The camera pans to Chris Paul and he smirks on cue, as if he’s been perfecting his expression far longer than a couple of takes.
Later, wearing the argyle sweater, glasses and mustache of an imaginary twin, the Clippers point guard strolls across a set and nimbly swings his arms in mid-stride to answer a phone, his timing impeccable.
Watching Paul navigate a shoot for his new State Farm commercials earlier this week inside a sweltering studio in Burbank, it quickly becomes apparent he wasn’t just born to assist, to borrow the catchphrase from the advertising campaign.
He’s also a natural on stage.
“He wants to do everything well,” Stephen Curry, the Golden State Warriors star and fellow cast member of an ad campaign that will debut on Christmas, said of Paul’s perfectionist mentality.
If Paul bungled his lines or otherwise stumbled on set, he would get as many do-overs as he needed.
Paul can only wish he were granted a similar luxury during the Clippers’ loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder last spring in the Western Conference semifinals. With his team leading by two points and 17.8 seconds left in Game 5, Paul committed what Shakespeare might describe as a comedy of errors, though there was nothing lighthearted about the sequence from the Clippers’ perspective.
Paul made a turnover in the backcourt 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, precluding his team from getting off a final shot.
It was all part of the Clippers’ blowing a seven-point lead in the final 49.2 seconds of Game 5 that sent the Clippers back to Staples Center facing an elimination game that they lost to end their season. Paul was so devastated he cried in the locker room afterward.
Four months later, the emotional fallout lingers.
“It would be lying to you to say I’d forgotten about it,” Paul said during a break on set. “It’s one of those things that I don’t want to forget, to tell you the truth. I think for me, I feel like you have to remember things like that and therefore you don’t want that feeling again. I know I don’t.”
Paul wouldn’t go as far as to say the Clippers would use their Game 5 meltdown as inspiration a la the newly crowned NBA champion San Antonio Spurs, who suffered a similar playoff implosion in the 2013 Finals against the Miami Heat.
“I don’t know,” Paul said when asked if he saw any potential similarities between the situations. “I mean, the Spurs do what they do, we’ve got to do what we do. I think for us, it’s all about coming into training camp being ready to go.”
Paul said he was fully recharged after a summer in which he sat out Team USA’s trip to Spain for the FIBA Basketball World Cup, preferring to spend time with family and help with a variety of youth camps and tournaments.
He got to hear all about his country’s gold-medal exploits from Curry, who was on set less than 24 hours after helping the U.S. rout Serbia in the championship game. “I’m on an adrenaline high,” Curry said. “We won a gold medal, so I don’t have any time to be tired.”
Curry and Paul might seem like an odd theatrical pairing given the animated rivalry between their teams that has featured technical fouls galore and a testy hallway exchange at Staples Center after the Clippers defeated the Warriors last season in the first round of the playoffs.
But the two are old pals going back several years to a basketball camp in the players’ home state of North Carolina. Paul, who is three years older than his counterpart, also helped Curry train for life as an NBA point guard during a summer of workouts prior to Curry’s rookie season.
“I saw his work ethic as he prepared for a season and he encouraged me to do the same,” Curry said. “As you get to the NBA level, it’s a whole new process. I took that advice seriously.”
Now they comprise arguably the top point guard duo in the world, Paul a seven-time All-Star and Curry one of the best shooters in league history.
On a day when the high temperature in Burbank registers 103 degrees but feels even more searing to the lungs, it’s all anyone on set can do to beat the heat. Paul’s 2-year-old daughter, Camryn Alexis, lingers in front of a fan in a production room.
It’s called show business, but there are moments when it feels more like s-l-o-w business as every conceivable detail of each take is scrutinized by the production crew. A voice crackles over a walkie-talkie, inquiring whether the actors are the right length apart at the shoulders. Scenes that appear flawless to a casual observer are shot again and again, often from different angles and at different camera widths.
Shortly after 5 p.m., there is some unscheduled drama. The generators supplying power to the studio conk out. Curry is scheduled to be finished with his portion of the shoot in about 20 minutes, which seems unlikely given that the set has gone almost completely dark.
No worries. Staying in character as an insurance agent eager to assist, Curry sticks around to finish taping. Power is restored a few minutes later and the segment resumes. Applause breaks out after the final take of the day.
Soon it will be back to basketball for two of the world’s best players, eager to perfect their games after seasons that left them wanting different outcomes. The Clippers will hold their media day Sept. 29 and open training camp the next day in Las Vegas.
“For me, that’s one thing that I’ve always been: I’m self-motivated,” Paul said. “It doesn’t matter how successful my season was or wasn’t, I’m always going to strive to be better and push myself. This summer was all about getting better and working on weaknesses.”
It was also about remembering the pain of what was, so that it might not be that way again.
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch