Chris Paul could barely walk but carries Clippers to Game 7 win

Chris Paul, through sheer will after injuring hamstring, carries the Clippers and makes clutch shot in Game 7

One more time, Chris Paul hobbled to the basket and attempted to leap. One more time, he grimaced through the pain and fell toward the floor and threw the ball toward the glass.

One more time, for all the times they said he wasn't tough enough. One more time, for all the times they said his team wasn't clutch enough.

It was one of the ugliest shots of the game. It was arguably the most beautiful shot in Clippers history.

As it banked through the rim with one second remaining Sunday afternoon, not only did an upstart team's narrative change, but, surely, so did its fans' favorite chant.


With one tick left in one of the greatest NBA playoff series in Los Angeles history, Paul hit a bank shot to complete one of the city's greatest individual playoff games, giving the Clippers an 111-109 victory over the defending NBA champion San Antonio Spurs in Game 7 of a first round that felt like a Finals.

"A series for the ages,'' said Clippers Coach Doc Rivers.

For Paul, the Clippers leader who could barely walk yet somehow carried them, it was a game that defined a career.

"I don't know," Paul said, his voice filled with the same wonder that fueled the Staples Center-shaking roars. "I came back.''

First, he limped off. It was late in the first quarter. Paul stole the ball from the Spurs' Boris Diaw, began running downcourt, then grabbed the back of his left leg. With 1:52 left in the quarter, he hobbled off the court and apparently into the sordid history of the Clippers curse.

He had suffered a strained left hamstring. After not missing a single game this season, he was going to miss most of the biggest one. He was in such pain, he buried his face in his hands on the bench. He appeared to be crying. He was led to the locker room.

"I didn't know, that's why I went to the back," Paul said. "I've hurt my hamstring before, and a couple of times I couldn't come back.''

His injury was so serious the team announced his return was questionable. That statement appeared just about the same time he walked back on to the court midway through the second quarter.

Paul entered the game with 6:27 left in the quarter, and immediately it was obvious he was playing on one leg. He bounced. He swayed. He slipped. He walked up to Blake Griffin and pounded on his chest for inspiration. Griffin met him with a question.

"Man, can you do anything?'' Griffin asked

"We'll see,'' Paul said.

Oh, we saw. Did we ever. We saw what was arguably the best Game 7 performance in the history of Staples Center, Lakers or Clippers or anybody. We saw one of the greatest, gutsiest big-game performances by any NBA player in this town ever.

We saw, and now we wonder, will he still get booed at Dodger Stadium?

"It was unbelievable,'' said Griffin. "The way he played. His spirit. His resolve. I don't have a word to describe it.''

Here's what he did after injuring his hamstring: He made seven of 10 shots. He had three assists. He somehow, amazingly, grabbed two rebounds.

He made what was, at the time, perhaps the most compelling shot of his career at the end of the third quarter when he hobbled downcourt and launched a 37-foot shot that banked into the basket for a 79-78 Clippers lead.

The building rocked. His teammates looked to the sky as if witnessing something from another world. Yet it turns out, that was only an appetizer.

"He's just a tough kid. That's it. Tough,'' said Rivers. "He's a street fighter. I mean, he really is. I love him to death because of his will.''

With the Spurs leading by five points with 5:30 left in the game and threatening to close it out, that toughness showed after one of Paul's misses. The Spurs' Tony Parker grabbed the rebound, but Paul wrestled it away and the ball wound up in Griffin's hands, leading to two free throws.

"When I came back, Blake kept asking me if I was all right, and I thought about our team and all the things we've been through … so I just tried to find a way,'' Paul said.

With the Clippers holding the ball with 8.8 seconds left and the score tied, that way led directly down the right side of the lane. Even barely upright, Paul had decided that nobody was going to touch the ball but him. Even with the Spurs' Danny Green in his face, and Tim Duncan charging from under the basket, Paul decided he would take the most important shot in franchise history.

You're not going to believe this, but earlier in the day during their shootaround, Paul and Griffin and Rivers actually discussed that shot.

"It's crazy,'' Paul said. "We talked about if we get down into a last-second shot what we wanted to do. We'd been in that situation a lot of times already this year and most of the time I hadn't made it, to tell you the truth.''

Not this time, one time for the critics, one time for the ages.

"Finally it worked when we needed it,'' said Paul.

After he made the shot, instead of hobbling into the arms of his teammates, Paul limped to midcourt while staring up at the scoreboard and soaking it in. Then, with one second remaining, he finally retired to the bench, where he buried his head in his towel and cried. When the game ended, further cementing his status as an all-time Clipper, Paul immediately sought out and hugged — who else? — Billy Crystal.

And now, after a fight that should have been the main event on the Saturday's Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Manny Pacquiao card, after a race that left the contestants more dirt-stained and breathless than those in the Saturday's Kentucky Derby, the Clippers advance to the second round.

It's a series that, while it won't be as symbolic as this one, could bring much more substance to the Clippers history books. It's a series that, if they win, could put them in the Western Conference final for the first time. It's a series for which Paul will certainly remain hobbled, although nobody knows how much.

Who are they playing again?

Twitter: @billplaschke

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