Clippers Coach Vinny Del Negro, center, talks with guard Chris Paul, left,… (Bret Hartman / Associated…)
This is what superstars do.
This was why the Clippers gave up so much to get so much more in Chris Paul. Why Laker fans still lament the NBA's refusal to let Paul be wrapped in purple and gold and dropped at their feet instead of a few feet down the hall at Staples Center.
Faced with losing a 17-point lead over Portland on Sunday in a game the Clippers considered a measuring stick of their progress after being spanked by San Antonio and Chicago, Paul simply took over and refused to let them lose.
He steadied his teammates' nerves with his poise, elated them with his shotmaking and wowed them with his ability to win a crucial jump ball against a five-inches-taller Jamal Crawford with 4.3 seconds left.
If not for his leadership the Clippers would not have celebrated their first home victory this season, a gutsy 93-88 decision over the Trail Blazers that inspired the crowd to chant his name in tribute for what figures to be the first of many times.
"Great players can not only make shots but, more importantly, make plays," Clippers Coach Vinny Del Negro said, "and Chris can do both. That's what makes him special."
A loss might have devastated a team that's still getting to know one another, still trying to prevail on the boards — they've been outrebounded in all four games they've played — and finding a defensive rhythm.
What damage might have been done if they had let go of the 17-point lead they took into the fourth quarter?
"We would have lost," Paul said, maintaining a straight face. "It didn't happen, so that's the good thing about it.
"Obviously we can't become content and let teams back in the game like that because it could have easily went the other way. But we stuck it out in the end, played great defense and came out with the win."
They seemed to have stopped the bleeding with 4:47 left, when Paul hit a flinging, buzzer-beating, 26-foot shot for an 84-77 lead and again after Paul hit a driving layup for an 88-79 lead.
But the Trail Blazers barged back in, and it was 90-88 after LaMarcus Aldridge hit a turnaround bank shot. With the crowd rising to its feet, Paul brought the ball up and looked for a play. He drove to the basket and Aldridge tried to block his shot.
"A couple plays before that I missed a left-handed layup and then the play before that one I had him on the elbow and I threw it up top to Caron [Butler] and put him in a tough position," said Paul, who finished with 17 points and seven assists.
"So there I just tried to be aggressive. I knew he was coming to block my shot, so I just tried to throw a rainbow up there and luckily it went in."
It was less luck than determination, like his tipping the jump ball to Mo Williams, who was fouled and hit a free throw to clinch the Clippers' second win in four games.
"CP did a great job down the stretch," Williams said.
He did it while still figuring out who likes the ball when and where. He's learning fast, though.
"As a point guard you have to know when to score and when to get your teammates involved. And the only way that I can find my shooters is if I'm aggressive also," he said.
"If I'm always just looking for them, they won't respect me and they won't guard me. So the only way I can open up the court for those guys is to assert myself a little bit."
He asserted himself Sunday in a game that was probably more dramatic in its late stages than it needed to be, but he took it all in stride.
"It's exciting. It's part of the journey," he said. "If you ever had the opportunity to be on a team, it's a process. You get to learn everybody. You get to know their families. You get to know their kids and it's part of the journey. I think there's going to be ups and downs on this team but that makes it all sweeter in the end."