Chris Paul won't forget 'worst play'
Clippers guard's uncharacteristic turnover late stings after overtime loss to Spurs
LOS ANGELES -- Chris Paul was as confused as everyone else.
As he sat in front of his locker, trying to search for words to describe what he called the worst play of his career, he was still unsure how one of the most bizarre finishes to a game, at least in regulation, happened.
The plan was simple. The Los Angeles Clippers had possession of the ball and a 95-92 lead on the San Antonio Spurs with 9.5 seconds left. Ryan Gomes was supposed to inbound the ball to a cutting Paul in the backcourt and Paul was supposed to dribble the ball around until he got fouled and presumably clinched the game at the free throw line.
A cutting Paul, however, got the ball from Gomes in the frontcourt, and as his momentum carried him toward the backcourt he jumped in the air and inexplicably passed the ball to a wide-open Gary Neal, who buried the tying 3-pointer for San Antonio.
Paul's desperation attempts at a winning shot in regulation and a tying shot in overtime both rimmed out as the Spurs won 103-100.
After the game, Paul had as many questions for himself as the reporters surrounding his locker did.
"I want to see it," Paul said. "I haven't had a chance to see a replay. I want to see it and I want to learn from it. I've never been in that situation before where I had to make that quick of a decision. I want to see it. I want to see what I was thinking. Everything happened so fast and I was running so fast. I didn't know what to do."
Paul says he can still envision where all the players were lined up before the play. He says he knew exactly where Neal was, where he wanted to catch the ball and where he was going to dribble before he got fouled.
"When we walked out onto the court, I think everything out so as I'm standing in the back and I look down at Gary Neal to see if I go into the backcourt will he try to jump me," Paul said. "I'm trying to see if I should go in the backcourt or stay in the frontcourt because I don't know if the guy on the ball will switch onto me so I just ran as fast I could to make sure I got the ball."
Where he draws a blank is after catching Gomes' pass and jumping in the air before he went into the backcourt. There are any number of decisions he wishes he could have made other than passing the ball to a wide-open Neal. Even throwing the ball 10 rows into the crowd seems like a good option now in comparison.
"I didn't even see who that was that I threw it to," Paul said. "I didn't know if it was Caron [Butler] or someone else. Hindsight 20/20 I would have thrown the ball out of bounds. I would have done anything but what I did. I was just so shocked I was about to go backcourt. That's probably the worst play I've made in my career."
The worst play in Paul's career and the most heartbreaking loss of the Clippers' season essentially happened simultaneously over a three-second stretch Saturday afternoon. The Clippers went from overtaking San Antonio for the No. 2 playoff seed in the Western Conference to remaining third and losing a possible tiebreaker between the two teams after dropping the first two meetings against San Antonio.
"We win and everybody says we played well," Paul said. "That story changed that quick, didn't it? You all were probably writing about it. It changed that quick. That's sports right there. I'll take this loss. It's all on me. I should have made a [better] decision with the ball."
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Gomes took just as much blame for the play as Paul did for inbounding the ball to Paul before he was in the backcourt.
"I thought I had a good enough view, but it was a bad turnover on my part," Gomes said. "I'll do better next time. I'll take the blame."
It was an auspicious end to the game for Neal, who had fumbled away the ball on the previous play before making the tying 3-pointer and adding another 3-pointer in overtime to seal the game.
"First of all, I wanted to strangle him because I didn't know what happened [when Neal lost the ball]," Spurs guard Tony Parker said. "But that can happen to anyone and we kept playing and that is the image of this team."
The Clippers have been trying to change the image of their team this season, hoping it can one day resemble the Spurs' model of consistency since 1999. It has been the goal of Clippers coach Vinny Del Negro, who played six seasons in San Antonio and still calls Spurs coach Gregg Popovich regularly. He knows better than anyone, however, that what the Spurs have now wasn't built overnight.
"They've seen it all, you got to beat them, they're not going to beat themselves," Del Negro said. "We've been together two months. They've been together 10 years. We have a lot of work to do and we have to be able to execute better down the stretch."
Despite the disparity in time spent together, the Clippers were still one good pass, one good catch and one good free throw away from beating a Spurs team that has now won 10 games in a row. It's a fact Paul knows he will continue to be reminded of when he turns on his television this week.
"That's probably going to be 'SportsCenter' top 10 dumbest plays of the week," Paul said. "I pride myself on executing in those situations. I don't think it will ever happen again."
Arash Markazi is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com.