Los Angeles Clippers

Chris Paul Facing Greatest Challenge of His NBA Career

Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul (3) falls out of bounds with the ball in the second half of Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinal NBA basketball playoff series against the Oklahoma City Thunder in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, May 13, 2014. Oklahoma City won 105-104. (AP Photo)
Uncredited/Associated Press
Grant HughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistMay 14, 2014

Chris Paul has spent his entire career pretending the odds were stacked against him.

Trailing the Oklahoma City Thunder 3-2 with his NBA playoff fate (and so much more) hanging in the balance, Paul doesn't have to pretend anymore.

Paul put himself in this position by almost single-handedly giving away a pivotal Game 5 against the Thunder. Sure, OKC rallied to finish the contest on a 17-3 run, indicating plenty was going wrong for the Clips before that fateful final minute.

But CP3's play in that decisive closing sequence gave the Thunder the edge they needed to complete a highly improbable comeback.

He foolishly tried to sell a foul on a 75-foot heave, turning the ball over at a critical juncture.

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 13:  Chris Paul #3 of the Los Angeles Clippers loses control of the ball in front of Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game Five of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Ene
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

He fouled Russell Westbrook on a three-point attempt—and an awful attempt, at that. It was a contested pull-up off the dribble, and Paul was right in his face. Ever seeking an extra advantage, CP3 got a piece of Westbrook's shooting elbow and was whistled for a violation he'd committed hundreds of times in the past.

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 13:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder is fouled on a three-point attempt by Chris Paul #3 of the Los Angeles Clippers in Game Five of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Ene
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Then he turned the ball over on the Clippers' final possession.

It was bad. Really, really bad.

To his credit, Paul took full responsibility for botching the final minute of Game 5 in a candid, emotional postgame address:

You've got to admire his willingness to take the blame. Too often, we hear some variation of the hackneyed "it is what it is" excuse in situations like this. Guys try to deflect, to distance themselves from earned culpability.

Not Paul. He faced head on the fact that he'd cost his team the game.

Now, he must face something else: the daunting uphill climb of a 3-2 deficit in a seven-game series. History is not in his corner.

Per WhoWins.com, NBA teams up 3-2 in a seven-game series win 85 percent of the time. And when those teams have home-court advantage, as the Thunder do, their chances of winning jump to 91 percent.

And it's not just precedent making things tough for Paul and the Clippers. They're also dealing with the lingering distraction of Donald Sterling, who refuses to go away. Seeing him in bizarre interviews and reading about the seemingly inevitable and protracted legal battle soon to be waged for control of the franchise can't make it easy to focus on the task at hand.

The Clippers' season isn't all that's at stake, either. Paul's legacy is also in jeopardy. 

The fact is, Paul's teams are just 22-30 in his postseason career. He went 10-13 with the Hornets and the Clippers have a 12-17 playoff mark since his arrival in L.A.

Some of that has to do with being coached by the likes of Byron Scott and Vinny Del Negro in his previous playoff runs. And for what it's worth, Paul hasn't exactly wilted in the postseason; his playoff numbers are practically identical to the ones he's posted during the regular season, per Basketball-Reference.com.

Chris Paul: Regular Season vs. Postseason
PPGAPGRPGFG%
Regular Season18.69.94.4.472
Postseason19.19.04.4.478
Basketball-Reference.com

Critics, though, can point to Paul's decline in player efficiency rating and win shares per 48 minutes as evidence he doesn't perform as effectively when the stakes are higher.

Chris Paul: Regular Season vs. Postseason
GamesPERWin Shares/48
Regular Season61725.6.246
Postseason5225.0.189
Basketball-Reference.com

Those numbers aren't wildly different, though, and we could reliably argue there's a sample-size issue here. We know for certain that Paul hasn't made a habit of disappearing in the playoffs, and he's never endured anything like what happened in Game 5 before.

On balance, he's been a stellar postseason performer.

But history has a way of ignoring things like that, and there's a chance Paul will someday be viewed as a player who couldn't get his team over the hump. We'll remember his isolated collapse more than we'll remember his larger body of solid work.

To this point, Paul has always gotten something of a pass because everyone recognizes how good he is. But maybe Game 5 will represent a turning point in that narrative.

Maybe we'll soon be discussing the fact that he's never led his team to the conference finals.

Game 5 changed the entire complexion of the series, swinging the momentum wildly back into OKC's favor. And Game 6 might alter the legacies of every player involved in the series—Paul most of all.

This next challenge will be the greatest of Paul's career.

He must redeem himself after costing his team a pivotal game, and he'll probably have to do so at less than full health. Anyone who thinks his sore hamstring is no longer an issue is fooling themselves.

He'll also have to save his team from elimination amid an immense off-court distraction. And even he has to know his reputation as a winner is probably at stake.

CP3 has always played with a defiant edge. It's part of what has made him great. In that sense, maybe Game 6 won't feel any different for him.

Maybe years of attacking opponents and bellowing at officials as though every second of every game had elimination riding on it has prepared him to face this moment. Maybe Paul is uniquely trained to handle what's in front of him.

He may or may not succeed, but rest assured, he'll be ready. Paul has been preparing for this moment—when he no longer needs to pretend everything hangs in the balance—for his entire career.

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