He'll need Blake Griffin to be a beast, and J.J. Redick to hit shots, and Matt Barnes to pester Durant, and Jamal Crawford to lend new meaning to the term "And-1 Mixtape," and DeAndre Jordan to stay out of foul trouble.
What Paul can do, though, is put perhaps the worst few minutes of his career behind him and move forward, knowing that his coaches and teammates trust him, and, more importantly, that he trusts himself.
Just as he did before all that hell broke loose.
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