CP3, Clippers working overtime for wins

HOUSTON — Chris Paul, sitting at his locker with his feet in a bucket of ice, understood better than most that the Clippers’ margin for error these days is as thin as the white towel that was wrapped around his waist.
 
If Kevin Martin, the Houston Rockets’ most dangerous scorer, had not been a centimeter off on his 3-pointer in the waning seconds Sunday, then Paul would have not been in such a state of repose.
 
“If he hits that 3 at the end, I’m throwing up right now,” Paul said after his 28-point, 10-assist night.
 
That’s the way it is these days for the Clippers, whose 105-103 overtime win over the Rockets felt less like a joyous victory than a matter of survival — and an unlikely one at that.
 
How often is it that the Clippers win a game when Paul, their sublimely intuitive leader, appears intent on authoring a How Not to Play Point Guard manual down the stretch, only to be bailed out by, of all things, his teammates’ defense?
 
And yet that’s what happened after the Clippers squandered a six-point lead late in the fourth quarter, watched Paul fail to get a shot off at the end of regulation, and then rallied for the win by getting stops on the Rockets’ final four possessions.
 
When Martin rose up in front of the Clippers’ bench, with the smaller Mo Williams making certain not to foul, and let fly with his long jumper, the Clippers on the court and on the sideline were united by a single thought.
 
“Miss it,” said coach Vinny Del Negro, who may or may not have had his fingers crossed.

The victory followed a narrow loss to Phoenix in which the Clippers repeated their recent habit of not making the requisite defensive stops, and kept them percentage points ahead of the Lakers atop the Pacific Division. But it is hard to escape the notion that the Clippers are stuck in a rut, having won seven of 13 games since Chauncey Billups tore his Achilles tendon.

Their shooting is sporadic: Randy Foye made 6 of 7 shots two nights after missing 7 of 8. They are struggling to find themselves on the defensive end, communication amongst so many new parts lacking and Del Negro eschewing practice because he is wary of wearing out the legs of his mostly veteran club. When they play at Minnesota on Monday night, it will be their fourth game in five nights on this six-game trip.

Surprisingly, the most fatigued appears to be Blake Griffin, who may be young but has not been spry. He has made just 11 of 33 shots against two of the softest defenders in the league, Phoenix’s Channing Frye and Houston’s Luis Scola.

All those details were in position to be overlooked when the Clippers surged to an 89-83 lead behind Paul. But then the Clippers could not stop Houston, which scored on all but one of its possessions in the final four minutes of regulation. When Samuel Dalembert’s free throw with 18.1 seconds left tied the score at 97, the Clippers called a timeout and put the ball in the hands of Paul, who had given them the lead twice in the final minute.

Paul dribbled the clock down, then drove toward the right side of the lane. But Courtney Lee, an excellent defender, knocked the ball away. Paul gathered the ball and sank a fadeaway 20-footer, but it came well after the buzzer.

“The only thing I kept thinking about after regulation is who’s at home watching League Pass calling me a dummy,” Paul said. “That’s what I do when I watch games and I see a guy who doesn’t even get a shot up at the end of regulation. I’m the guy that’s at home, like ‘this dummy didn’t even get a shot off.'”

It was not his only regret. After he drew the Clippers back from a 103-100 deficit, dishing to Griffin for a dunk and sinking a pull-up jumper in the lane, Paul had two mistakes that might have been critical. He lost the ball driving into the lane, getting stripped by Dalembert, and then after Martin missed a jumper with 8.9 seconds left and the Rockets down by a point, Paul made only one of two free throws.

“We came through defensively,” Paul said.

Indeed, Williams, in addition to harassing Martin in overtime, overplayed a pass to Martin, stole it and scored on a layup to put the Clippers ahead with 1:11 left in regulation. Griffin also stripped the ball from Martin in the final minute of overtime.

Such critical stops have been scarce of late for the Clippers, who could not get them in recent losses to San Antonio, Golden State, Minnesota and Phoenix over the past two weeks.

It is an area that has been exposed by the loss of Billups, not because he was such a difference maker defensively, but because he seemingly could get to the foul line, where he was near automatic, and was such a threat to hit jumpers that the offense was uncommonly efficient.

This allowed for a broad margin for error at the defensive end of the court. Now, not so much.

In fact, that line looks as narrow as the creases on Paul’s forehead, which Sunday night marked the difference between feeling the hand of providence and being sick to your stomach.