For the first time in three seasons, Chris Paul overshadowed Stephen Curry. Ever since Curry broke out on the national stage in 2013, Paul has become a bit of an afterthought, replaced as the league’s preeminent point guard while the Warriors quickly supplanted the Clippers as the most exhilarating team in California.
Monday night, however, Paul stole the spotlight back. And it could not have been for a worse reason.
Just more than 24 hours after Curry slipped on a wet spot near midcourt at the Toyota Center and suffered a mild MCL sprain, Paul’s innocuous reach on Gerald Henderson produced even more disastrous results, for he a fractured the third metacarpal in his right hand. While Curry’s initial two-week timetable leaves room for optimism, Paul is expected to be out for the remainder of the postseason, giving the Clippers little reason to hope.
And, as the Clippers luck would have it, Paul isn’t only causality they will have to deal with in this series. In Game 4, Blake Griffin aggravated the quad injury that kept him out for a large part of the season out for most of the season, and the team has announced he is done for the year. The cherry on top is J.J. Redick, whose bruised heel is limiting his effectiveness on the heels of the best season of his career. By the end of Game 4, the lineup the Clippers had on the floor looked like one Doc Rivers deployed in the dying days of the season when the seeds were set, and that is going to be how the Clippers look to finish this series.
This was a cruel turn for one of America’s sincerely cursed sports franchises. When the Clippers took the floor in Portland on Monday night, their oft-criticized core had never been in a better position to make the conference finals. The most optimistic timetable for Curry had him returning for Game 4 in the second round at the earliest, and Los Angeles was in a good position to take a 3-1 lead against the Blazers, a team it had dominated for two of the first three games of the series.
By the start of the fourth quarter, that narrative had been completely reversed. Suddenly, the Warriors seemed to escape the possibility of facing the Clippers, a team that consistently pushes them (in large part thanks to Paul’s fight), without Curry and instead a more favorable matchup against the Blazers had become more likely.
This was also an unbelievably traumatic twist for Paul. Paul is one of this generation’s most brilliant and accomplished players, but circumstances and happenings out of his control have robbed him of a legitimate title chance seemingly every season. He had had a fantastic regular season, perhaps his best since his first with the Clippers, navigating choppy waters without Griffin for most of the season and carrying the team to another 50-win season, no small feat for Clipper land. Most importantly, Paul was healthy for most of the year and might have played all 82 for the second straight season were it not for precautionary DNPs and the Clippers resting guys down the stretch. Another of Paul’s prime seasons going to waste because such an unlucky injury in the postseason feels so unjust.
Now that the Blazers have found an offensive rhythm and with the Clippers down their two best players, the pendulum has swung violently in Portland’s favor for the remainder of this series, and Los Angeles shutting down Griffin could easily be interpreted as the white flag on this season. So within two days we went from having two blockbuster, potentially all-time great, second round matchups – Oklahoma City vs San Antonio and Los Angeles vs Golden State – to one great series and another tarnished by injuries.
The pressure has certainly shifted to the Thunder and Spurs, two teams that couldn’t have envisioned this good a shot at the Finals just two days ago. Assuming the Blazers are able to defeat the Clippers, which they should be favored to do at this point, they will face the Warriors without the league MVP, but Golden State will be happier to see the Blazers than the healthy Clippers, for the Warriors have a much better chance to stall against Portland, making Curry’s return while the series is still being decided a possibility. Either way, if Portland can beat the wounded Warriors or if Golden State scraps by the Blazers with Curry barely rounding into form, the Thunder or Spurs will smell blood in the water in the conference finals.
Meanwhile, Paul and the Clippers will likely be at home watching the conference finals yet again, wondering what might have been. In back-to-back seasons the Clippers were a fourth quarter away from their first conference finals birth – first against the Thunder in 2014, then the Rockets last season – only to choke away those opportunities. Maybe they wouldn’t have gotten nearly as close this year, but in many ways a second round victory against the (healthy) defending champions would have been a validation of this Clippers’ core.
But now, because of the unforgiving and untimely nature of injuries, the Clippers won’t have that chance. And who knows how much time Paul has left in the spotlight.