LOS ANGELES -- In a city where imitation isn’t so much a form of flattery but simply par for the course, it made sense that Chris Paul would sport the same clear protective mask Kobe Bryant has made famous during the past two weeks.
Much like Prada shoes, Gucci bags and Louis Vuitton purses, you can just imagine clear masks sprouting up all over Rodeo Drive in the coming days.
Until the Clippers learn how to win close games, however, Paul’s mask and the rest of the Clippers will always be viewed as knockoffs in this town.
While Bryant and his mask are 4-0 at Staples Center, Paul’s mask debuted with a 97-93 loss to the Golden State Warriors on Sunday night. The Clippers are now 4-7 in their last 11 games and haven’t won back-to-back games in a month.
The Clippers will wake up Monday morning for the first time since the first week of the season and find themselves in second place in the Pacific Division behind the Lakers. It has been a familiar reality for the Clippers for the past 30 years but it wasn’t supposed to be that way this season.
This season was supposed to be different because Paul was supposed to be different. The Clippers have never had a player like him, and through the first 28 games, things were different. The Clippers were 19-9. They had come back from double-digit deficits consistently and found ways to win in buildings they hadn’t won in since Clinton or Bush were in the White House.
Those days seem like a distant memory inside the Clippers' locker room right now. As Paul sat in front of his locker after Sunday’s loss to Golden State, he tried to search for ways to describe how the Clippers fell behind by 21 points in the third quarter to a 17-20 team not in the playoff hunt.
“We dug ourselves our own hole and we have to come out and do better,” Paul said. “We were giving them wide-open shots. At some point you can’t hope they miss; you have to make them miss.”
Paul was forced to wear a protective mask for the first time in his career after suffering a nasal fracture against the San Antonio Spurs on Friday night. It was clear from the beginning of the game, Paul wanted to take it off and throw it into the third row behind the team bench.
He kept messing around with it early in the game. He fiddled with it in between plays, touched it during plays and completely took it off during longer stoppages in play.
“It’s different,” Paul said. “It doesn’t inhibit me but it feels different.”
Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan teased Paul about the mask before the game but it was really the Clippers' starters who made fools of themselves in the first quarter. Warriors forward Dorrell Wright scored as many points as the entire Clippers team in the opening period (16) and Jordan and Caron Butler finished the game with a total of five points. In fact, Butler finished 0-for-6 from the field in the game for the second time in a week.
“Our starters have to do a better job with their intensity to start the game off,” Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro said. “You saw the difference in the second half compared to the first half. In the second half we got out and ran the ball and some easy baskets. They had their way with us in the first quarter, moving the basketball. They set the tone for the game.”
Butler and Jordan didn’t even see the court in the fourth quarter after being taken out midway through the third, when the Clippers made their comeback behind the play of Reggie Evans, who finished with 11 points and 12 rebounds, and Eric Bledsoe, who finished with four steals, three assists, two points and helped set up one big play after another during the Clippers’ late run.
“We just need to be aggressive and have fun every time we step on the court,” Evans said. “We’ve been on the road so long. We need to make the best of these situations and take advantage of being at home.”
As has been the case since Chauncey Billups was lost for the season last month in Orlando, the Clippers’ comeback fell short as the Clippers fell apart late. They have lost their last four games by a combined nine points and are now 8-8 in games decided by five points or less.
“It something we’re trying to figure out,” Griffin said. “If we knew it would be easier. It’s one of those things where we talk about it and we’re just flat a lot.”
The Clippers will now be at home for their next five games in seven days during a month in which they'll play 20 games in 31 days. It was viewed as a make-or-break month for the Clippers before it began and as the foundation of what they built early in the season slowly crumbles, Paul, broken nose and all, is hoping his teammates realize the importance of the situation.
“We have to play with more of a sense of urgency,” Paul said. “Not just playing hard and playing fast and aggressive, but we have to play smart. It’s a combination of all that in order to be successful.”