Chris Paul has long been one of the NBA’s best players. But Saturday night, he ascended into the echelon of timeless legends. His inspired, hobbled performance in the Los Angeles Clippers’ Game 7 victory over the San Antonio Spurs, 111-109, goes straight into a pantheon including iconic showings from Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan. If you didn’t see his game-winner, you missed one of the sport’s finest moments:
Taking down the defending champions may feel like an accomplishment grand enough to end a successful season, but there’s still a long road ahead of the Clippers. Now Paul has to lead L.A. against James Harden and the Houston Rockets. Paul has a compromised hamstring, and his partner in crime Blake Griffin spent many of his resting minutes against San Antonio with copious amounts of ice strapped around his knees.
The Clippers’ shallow bench nearly undid them against the Spurs, but the elite talent of their front six was ultimately enough. Houston’s goal, after a swift five-game dismissal of the Dallas Mavericks, will be to continue wearing down the Clippers. Without the hounding Patrick Beverley (out for the season with a torn wrist ligament) to make Lob City truly pay for their injured leader, the Rockets will have to get creative.
Expect Houston’s bevy of terrific wing defenders to take turns exhausting Paul in the series, who may miss Game 1 tonight — he’s listed as day-to-day. Trevor Ariza, Josh Smith and Corey Brewer should be able to challenge CP3 in a way that the veteran Jason Terry, Beverley’s primary replacement, cannot.
Houston’s best weapon in their quest to take the Clippers’ worn-down bodies to the end of their year, though, may be Dwight Howard. While he’ll often have his hands full with the indefatigable DeAndre Jordan, he’ll also be expected to make life difficult for Griffin at the rim, and open up the court for James Harden as a pick-and-roll partner.
If the Clippers had a week to get right before this series started, they’d be the overwhelming favorites — that’s the status you earn for knocking off the champs. But they’ll have to beat their health issues, in addition to the formidable Rockets. This one’s all but a toss-up.
Prediction: Clippers in 7.
— John Wilmes