The Ring is the Thing

Can you hear the doubters?

Chris Paul certainly can although he just doesn’t care anymore.  For the LA Clippers’ star point guard, it’s no longer about regular season glory and statistical achievements.  The time has nearly come to slog through the second-round quicksand and mine for that chip.

At the beginning of the season, we thought the usual big three of San Antonio, Oklahoma City and the LA Clippers would shape the Western Conference picture. And yet, all the white-hot basketball has instead stemmed from Oakland and the ‘Grit and Grind’ crew in Memphis.

But with barely a month to go before the Hunger Games Playoffs tip-off, it’s becoming clear that plenty have prematurely eulogized the Clippers

The unwritten premise behind fans jumping off the LA hype train is that Chris Paul has never won anything of real significance, and that the team doesn’t play a particularly attractive brand of basketball.

Let’s be honest: Most of us seek a Dubs-Hawks Finals, where, y’know, Steph Curry and Kyle Korver tussle it out in The Battle of the PUJIT (Pull Up Jumper In Transition).

This makes CP3 and the Clippers an antagonist, of sorts, in the championship race. There might not be twenty pundits outside of Los Angeles who want to see the Clippers emerge from the West.  They annoy people; constantly moaning to the refs, appearing on every second commercial, and boasting a bench laced with journeymen misfits. When Doc Rivers rolls out Big Baby Davis, Austin Rivers, Nate Robinson and Hedo Turkoglu you can detect the growing anxiety in the basketball twitter community, asking how is this still a thing? 

Lacking a long-armed 6’7” small forward (a near compulsory piece in any NBA team’s construction these days) and a potent bench, the Clippers are a strange championship-caliber team. Still, they don’t nearly deserve the animosity and disregard they receive from most NBA fans.

Many got used to the idea that the Clippers aren’t real contenders in the West after a strange few opening months, where they couldn’t control enemy small forwards, and Paul seemed locked in cruise control.

They’re currently 42-24, without first-round home court advantage and are 17th in defensive efficiency. Of course, Blake Griffin’s absence has surely dented any streaking momentum entering the playoffs.

So… “Not great, Bob.”

But it matters that the Clippers are one of the more playoff savvy teams in the Western Conference (along with the Spurs, Thunder and Grizzlies), having never missed the postseason in the Chris Paul era. And above all, it matters that Paul is hitting the postseason with his cleanest bill of health in years.

Seriously, CP3 seems young right now – New Orleans young. Don’t let Russell Westbrook’s triple doubles or Curry’s silliness devour your complete attention; Paul’s averaging a familiar 18 points, 10 dimes and 2 steals on the season. His 33 points and 9 assists against the Thunder last week, as well as Westbrook’s 10 turnovers, should at least remind us that our eyes can sometimes deceive us.

CP3 is still playing like the greatest point guard of his generation, and the Clips weren’t really dead.

In many ways, Griffin’s absence has benefited Paul, just as it has DeAndre Jordan. He’s dropped double-digit assists in 13 of the Clippers’ last 16 games; feeding role players wide-open looks, and delivering a bunch of knockout blows, including a vintage mid-range dagger against San Antonio. The last six weeks has been an exhibition of masterful point guard-puppetry.

Sure, the Clips won’t survive long in the playoff ring without Griffin swirling in the post, zipping passes and laying the firmest above-the-rim punches. He needs to be healthy, that much we know. Really, a less than 100 percent healthy Blake in the playoffs would just be another cruel twist in CP’s career.

But the same can be said about CP3; his continued good health is crucial from now and throughout the playoffs.

The Clippers score 114.1 points per 100 possessions when Paul is on the floor, but only 97.0 when he’s not. In other words, that’s the difference between rocking the best offense in the league and the second-worst.

It’s true, Paul has never escaped the second round of the playoffs. But critics glaze over the part where he’s spent nearly half a decade battling injuries in April and early May.

But watching Paul and the Clips recently, even as they scrap at .500 over the last 10 games without their All-Star power forward, hasn’t been quite the same experience as seasons past. They look more wised-up than before; prioritizing the money-time of April and May over regular-season games in February and March.

You can even hear it when CP3 talks about being shut out from the MVP conversation.

“It don’t matter,” Paul said. “I just need to win a championship. You can have whatever else. I don’t care. You can have the assists and steals titles, you can have all that. I just need to win a championship.”

So, are they really just treating the regular season with the same half-interest that the Spurs famously do? Maybe. It’s a dangerous game to play especially if it means conceding home court advantage in the playoffs. This just adds to their charm, though. Barring the Thunder making a Finals run, they’re the most interesting mystery team of this year’s contenders. Ignore that second round narrative about CP3, he and the Clippers have the tools to get through the West.


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