A hand on the arm of Russell Westbrook. A forearm to the groin of Nick Collison.
Chris Paul’s latest playoff run will be remembered as one painful slap to the forehead, two plays encapsulating another spring that turned into Sob City.
The criticism will start anew after the Clippers playmaker delivered more heartache during his team’s season-ending 104-98 loss to Oklahoma City in Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals Thursday night at Staples Center.
Paul finished with 25 points and 11 assists but will be recalled mostly for the offensive foul with 3 minutes 35 seconds left that probably sealed the Clippers’ fate.
With the crowd buzzing and the Clippers in the midst of one more crazy comeback, Paul drove toward the basket and passed to DeAndre Jordan for a dunk that appeared to shave the Clippers’ deficit to five points.
The crowd went crazy.
The whistle blew.
The basket didn’t count.
Paul had picked up a foul for hitting Collison in the midsection with a forearm, and you could almost feel the old negativity bubbling up that Paul isn’t a big-game player, that the deeper his team goes into the playoffs, the more he falters.
“It’s crazy that it’s over,” a somber Paul said afterward.
He has not advanced to the conference finals in nine NBA seasons. He has made the conference semifinals three times.
“I just feel awful for him, point-blank I do,” Clippers Coach Doc Rivers said. “He’s the spirit of our team and right now his spirit is broken.”
Paul’s uneven fourth quarter will not do anything to quiet the detractors. He reentered the game with 8:34 left and the Clippers trailing by four points. He made a pull-up jumper at the free-throw line to tie the score before things went haywire, with a series of defensive breakdowns helping the Thunder reel off the next 10 points.
Paul came back with a scoop layup and a floater before he turned over the ball near the Clippers’ basket on a bad pass with his team trailing by seven points.
It got worse when Paul fouled Collison as the Thunder forward leaped into the air to defend him. Paul then missed a three-pointer, things fully unraveling as the Thunder stretched its lead to double digits. Even a three-point play by Paul on a continuation layup with 1:49 left was not enough to trigger another miracle finish.
The night had started with promise, Rivers saying before the game that Paul had finally moved past his epic fourth-quarter meltdown in Game 5. Paul committed two turnovers and fouled Westbrook on a three-pointer to help the Thunder rally from a seven-point deficit in the final 49 seconds.
“That’s going to hurt for a while because we should have been here up 3-2 with a chance to close it out,” Paul said after Game 6. “It’s a long summer, I’ll tell you that much.”
Paul’s erratic shooting stretched almost from start to finish, though he kept his composure on one amazing sequence after a missed layup in the third quarter. As Paul was falling toward the court, he snatched the rebound in midair and flung it off Serge Ibaka, who was lying out of bounds.
Westbrook, Paul’s counterpart, endured his own shooting struggles, finally making his first basket with 3:47 left in the third quarter. But it was an especially brutal quarter for Paul, who made two of seven shots and lost the ball on another drive to the basket, resulting in a Reggie Jackson dunk in transition that helped the Thunder tie the score heading into the fourth quarter.
It was a prelude to an even worse ending for Paul and the Clippers, with the disparagement already beginning in a postgame media conference in which Paul was asked about his inability to get out of the second round of the playoffs.
“I prepare every off-season like I always do,” Paul said. “It’s not just to get out of the second round. It’s to win a championship. I don’t know anybody in our league that plays for the Western Conference finals. That’s not enough.”