Clippers Playoff Preview: All Eyes On Chris

It’s no longer the elephant in the room. No longer is anyone shy; everyone talks about it openly and with a lot of emphasis on the word choke. Everyone questions the sheer ridiculousness of it in one breath and then uses it to de-legitimize Chris Paul in the other. The greatest point guard of his generation, the two-time Olympian, the tough and gritty North Carolinian NBA All-Star, has never ventured into Western Conference Finals territory when he has Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan as Clippers teammates. It a dark cloud hanging over Chris Paul’s head as he enters the 2016 playoffs. Is this the year? so many wonder, including Paul himself.

It would be a different story if the Clippers, year in and year out, were slugging it out for the 6th or 7th seed, there would be more mercy lobbed his way. But with Chris Paul running things, that is not the case. The Clippers are always a top-4 seed, always contenders, always expecting to do more and they routinely give less and have not been able to take advantage, as a franchise, of the huge hole in the city that is desperate for a great team. It would be impossible for the Clippers to take on the Lakers behemoth but they could at least drag some fake fans over to their side if they showed any hint of being a champion.

Last year was a predictable Clippers rite of passage, a collection of highs and lows. They beat the Spurs who everyone thought they would lose to in a thrilling, captivating, sensational 7 game series. Chris Paul capped off the game with an impossible shot that gave the Clippers the lead and the series win. Exhausted, he walked off into the Los Angeles darkness, one of the heroes the glittering city bathes in its light. Two weeks later, the Clippers were the whipping boy as they allowed a 3-1 series lead to disappear to the Houston Rockets who, collectively, weren’t a better team, but with no Clippers defense to speak of, the Rockets won the next three games by taking and making a boat load of threes. They were the tougher team.

It was back-to-back game sevens. One series win. One series debacle. And Chris Paul in the center. It wasn’t his fault but it wasn’t his brilliance either, given his leadership ability. So another playoff Chris Paul redo and for the Clippers, perhaps karma? Wouldn’t it be a fitting way to turn the Los Angeles page and start a new chapter. Kobe going out. The Clippers going forward.

As important as Chris Paul is, all eyes will be on Blake Griffin. Griffin had his best game last night but it was against a team with zero defensive explosion in the front court so Griffin’s spins to the rim were pretty much unencumbered. In the first round and Memphis as a likely opponent, an out of shape Griffin will have to deal with Zach Randolph who will body him up all series long. Griffin admits his quad injury isn’t healed and it would surprise no one if he had surgery in the summer. Can he withstand a bruising first round series while he is still trying to get his timing straight?

Generally, the Clippers prefer a Memphis team without Mike Conley and Marc Gasol to a Trailblazers team with Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Lillard, as a rookie, famously said he could see the world in Chris Paul’s eyes. Lillard has grown up now and that world has him front and center. While chasing around shooters off screens isn’t what the Clippers want, the Blazers front court is weak and Griffin would have a pretty easy series, not to mention all those Jordan dunks.

The second round is where it gets dicey. The Warriors are stumbling and bumbling around and fighting through the fugue of a season in which everything has gone right except the last few games. But the Clippers don’t win any matchups. Paul can’t stop Curry. Redick can’t stop Klay. Draymond Green has his way. Harrison Barnes can guard any position. Austin Rivers is inadequate against Shaun Livingston. To be fair, the Clippers have been close in their games with the Warriors and have led late, but they can’t get the rebound they need.

Rebounding is the one Clippers curse. 23 teams rebound the ball better than the Clippers including the lottery bound Nets, Pelicans, Magic, Kings, Suns, Nuggets and Bulls. No rebounds, no rings is the famous Pat Riley phrase the Clippers don’t take to heart. After DeAndre Jordan, there isn’t much there. Which makes the Chris Paul failure argument seem even more petty. Players don’t win on their own. Kobe had Shaq and Pau. LeBron had Wade and Bosh. Duncan had Ginobli and Parker. Perhaps, just maybe, Blake and DeAndre are the problem, not Chris Paul.

But it’s Chris Paul who willingly takes on all the blame. This post-season, barring a Warriors fatigue epidemic, will feel familiar to the Clippers as they’ll lose in the second round in six games. Then its the chess game and how to figure out what to do for next year, how to beat the Warriors.  Or, how to land Kevin Durant.

 

photo via llananba