February 15, 2019

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The Los Angeles Clippers are at a crossroads. When Chris Paul joined Blake Griffin in 2011, the possibilities seemed endless. These playoffs, it’s a possibility they’re merely fighting to stave off their end.

After last season’s second round playoff collapse to the Houston Rockets, Clippers’ head coach and President of Basketball Operations Doc Rivers acknowledged—for the first time—his team’s mortality.

“We’re right on the borderline,” Rivers told ESPN’s Zach Lowe last October. “I have no problem saying that. I’m a believer that teams can get stale. After a while, you don’t win. It just doesn’t work. We’re right at the edge. Oklahoma City is on the edge. Memphis, too. We just have to accept it.”

Fortunately for Los Angeles, few players thrive in these pivotal in-between moments as much as Chris Paul. While the rest of the basketball world ebbs and flows around him, Paul exists outside of it all, picking out the perfect moments to press his advantage; constantly finding what his team needs. And as the Clippers, with possibly more playoff games behind them than they have ahead, met a Portland Trail Blazers team just starting their own run, Paul was brilliant with 28 points and 11 assists in a 115-99 victory.

Early in the third quarter, in transition with the Trail Blazers in full retreat, Paul surveyed his options.

With J.J. Redick running ahead and Blake Griffin sprinting behind, Paul brought the ball up at his own pace. Redick veered off to the wing, one defender peeled off his retreat to follow, and in the moment before the Trail Blazers’ defensive shell could crystalize, Paul threaded a pass to Griffin for a dunk and a 65-48 lead.

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Portland has been a surprising team all season, but they also have the misfortune of constructing a defense designed to play into Paul’s strengths.

Perimeter defenders force their opponents off the three-point line, and bigs drop back to protect the rim. The goal is to force guards into the areas of the court where the best options can be muddled. Pull-up or floater? Kick out or dump off pass? Portland cedes low efficiency grounds, confident it can recover often enough to not allow offenses to press their advantage—and that their own offense will be explosive enough to push the math in their favor.

Of course, no one gets more out of every little advantage quite like Paul.

“We force guys off the three-point line, make them shoot midrange, pull-ups, and floaters and live with the result,” Lillard said afterwards. “Unfortunately that’s his game, he loves that area. We contested a lot of those shots. In his isolations, we were physical, we were right there. But a player at his level, he’s going to make those shots sometimes, and tonight he made them.”

Among elite point guards, Paul is the most taken for granted. Traditional point guards are less exciting in an era where Russell Westbrook is physically breaking defenses with a barrage of triple-doubles, and Stephen Curry is drowning them in a sea of three-pointers. Even Lillard (21 points, eight assists in Game 1) can draw more excitement as a Curry-lite, drawing attention out to the three-point line, then bursting to the rim.

For whatever superhuman basketball traits he may lack, no one runs an offense quite like Paul. He’s the last of the great symphony conductors, playing up the perfect balance of powerful notes (Blake Griffin post-ups, DeAndre Jordan lobs) and sweet melodies (Redick spot-ups and curls off pin downs), with his own work in the midrange tying it all together without overpowering, to make the offense sing.

“They have so many ways they can hurt you, I think that starts with Chris Paul. And that’s difficult because you can’t really take him out of the game,” Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts said. “You can’t double team him, because that just gives him an opportunity to make his teammates better. They have terrific outside shooting and they have good interior play, especially now that they have Blake back.”

Looking a bit rusty in the final few regular season games, after returning from injury and suspension, Griffin announced his full return with authority—powering through the lane for vicious dunks and layups, defenders big and small bouncing off him like bullets off Superman.

Griffin hit three of his four shots in the first quarter, opening the game up with 10 of his 21 points. Griffin is the perfect complement to Paul, knocking defenders off with his sheer physicality, and extending Paul’s own playmaking with his brilliant court vision and passing.

From the elbow extended, the threat of Griffin’s first step is enough to keep his defender from shading over to impede dribble handoffs; and his strength setting screens is enough to stop the most dogged pursuing defender in their tracks—something the Clippers exploited to get Redick a few clean looks from range.

“It was great. Assertive. I loved his energy,” Rivers said of Griffin. “Like I said before the game, I’ve been surprised with him. His energy, his endurance. Today, I thought, was the first day that he had great timing as well.

“What I liked is we did it without waiting or trying to get Blake going. Blake got himself going through the flow of what we’re doing.”

There were thoughts that the Clippers looked better with three shooters around a Paul-Jordan pick and roll than they might with Griffin; which was nonsense. The Clippers run sans Griffin should serve notice that Rivers can afford to stagger minutes some, leaving Blake as the primary creator on second units. But finding quality bucket getters who can overpower defenses through their own machinations is essential in the playoffs, when teams have time to lock in and deter match-ups and schemes.

In Game 1, the Clippers short circuited the Trail Blazers high-scoring backcourt, sticking  Luc Mbah a Moute on C.J. McCollum (nine points, three-for-11 shooting) and trapping Lillard off just about every pick and roll, forcing the ball out of his hands.

Through the first half, Lillard made the right pass, and the Trail Blazers did enough to keep up, trailing 42-50 after 24 minuts. But the Clippers found the right players to lay off of (Al-Farouq Aminu finished 1-for-7) and Portland couldn’t consistently get into their third and fourth options to puncture the defense.

Afterwards, Lillard sat in front of the media, going through a checklist of everything the Clippers managed to take away.

“Usually the things we get to, with myself and C.J., ball screen actions, flares, and pin-downs, they were pretty disruptive,” Lillard said.

Paul’s quick feet, and quicker hands (two steals), managed to disrupt at the point of attack—and his ability to check opposing point guards allows Rivers to reserve ace wing defenders like Mbah a Moute for secondary threats like McCollum.

“Overall, I liked the game plan. The guys followed it pretty well. It’s more than just C.P., it’s the whole team,” Rivers said. “When you’re guarding [Lillard and McCollum] it’s going to take more than a one-on-one defender. A lot of trapping, but more important, a lot of guys rotating and being in the right spot.”

DeAndre Jordan cast a shadow across the paint; one that Lillard and his teammates had trouble escaping. More importantly, he and Griffin controlled the glass (12 rebounds each), taking a 48-40 lead in rebounds and cutting off one of the Trail Blazers more reliable source of points.

The Clippers kicked off an important playoff run with an impressive victory, dominating with physicality and execution. More importantly, they maintained focus throughout.

“For us, it’s about the win,” Paul said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s by one or by 20.”

With a number of playoff disappointments behind them, and a murky future ahead, leave it to Chris Paul to keep the Clippers squarely in the moment.

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Jesse Blanchard

Jesse Blanchard is the author of Dynasty: the San Antonio Spurs Timeless 2013-2014 Championship, author/illustrator of the unpublished #LetBonnerShoot, A Dr. Seuss Story, and former contributor for 48 Minutes of Hell, Project Spurs, and ESPNsa.com. Boris Diaw is his pickup game spirit animal.

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