SAN ANTONIO – After dissecting another long evening here, Clippers guard Chris Paul turned to his 2-year-old son, Chris, and asked him about his trip to Sea World earlier in the day. Little Chris described with great wonder the highlight: a whale with a big tail.
On that account, father and son had plenty in common.
Paul will return home much like Captain Ahab, playing like he’s on a peg leg and hopelessly chasing his own white whale, the San Antonio Spurs, who continue to look like the NBA’s best team and, for the Clippers, a model of ruthless efficiency in a 105-88 victory.
The road to the Western Conference finals indeed runs through Los Angeles, but if it is to go anywhere else, the Lakers and the Clippers will have to figure out how to win a game against Oklahoma City and San Antonio between Friday night and Sunday. Otherwise, both series will be over.
If the Lakers can at least draw on their own reservoir of success – and the fact that they controlled most of Game 2 – the Clippers appear mostly down to hope after losing by 16 and then 17 points. They hope the Spurs will start missing 3-pointers away from home, where they made 23 of 50 in the first two games. They hope between now and lunchtime Saturday that they figure a way to make Tim Duncan start playing like he’s 36. And they have to hope that Boris Diaw and Danny Green – picked off the scrap heap – start looking more like trash than treasures.
Mostly, though, they hope Paul arrives.
Hobbled by his strained hip flexor and hamstring, and hemmed in by the San Antonio defense, Paul hardly looked like the player who has transformed a franchise from laughingstock to contender in the six months since he arrived. He managed just five assists and 10 points – four more than he scored in the series opener Monday – and had a season-high eight turnovers. He also did little to stop Tony Parker from celebrating his 30th birthday with a 22-point, five-assist, five-rebound and three-steal night.
“We need him to be Chris,” Clippers guard Randy Foye said. “We need him to get his average and more – in the points category and assists – for us to be successful. It’s as simple as that.”
Paul, who averaged 19.8 points and 9.1 assists during the regular season, insisted – as is his custom – that his injury isn’t preventing him from splitting the double teams that the Spurs have been throwing at him, a tactic Memphis did late in the first-round series. But Paul’s explosiveness is missing, along with his ability to get into the teeth of the defense and set up his teammates.
“I don’t know what’s going on, but I know he’s much quicker than that,” Foye said. “Chris is a tough guy, he’s not going to quit. But we know what’s going on. We all know that he’s banged up, that he’s sore, but if you ask him, everyone’s sore at this time of the year.”
There was plenty of misery in the company of the Clippers’ locker room. Blake Griffin, who had 20 points but just one rebound, had ice on his hip flexor, which he strained late in the game, along with the knee that he strained against Memphis. Nick Young has a tooth that may require a root canal. Caron Butler is playing with a broken hand and was suffering from cramps at the end of the night.
“Failure isn’t an option,” Butler said.
But even if Griffin is slowed, the Clippers can survive diminished performance from him and just about anyone else – just as they did when Kenyon Martin and Reggie Evans stepped up against the Grizzlies. Their bench again played well, but Paul is indispensable.
Paul is the driver of the offense when he is in the game, not only dominating the ball but also directing teammates to particular spots. And he is, in the eyes of many, the best finisher in the NBA. The Clippers managed only 13 assists Thursday night.
“It’s going to be tough with me playing that way,” Paul said when he was asked if the Clippers could win the series if this is all he produces. “I’ve got to be a little more aggressive. It’s two people on me every time I do something.”
Paul, after a slow start, did manage to hit a pair of 3-pointers. And he struggled – along with his pick-and-roll partners – to prevent Parker from getting into the lane on the new staple of the San Antonio offense. Once Parker or Ginobli got into the paint, there were clean kickouts and Green, Diaw and Ginobli often ended up with clean 3-pointers.
But what frustrated Paul most were the turnovers. In all the Clippers had 18, which offset a good night shooting (49.2 percent) and an adequate night rebounding, but it seemed as if each giveaway got the Spurs out in transition, where they either drove to the basket or found shooters along the 3-point arc.
“I don’t turn the ball over like that,” Paul said. “I can’t throw the ball off my foot over there on the baseline. I can’t get those offensive fouls. I’ going to look at the film on the whole ride home.”
The Clippers are looking forward to arriving home. They have been gone since last Saturday, when they left for Memphis and continued on here after winning the seventh game against the Grizzlies. An enthusiastic home crowd will surely lift their spirits, as will familiar bounces on the rim, and perhaps a favorable officials’ call or two.
But nothing will lift their spirits – or their chances of making this a series – as much as Paul playing up to his standard. The Clippers have leaned on Paul at almost every critical moment during this season. Saturday afternoon will be no different.