LOS ANGELES — In a playoff series pitting Nos. 1 and 3 in the NBA MVP balloting against one another, the guy no one thought would crack was Chris Paul.
He's one tough nut, we all know. It's why his lack of playoff success has stayed under the radar for so long, because he so consistently gets done all that he does. And against the Thunder, it was just assumed that he'd again be the rock: feisty, focused and fantastic.
Everyone just figured Paul could handle his business, no matter the obstacles: his weak hamstring; the Thunder's quirky but clever plan to make Paul into a scorer when absolutely no one else on his team can get others involved; guarding Stephen Curry for seven games and then Russell Westbrook, which meant assuming a burden at both ends in a way no NBA player came close to in these first two playoff rounds.
Oh, and dealing with Donald Sterling, a weight Paul never imagined would be thrown on him—but one he will never forget feeling, one that proved too much to overcome.
Paul is the players' union president. And he very much had to assume the role the past three weeks, fielding calls and texts from players throughout the NBA so outraged and determined in the wake of the racist comments from the Los Angeles Clippers owner who happens to be Paul's boss.
It's simply not Paul's way to let someone get over on him.
So after the playoffs ended for him late Thursday night in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals, he bristled at the idea that Sterling and that archaic thinking and those careless words in some way handicapped Paul in this postseason, his first true chance at a championship with a talent-rich team and elite coach.
Always on point with his public presentation, Paul rolled his eyes behind the microphone at his postgame news conference when Sterling was mentioned. Paul even let out the "D" word—a mild profanity, to be sure, but more than longtime observers had ever heard from him in this kind of setting. Paul was frustrated by the fact that his season was over, but he only showed anger when Sterling was brought up.
Paul wanted no part of even uttering the name.
"The least of our worries is him," said Paul, the three-letter word sounding like a four-letter one with Paul's deep disdain.
"We don't care about that," Paul said.
And then: "We give him too much attention as it is."
The truth is that Sterling did hurt Paul.
The hamstring, breaking down the Thunder, the defensive responsibilities, standing at the very center of the Clippers' post-intro huddle, all the little things to spring Griffin (picking two guys instead of just one for a third-quarter drive) or to demoralize the other team (that fallen-down saved possession that left Oklahoma City's prone Serge Ibaka throwing his head back against the hardwood in disbelief)...it's already so much.
Then having strangers on social media putting you on 12 Years a Slave posters and those close to you bugging you with Donald Sterling this and Donald Sterling that...
Paul willed the Clippers to an improbable Game 4 fourth-quarter rally. And then with a Game 5 victory nearly secure Tuesday, with a lead for the final 44 seconds at seven points because Paul hit a dagger shot, he absolutely blew it.
What we'll never know and Paul will never admit is just how tired he was to crack that way Tuesday night. In the final 13.9 seconds, he had two catastrophic turnovers and one tide-turning foul.
Paul called it "the toughest thing I've been through in basketball."
An even more telling quote was this one: "I'm supposed to be the leader of the team."
Guys who say things like that have big egos, but they also expect bigger things from themselves than anyone else could.
So Paul came back Thursday night after the crushing turnovers and killer foul. And in the first half, he had no turnovers—and he had no fouls.
"Only way I could get it out of my mind is to play again," he said.
After he'd boxed out the bigger Caron Butler right to the halftime buzzer—there are just so many little things the guy does—Paul worked the refs and headed off the court, only to be stopped to do the ESPN on-court interview. Before the first question was asked, Paul stooped over at the waist. He pulled himself up, but he couldn't help resting his hands on his hips.
And he didn't have enough or enough help in the second half. The Clippers' 16-point lead was gone by the start of the fourth quarter, when Doc Rivers felt obligated to give Paul his rest.
By the time Paul came back, the Thunder had a four-point lead, which was immediately erased by shots from Jamal Crawford and Paul. But the Thunder surged again, Durant getting open shots because Paul couldn't guard him and Westbrook at the same time, and panic set in for the Clippers.
Paul scored 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting in 8:34 of play in the fourth quarter. Durant and Westbrook, however, played the whole fourth quarter and combined for 21.
Soon enough, Paul was breaking down in the losing locker room.
"Yeah, he took it hard," Rivers said. "He took it very hard."
Rivers described Paul as "the spirit of our team" and "the guy who always puts everything on his shoulders."
Paul was still regretting the end of Game 5, saying, "That's going to hurt for a while." He was regretting even more how the Clippers, his first team to have a realistic title shot in his nine-year career, "the last few games really started to figure out who our team was and how to play. And it's crazy that it's over."
In Paul's mind, they were getting better and better despite him and all the daily updates of what's happening with him, what ridiculous interview is coming from him, what indignant legal fight is planned by him.
In our minds, though, it's clear: Paul lost something to him, in more ways than one.
Kevin Ding covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @KevinDing.
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