LOS ANGELES -- Chris Paul was able to look around the room this time.
The blank stare that had come over his face after his nightmarish final seconds in Game 5 had been replaced by the angry glare that comes with an early vacation he has become all too familiar with in his nine seasons in the NBA.
As Paul faces a long offseason with more questions than he cares to answer about the team to which he has committed at least the next three years of his career, he will enter his 10th season in the league having never made it past the second round of the playoffs after the Los Angeles Clippers were eliminated by the Oklahoma City Thunder 104-98 in Thursday’s Game 6 of the Western Conference semifinals.
Paul took the loss particularly hard. He blamed himself for the team’s collapse in Game 5 after two crucial turnovers and a foul helped give the Thunder an improbable comeback victory. He also put the blame on his shoulders for the Clippers’ inability to hold a 16-point first-half lead in an elimination game at home.
He tried his best to hold back tears as he said goodbye to his teammates for the last time this season in the locker room. Paul has been around long enough to know he can’t take playing on teams this talented, and for a coach like Doc Rivers, for granted. This was his best shot at winning a title, or at least getting to his first conference final, and it ended at the same stop it had in the past.
“It's tough,” Paul said. “You don't get a chance to be on teams like this that often, you know. Oklahoma City absolutely deserves it. We had a really, really good team, a great team. Before the game, Doc talked about it. I told somebody at halftime: It's crazy -- you play all season long, and the last few games we really started to figure out who our team was and how to play. And it's crazy that it's over. Man, we really do have a great team, a collective group of players. It's tough to realize that it's over again.”
The sting of this loss, however, was compounded by more off-the-court drama than any one team should ever have to deal with. It began three weeks ago when TMZ released a racist rant by Donald Sterling, which led to the league to ban the Clippers owner for life and begin the process of forcing him to sell the team.
It’s a story that continues to grow and change every day, completely overshadowing the greatest season in Clippers history and muddying the waters of what could be a bright future.
It’s a harsh reality that Paul wasn’t ready or willing to face in the immediate aftermath of Thursday’s loss.
“To tell you the truth, we don’t think about that,” Paul said. “The least of our worries is him. We just lost the damn series. I’m sorry, but we don’t care about that. That’s the last thing on our minds. We give him too much attention as it is.”
Paul’s teammates consoled him on the bus ride to the airport after Tuesday’s loss and called him and texted him after the team got back to Los Angeles. Paul is the leader of the team, but his fellow Clippers could tell that he was in need of something more than a pat on the back after what he called the worst loss of his basketball career.
“It’s probably the toughest thing basketball-wise that I’ve ever been through,” said Paul, who had 25 points and 11 assists Thursday. “I don’t know. It felt like the only way I could get it out of my mind was to play again. I got a great group of teammates that texted me all night last night and yesterday -- and it’s going to hurt for a while because we should have been here up 3-2 with a chance to close it out. It’s a long summer, I can tell you that much.”
Despite being regarded as the best point guard in basketball and one of the top five players in the league, Paul has mostly gotten a pass when it comes to his postseason résumé. While it appears to be championship-or-bust for the likes of LeBron James and Kevin Durant, Paul has been able to distinguish himself as one of the game’s greats despite never making it past the second round.
That was largely because he never had a championship coach or a championship supporting cast worthy of going further than he took them. That all changed this season, and so will the criticism that will come his way after this loss. He has a championship coach in Rivers. He has a supporting cast that includes Blake Griffin, who finished third in this season's MVP voting, DeAndre Jordan, who finished third in defensive player of the year voting, and Jamal Crawford, who won sixth man of the year.
Paul will turn 30 next year and fully realizes that talking about growth after an early exit in the playoffs is no longer acceptable.
“I'm going to prepare every offseason like I always do,” Paul said. “This ain't tennis. It ain't just me. We don't play one-on-one. 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 finals, for the Western Conference finals. That's not enough.”
Rivers wasn’t ready to talk about Paul’s legacy after the game, focusing on this as Paul’s first missed opportunity at a title but certainly not his last chance.
“It's just this time, as far as I'm concerned,” Rivers said. “I don't look at it as another time for them. We got out of the first round, advanced. We had a chance in this series, clearly. I just feel awful for him. Just point-blank, I do. He's the spirit of our team. Right now his spirit is broken. He's going to have all summer to work and get ready for next year, but he'll be back. He'll be ready. He'll be better next year.”
Rivers believes the Clippers finally found themselves at the end of a roller-coaster season that played out like a dysfunctional reality show on national television the past three weeks.
“I think we started coming together, but time ran out,” Rivers said. “I was around Coach K [Mike Krzyzewski] a lot and Duke basketball. You know exactly what Duke basketball is because he's been there forever. Early in the year, I heard 'Clipper basketball,' I was like, ‘What the hell is that?’ We're trying to figure out what that is. I thought during this playoff series, we started figuring out exactly like what Clipper basketball is and will be. I just kept thinking, ‘Man, if we can get through a couple more games, we're there.’ You can feel it. And time ran out. That's the tough part.”
Time ran out on the Clippers’ season late Thursday night, but if they can survive what is sure to be an eventful offseason, at least off the court, perhaps they will finally be able to showcase what Clippers basketball is, and will be, on the court.