OAKLAND, Calif. --Chris Paul's fourth-quarter moment almost never happened.
Doc Rivers had seen enough. He knew Paul was battling an injured right hamstring, and to compound matters was battling a 100-degree fever the past two days. If this were not a playoff game, Paul wouldn't have played, but it was so he started, though Rivers had made up his mind that he wouldn't finish it.
"I was going to take him out," the Los Angeles Clippers coach said. "I think it was in the middle of the third. I saw him grab his leg twice. I had actually gotten up to call for DC [Darren Collison] right before he picked up that fourth foul. It was late in the third. I just told our trainer, 'I think, that's it' because you could see him. He was laboring. He kept grabbing the back of his leg."
When Paul came to the bench, he implored his coach to keep him in the game. "I'm good," he said. "Just trust me. Please trust me."
As Rivers has done time and again this season, he went against his gut instinct and trusted his point guard.
"He was good," Rivers said. "He's just a tough kid, a tough, tough kid."
Rivers was comfortable taking Paul out, not only because he was laboring, but because the Clippers were up by 18 points midway through the third quarter. If the Clippers could close out the game while Paul rested it would be a win-win situation, but it quickly became evident the Clippers wouldn't be able to win without Paul after the Golden State Warriors went on a 10-0 run and cut the Clippers' lead to eight before the end of the third.
"Very, very," Rivers said when asked how close he came to sitting Paul down for the rest of the game. "I mean, in some ways I had decided to, and the way the game was going, JP [Jasen Powell], the trainer, told me, 'No, he's good. You can put him back in.' That's what allowed me to put him back in."
Paul had 15 points and 10 assists in the game, but he had a team-high 10 points in the fourth quarter. With the Clippers clinging to a three-point lead late in the game, Paul grabbed a rebound off a Klay Thompson potential tying 3-point attempt and hit a 17-foot pull-up jumper in transition. He followed that up with another 3-pointer that gave the Clippers a 94-86 lead with 2:40 left and added three more points from the free throw line as the Clippers won 98-96.
But when the game was over, no one in the Clippers' locker room was talking about Paul's offense. The focus was entirely on his defense at the end of the game as he contested Stephen Curry's step-back 3-pointer for the win and forced a miss. It was solid on-ball defense that also looked like a possible foul but nothing was called.
"I think it was a great play," Rivers said. "I think Steph just jumped up into him to try to draw the foul. I don't think the ref's going to bail anybody out on that play."
After the game, as Paul looked down at the final box score, he was concerned only with the fact that Curry missed the shot rather than debating whether there was a foul.
"I knew who was getting it, and I figured he was going to shoot it," Paul said. "So I just tried to make him as uncomfortable as possible and we won the game."
It's no surprise that Paul had Curry for the final shot. He didn't have to ask for him in the huddle. It was just assumed. Paul defended Curry and Thompson at various points Thursday and was a big reason the Warriors shot 6-for-31 from beyond the arc.
"Well, he's had him all year," Rivers said. "Yeah, Chris Paul, and I've said it all year, he always guards the best guy. He doesn't hide. Every night he's guarding the point guard on the other team, and that's what he does. Chris Paul, he's a phenomenal defender. I think we all know that."
Against the Warriors, Paul has taken on more of a defensive role. With Blake Griffin being the focal point of the offense -- he had 32 points Thursday -- Paul is able to pick and choose his spots rather than force the issue on offense. It was a role Paul embraced before the series began.
"I told the guys in the locker room I sort of feel like Tony Allen trying to be a defensive stopper," Paul said. "Like going into the game, that's my focus. It's not how many shots I can get up, how many points I'm going to score. It's all about defense and trying to make things tough and slow them down."
Paul's role on the team changed when he was sidelined because of a separated right shoulder earlier this season, and Griffin vaulted himself into the MVP conversation. Not only did Griffin show everyone what he could do, he also showed Paul, too. He realized he needed Griffin to play that way when he returned if they were going to have any chance to win it all.
"I tell [Blake] all through the game, like, 'B, you've got to go,'" Paul said. "It's fun. Like it's fun when you play, defense is fun. When you can stop guys and not let them get going because that is the way that we're winning right now. It's not our offense, because that's going to take care of itself, but having a guy like BG who can just keep going on the offensive end is big for us. You know, different games, different series call for different things. But that's what we have to do right now."
Paul walked with a slight limp as he left Oracle Arena on Thursday night, but he wasn’t trying to make excuses or trying to find sympathy for his injury or illness. All he wanted was to come away with a win.
"You just try to find a way," Paul said. "Nobody cares about your hamstring. Nobody cares if you're sick or anything like that. You just try to find a way to win. I knew we had two days in between games, so you just leave it all out there. You play to win by any means necessary, I guess."