CLIPPERS

Chris Paul faces critical situation with Clippers in NBA playoffs

Clippers All-Star Chris Paul hasn't advanced past the second round of the playoffs

Disappointment found Chris Paul long before those early NBA playoff exits.

He was so worked up in his first game as a varsity high school point guard after two years on the junior varsity that he cried after his team lost its opener.

"I've had guys cry in the locker room after a last game," said David Laton, who coached Paul at West Forsyth High in Clemmons, N.C., "but not ever the first game."

The next day Paul went from tears to teardrops, making floaters and flinging passes that were so good his teammates needed several games to adjust to the advanced playmaking. It was back to basketball for someone who needs nothing more to motivate himself than having a ball in his hands and hardwood under his feet.

Not that others haven't tried to provoke Paul throughout his decade in the NBA.

ESPN's Skip Bayless said the Clippers veteran wasn't a superstar and called him "CP Zero Rings," a somewhat tasteless take on his CP3 nickname. Others have also disparaged him for never making it past the second round of the playoffs, getting that far only once with the New Orleans Hornets and twice with the Clippers.

When it comes to the criticism, bring it on, because Paul doesn't seem to care.

"It's not a secret," Paul said of his lack of playoff success. "I'm funny, man. I'm one of those people, I don't need anything to drive me. I'm going to play regardless. Win it, lose it, say I'm the best, say I'm the worst, I'm going to play."

The Clippers wouldn't want anyone else orchestrating their offense as they open the playoffs Sunday night at Staples Center against the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs. Paul has a higher career player efficiency rating than those of Hall of Famers Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson and a competitive streak rivaled by few in NBA history.

When Paul met with reporters Thursday, sweat ran down his face in streaks and his T-shirt was drenched. Nothing unusual about that, except for the fact it was before the start of practice.

Lakers Coach Byron Scott ranked Paul among the five most competitive players he had ever coached or played alongside — a group that also includes Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, James Worthy, Kobe Bryant and Jason Kidd.

"It's a certain makeup that most guys have that are great players that don't like losing," said Scott, who coached Paul for parts of five seasons in New Orleans. "They just have it, and C.P. is one of those guys."

C.J. Paul has a pretty good idea what makes his younger brother that way. He used to pummel Chris in basketball, board games, golf and bowling, triggering that trademark scowl and a determination to win the next matchup.

Chris wanted to win so badly when he ran for class president in high school that he and C.J. would give away Krispy Kreme doughnuts to fellow students on election day. Chris was class president all four years.

"It definitely comes from him being small growing up," C.J. Paul said of his sibling's competitiveness. "If you think about it, at every level he's played at he's been small. In college he was a small guard and at this level he's small. Everyone has doubted him and told him he's short and he couldn't do it."

Chris grew five inches the summer between his sophomore and junior years of high school, finally nearing 6 feet. By the time he was a senior, he was dunking in games.

And that dynamic of the big brother dominating the little one? Pretty much over.

"He took his lumps," said C.J., who went on to play college basketball at Hampton and South Carolina Upstate, "but then once he kind of grew bigger than I was, then he started delivering it back to me."

C.J. wasn't the only one. After starring for two seasons at Wake Forest, the 6-footer became an All-Star in his third NBA season, an honor he has earned every year since. Hall of Famer and TNT analyst Charles Barkley said this week he considered Paul and Spurs counterpart Tony Parker the top point guards in the NBA over the last five seasons, while labeling Paul the best leader in the league.

But then there's that whole not-getting-past-the-second-round thing. Paul came closest with New Orleans, holding a three-games-to-two lead over the Spurs in the 2008 Western Conference semifinals.

"When we went into Game 6," Scott recalled, "I wanted us to really try and get it done that night because I knew San Antonio had more experience than we did going into a Game 7, so I knew they would be a little bit more ready and we just came out and were a little tentative because we hadn't been there before."

San Antonio won the final two games, overcoming an 18-point, 14-assist, five-steal performance from Paul in Game 7. The Spurs also swept Paul in the conference semifinals in 2012, his first season with the Clippers.

That defeat couldn't have possibly stung as much as the Clippers' loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the second round last season. With the series tied at two games apiece and the Clippers holding a two-point lead with 17.8 seconds left in Game 5, Paul bungled three plays as part of his team's seven-point collapse in the final minute.

He made a turnover after jumping into the air, expecting to be fouled but instead having the ball stripped; he fouled Russell Westbrook on a three-point attempt, the resulting free throws giving the Thunder a one-point lead; and he lost the ball with less than a second to play, preventing the Clippers from getting off one last shot.

The Clippers lost the game and the series two days later. Paul took full responsibility for what he called the worst moment of his basketball life.

"After that game, it was hard for him because he knew it was pretty much his fault and he felt like that was a chance for him to go to the next level," C.J. Paul said. "We live and learn and I think he's learned from that and I think he will be a better player for that. But I don't think that drives him."

Paul will turn 30 early next month. His legacy should already be secure considering all those All-Star games and the fact that he won Olympic gold medals in 2008 and 2012.

There's also the matter of probably having at least five more NBA seasons in front of him.

"I don't understand why anybody's talking about anybody's legacy when they're 30," Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said. "I've never figured that one out. Legacies, you talk about them after everything's done. You can't worry about in the middle of it what you have to do to make a better legacy. It's silly talk to me."

The businesslike Paul rarely cracks a smile, though he does get the last laugh on occasion. North Forsyth High, the team that handed Paul that defeat early in his junior year and went on to beat West Forsyth again, met Paul's team a third time in the state playoffs.

Paul scored 28 points and forced a turnover in the final seconds to help his team win.

Of course, the past doesn't seem much of a motivator to someone who always tries to live in the present.

"I want to win now because this is what's at hand," Paul said. "It's about right now."

ben.bolch@latimes.com

Twitter: @latbbolch

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