In the span of a few seconds, you could see both the beauty and the cruelty of the NBA personified by Chris Paul.
In 24 minutes, the Los Angeles Clippers point guard and resident floor general had 16 points, four assists and was one of the only bright spots for his team as it continued to fight uphill in Game 4 of its Western Conference playoff matchup with the Portland Trail Blazers Monday.
Portland’s confidence was growing, and it held a 58-52 lead over L.A. with 6:07 left in the third quarter when Paul combined with center DeAndre Jordan to force a turnover on a Gerald Henderson fast break. Seconds later a timeout was called, and Paul walked back to the bench with a trainer, clutching his right hand.
Paul never returned, sounding an alarm to those watching. If one of the league’s most competitive players isn’t able to finish a playoff game, the prognosis can’t be good, and, indeed, that was the case. Paul’s hand was broken, and his attempt at creating an opportunity for his team turned into a cruel reality.
Making matters worse, power forward Blake Griffin, who missed 46 regular season games with a quadriceps issue, a broken hand and a four-game suspension related to that broken hand, left in the fourth quarter after re-aggravating the quad and didn’t return. Portland went on to win Game 4 98-84, tying the first round series 2-2.
While the Clippers still have home court advantage, Game 5 is tonight at Staples Center, they face a harsh reality that was learned by two other franchises over the past week: when the window of contention closes, it’s often with a slam.
Paul had surgery on the fracture Tuesday and is out indefinitely, and Griffin was shut down for the rest of the postseason. Stephen Curry’s knee and ankle troubles had helped humanize the Golden State Warriors juggernaut, and a first round win over the Blazers would give the Clippers a shot to beat them, if healthy. Now, with Austin Rivers and Jeff Green starting in place of Paul and Griffin, Portland appears to have the inside track at a match-up with the defending champions.
The “Lob City” Clippers, who have won 50-plus games in each of the last four seasons, stolen Los Angeles’ attention away from the Lakers (no small feat) and molded themselves into one of the West’s best teams, could suddenly be on the verge of going the other direction entirely. Griffin was the subject of trade rumors during his injury hiatus, and Paul is a 30-year-old who has never advanced past the second round of the playoffs. Though the team managed to resign the 26-year-old Jordan to a four-year deal in July, his numbers haven’t improved much over last year. Veterans like two-guard J.J. Redick (31 years old) and reigning Sixth Man of the Year Jamal Crawford (36) are either on or near the decline.
If they can’t extend their season with a series win over the Blazers, then head coach and general manager Doc Rivers may have no choice but to shake the roster up in a major way this summer, putting an end to a mostly fun collection of players that was only one broken hand away from keeping their window ajar.
Elsewhere out West, the Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks met a similar, albeit more apparent, fate.
The Grizzlies, a playoff team five years in a row, were swept out of the first round by the heavily-favored San Antonio Spurs, and may face a more uncertain future than the Clippers.
The “Grit and Grind” Grizzlies’ nucleus of big men Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, and point guard Mike Conley, weren’t able to share the court for long. Conley played 56 games and was shut down for the season, while Gasol was shut down after 52 games. Randolph missed nine games in March with a sore knee and a sprained ankle, but returned for the regular season’s close and the Spurs series, averaging 13 points and 8.8 rebounds. Playing with an injury-gutted roster of late-season signings (Jordan Farmar, Bryce Cotton, Ray McCallum) and veterans logging more minutes than recommended (Vince Carter, Matt Barnes), the Girzzlies posted a 3-14 record over the last month of the regular season and limped into San Antonio.
Conley is an unrestricted free agent this summer, and the 34-year-old Randolph will likely be included in trade discussions. Gasol signed a five-year extension last summer, but other key cogs such as Carter and defensive ace Tony Allen have uncertain futures. Indeed, Memphis’ window with its current roster appears to be all but closed.
Then there are the Mavericks, whose window may have actually closed following the breakup of the 2010-2011 championship roster, but has managed to make the playoffs every season since, though lately as more of a hanger-on than a true contender.
They finished this season with a 42-40 record and lost a hard-fought first round series to the younger, more athletic Oklahoma City Thunder in five games. The roster remains in flux, with players like forward Chandler Parsons (13.7 points per game) and guard Wes Matthews (12.5 points) signing big-money free agent deals, and point guard Deron Williams coming over from Brooklyn after being waived and signing a large deal. Center Zaza Pachulia resurrected his career with a great regular season (8.6 points, 9.4 rebounds) in place of Jordan, who reneged on a deal to remain a Clipper, and young players with little notoriety such as Dwight Powell and Justin Anderson became regular contributors.
But outside of Matthews, Parsons, Williams, Devin Harris and J.J. Barea, there isn’t much certainty remaining for a team that has managed to contend in the rugged West for 16 straight years.
The biggest question mark is forward and future hall-of-famer Dirk Nowitzki, who has a player option left on his current contract and can become a free agent at age 37, and can no longer handle the night-to-night workload of being the best player on the court. Whether he stays or goes elsewhere, the warm ovation he received from the Oklahoma City crowd while checking out of Monday’s 118-104 series-ending loss carried with it a strange feeling of finality. Perhaps Dallas’ window, held open by Nowitzki and numerous changing parts, is about to close.
In the end, whether it’s Paul’s brilliance in controlling a game, the Grizzlies collectively turning smothering defense into points, or Nowitzki mastering offense from the outside-in, the window of true contention can only stay open for so long.
Along with the beauty of the NBA can come cruelty.