Originally posted on Fox Sports West  |  Last updated 4/12/12
OKLAHOMA CITY As the clock wound down, Chris Paul bounced the ball up and down, staring face-to-face with one of the league's best defenders, Thabo Sefalosha, and assessing his options. Then, as the moment of decision neared, Kendrick Perkins, the fearsome center, jumped out to help hem him in. No matter. Paul split them and cut toward the lane, which prompted Russell Westbrook, one of basketball's best athletes, to abandon Randy Foye on the 3-point line and lunge toward him. Paul knew Westbrook would be too late coming from the right, but he also sensed Serge Ibaka, the NBA's best shot blocker, coming from the left. So Paul lofted his layup high in the air, leaving nothing for Ibaka's outstretched hand, and watched it kiss off the glass, rattle off the rim and drop in. This moment of brilliance, with 8.8 seconds left barely beat the shot clock and barely beat Oklahoma City, 100-98, when Kevin Durant missed a contested 3-pointer just before the buzzer. It is the type of play Paul has made on several occasions this season, rescuing the Clippers when a game was in the balance. This one, on the road against the Western Conference leaders, kept them within 1 games of the Lakers for first place in the Pacific Division and a half-game ahead of Memphis for home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. "It's crazy," said Nick Young, who joined the Clippers a month ago, at the trade deadline. "It doesn't seem like he feels any pressure. There are only a couple players who look forward to taking the last shot. That's the big thing you've got the whole team on your back, you've got the critics and for him to step up every night and put us on his back toward the end of games, man." Young shook his head. "There's only a couple of players that do that," he said. "Kobe and Jordan." Hyperbole, perhaps, but not so much when you consider the context. The last sequence was more than just the difference in the game. It helped explain what makes Paul so unique his unparalleled ability to assess a game's circumstance and find some way to exploit it. It helped explain his entire evening. Paul scored 31 points, including nine of the Clippers' final 11, but this was hardly the case of a sublime player simply feeling it. It was a case of manufacturing it, of finding an avenue to success when he didn't have his best stuff. As he left the practice court Tuesday, Paul shook his head over his recent shooting woes. The grind of the compressed schedule, a bothersome stinger in his elbow, an injury to backup Mo Williams and perhaps the burden of leading a team that is learning each other as it learns to win had begun to take its toll. The jump shot that had become so dependable, such a counterpunch to the defenses that insisted on keeping him out of the lane, had deserted him over the last week. "I'm killing us," said Paul, who was shooting 36 percent and had made 3 of 16 3-pointers in the four games since injuring his elbow on March 31 against Utah. "It's like teams are begging me to shoot." Indeed, Oklahoma City was Wednesday night, and Paul was obliging, handing him open jumpers. Paul missed six of his first seven shots, almost all of them jumpers as the Thunder jumped to an 11-point lead in the second quarter, threatening to make this a runaway like their 114-91 trouncing of the Clippers here last month. Then Paul changed course. He drove to the baseline and muscled in a short jumper over Derek Fisher. He encouraged contact, drawing fouls and getting Oklahoma City in the bonus with 8:08 left in the third quarter. He pulled up in the lane for a floater. When he ducked under Perkins on a double team and left his shot short, with just under two minutes to play, he alertly beat everyone to the rebound and tipped it back in. Paul wasn't just keeping his team in the game, he was setting an example for his teammates find a way. "He has that competitive edge about everything," Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. "His demeanor, his attitude, his approach obviously rubs off on guys. Tonight he was locked in. He's been missing some shots that he usually makes. Chris is a fighter and guys feed off that." After Monday's loss to Memphis, just their second in 10 games, they spent their off day reviewing film and pledging to each other that they would be dogged on defense and in their approach on offense, making a firm commitment to get the ball inside. "None of us were happy with the way we played against Memphis, so I think we did an excellent job locking in from the start tonight," said Kenyon Martin, the reserve forward. "No games is going to be perfect, we know that, and we did an excellent job of not letting the little mistakes we made affect the rest of the game. We knew the way they play loading up to the ball and letting Ibaka roam, that opportunities were going to present themselves to us. We found the bigs in the right places and did an excellent job of getting the ball to the rim." The Thunder blocked 10 shots, but it did little to deter the Clippers from going inside, whether it was big men posting or guards driving. Blake Griffin scored 16 points, had 12 rebounds and seven assists a marked improvement from his last trip home when he was held to a career-low seven points and Martin provided a big boost off the bench with 12 points. Durant and Westbrook, the Thunder's two stars, combined to make just 10 of 35 shots. Durant, who tied the score with a 3-pointer with 32 seconds left, was defended well at times by Young and missed the potential game-winner under duress from Clippers center DeAndre Jordan, who had switched on a screen. "I was praying that it was off," Jordan said. "I just wanted to give it a good contest. He's capable of making that shot eight out of nine times. He scares me anytime." Durant, though, was not Jordan's scariest encounter of the night. That had come moments earlier, when the Clippers convened during a timeout after Durant had tied the score with a 3-poiinter. Paul was furious, chewing out his teammates, imploring them not to squander the opportunity. "You just can't be satisfied with losing," said Paul, noting how few Clippers have playoff experience. "In those situations, you just have to leave it out on the floor. I'm going to make some, I'm going to miss some. But I'm always going to compete. If they beat us and we fought as hard as we could, I'm fine with it. But if we don't compete, that's unacceptable." And, if Paul has anything to say about it, unlikely.
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