Tim Duncan wandered the court after it was over, patting Blake Griffin on the chest and cradling Chris Paul’s head tenderly with one of his massive hands.
It was a show of respect from one superstar on his way to the Hall of Fame to two others who had just taken a significant initial step toward their first NBA title. Paul lingered for a few more moments, engaging in a group hug with teammates before stopping along the baseline to wrap his brother, C.J., in a long embrace.
The Clippers finally got their happy ending on their home court Saturday night at Staples Center.
It came after they gutted out a 111-109 victory over the San Antonio Spurs in Game 7 of an epic first-round playoff series thanks to a performance for the ages by a hobbled Paul and an infusion of energy from the long-maligned Matt Barnes.
Paul, who missed nearly half of the second quarter after straining his left hamstring and limped the rest of the game, drove on the Spurs’ Danny Green and got just enough separation to bank in a nine-foot running jumper over the outstretched arm of Duncan to give the Clippers a two-point lead with one second left.
Clippers owner Steve Ballmer did a jig in front of his seat and exchanged celebratory hugs, but the game wasn’t over.
After a timeout and a prematurely sounding horn that irritated San Antonio Coach Gregg Popovich, the Spurs’ Boris Diaw threw an inbounds lob intended for Kawhi Leonard. But Barnes leaped and knocked the ball away, ending the repeat bid of the defending NBA champions and propelling his team to the conference semifinals against the Houston Rockets.
“Down the stretch our team has a thing that we say, what [Coach] Doc [Rivers] said, ‘Don’t let go of the rope,’” said Paul, who had been knocked out of the playoffs twice in previous seasons by the Spurs. “At any time we could have let go of the rope and just thought, it’s these guys, we fought hard and we could have just conceded, but we kept fighting and guys made plays in order to win.”
Paul played with characteristic poise despite his injury, collecting 27 points on nine-for-13 shooting — including five for six from three-point range — to go with six assists in 37 challenging minutes. Rivers said he was unsure if his point guard could play in the opener Monday in Houston.
“I know my grandmother back in North Carolina is praying right now,” Paul said.
The Clippers prevailed after trailing by as many as five points in a fourth quarter that featured one high-end play after another. Barnes made a straightaway three-pointer to tie the score at 105 with just over two minutes left, but the Spurs retook the lead after the Clippers failed to box out Tony Parker and he made a tip-in.
The Clippers’ Jamal Crawford tied the score again on a layup and Leonard missed a jumper before Duncan fouled Paul on a jumper with 13.3 seconds left. Paul made both free throws but the Clippers’ J.J. Redick fouled Duncan on a drive to the basket and Duncan made both of his free throws to tie the score with 8.8 seconds left.
Then Paul made his running bank shot, erasing the pain of two finishes gone awry for the Clippers on their home court earlier in the series.
“We’ve 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,” Paul said. “We talked about it, and finally it worked when we needed it.”
Griffin logged his second triple-double of the series with 24 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists and Barnes, often the subject of fans’ ire as what they perceive as an underwhelming option at small forward, finished with 17 points, five rebounds, two steals and two blocks.
Duncan tallied 27 points and 11 rebounds for the Spurs, who face a bevy of off-season questions with the futures of Duncan, Popovich and Manu Ginobili all undecided.
“I’m not going to make any statements,” Duncan said.
Paul clutched his left hamstring and fans held their breath late in the first quarter as Paul trudged to the locker room. But enough of his teammates stepped up in his absence to keep the Clippers afloat. Crawford had three assists to go with 16 points and forward Glen Davis provided six points and three rebounds in 10 energetic minutes after admitting before the game that his sprained left ankle was still painful.
“It’s Game 7,” Davis said.
Popovich, who has coached the Spurs to five NBA championships, seemed like the only one who was treating it like no biggie in the hours before the game.
“In this situation, either one of us goes to Houston or one of us goes on vacation,” Popovich said. “We’d each rather go to Houston, but vacation’s not terrible. A lot of people have it a whole lot tougher than us.
“If those are your two choices in life, you should shut up and live.”
Paul and the Clippers did just that, surviving for at least four more games after what might have been the toughest test of their playoff lives.