Because so many things have gone right for him in his NBA career, it is hard to believe, even as three days have passed, how it all went so wrong. And so quickly. In this case it was not the interjection of fate on a life well lived. No, it was manmade, the pilot that grounded his plane because of an accumulation of errors, all of which were avoidable. NBA players are defined by their brilliance or they are defined by their mediocrity. Most fall somewhere between those two pillars of strength and weakness. They are not great but they are good enough for a career. Chris Paul is widely acknowledged as the best point guard of his generation. He is a tough competitor. He plays with heart and passion and grit. He is in possession of a high basketball i.q. He celebrates in making his teammates better, he envies no one. And he hates, hates, simply hates to lose.
But he is this person too: he is a nine year veteran who has never moved beyond the second round of the playoffs. He has been eliminated in the first round of the playoffs three times. He has been eliminated in the second round of the playoffs three times. And yet, in a cruel twist indicative of the times, everything Chris Paul did before game 5 does not matter. It matters what he didn’t do in game 5. And so it is for Chris Paul, the summer of those last 18 seconds. From victory to loss to the agony of defeat. It was a self inflicted wound which is the hardest thing to accept. Chris Paul did this by himself, unprovoked. He created one turnover. He fouled one shooter. He passed up his patented shot. Decisions under pressure and success from those decisions make up the backbone of all great players.
Chris will think about it over and over again, he will not be able to let it go. It may sink into his dreams. It may pop into his head when he’s with his kids. It may prevent him from watching any more of the playoffs. Consequences are…consequences. They linger. There are no disappearing acts. In a normal NBA season there are things you can overcome, there is always a next game, a way to wipe the slate clean. But in the shrunken schedule of the playoffs, when your season is over and you are partly responsible for the reason your team lost, it is a long four month hiatus. Then what? How do you escape it?
Magic Johnson did not go out of his house after his failure in the 1984 NBA Finals. He did not talk to anyone on the phone. He did not find his usual pleasure in being around people. He remembered. He soaked it all in a thousand times. He admitted it was the lowest moment in his career. Lebron James did not go out of his house after his failure in the 2011 NBA Finals. He did not go out of his house. He did not talk to those people he loved. He sat in the dark. He remembered. He soaked it all in a thousand times. It did not matter what everyone was saying about him, how they reveled in his disastrous brain freeze moments. He had always been harder on himself than anyone else. It was a terrible summer, 2011.
“His spirit is broken”, Doc Rivers said about Chris Paul after the loss. The Thunder were celebrating on the Clippers home court. Chris, who has never been to the Western Conference Finals, even as he is the best point guard in the league, now has to face the scrutiny of a Carmelo. How good are you if you cannot lead your team to playoff success? There are good players. There are leaders. There are great teammates. And then there are winners. The question being asked of Chris Paul today: is he a winner? But the question he is asking of himself is: why? Why did he come apart like that? 18 seconds of smart basketball and he would have been in the driver’s seat to get to the Western Conference Finals. But when things unravel they unravel fast.
There are a collection of NBA observers who believe Chris Paul the great player is Chris Paul the myth. Greatness is anointed in the playoffs. Greatness is guiding your team to playoff excellence. Greatness is minimizing mistakes not creating mistakes. Greatness is closing teams out and turning defeat into victory. A nine year career is what it says it is. A veteran who has been in the NBA a long time. He knows things. He is pretty much what his resume says he is. There are players who dominate the regular season and crumble in the playoffs. People now wonder is Chris Paul that person.
He is not on an island, that is for sure. He is not the first player for this to happen to. In 1997, in game 5, in an elimination game, Kobe Bryant tossed up consecutive three point shots. All were air balls. The Lakers were eliminated. That summer Kobe was slated to be the lead character in Spike Lee’s film, “He Got Game.” But he had to back out, he had work to do. He had things to learn.
But the question is what is there to be learned when Chris Paul does the autopsy. What is the conclusion? Point guards make mistakes all of the time, they just minimize them. But- and this is the brutal truth- point guards cannot make mistakes in the last few seconds of the most important game of the year.
As the summer wears on and it is a loop inside his head, 18 seconds that rocked his world, Chris Paul will have to face it the way others have faced it, by brooding and remembering and self blame. But after three or four months, when it recedes, when it is training camp all over again, game 5 and what happened to him, what he did, will be in the mirror, somewhere behind him. Not gone. Not forgotten. But there. Magic Johnson won a NBA championship after his playoff failure. Lebron James won the MVP and a NBA championship after his playoff failure.
The basketball side of Chris’ life, not the union side, will suffer. It will beg forgiveness and want to be redeemed. It is Chris Paul and not the rest of us who will always remember the 18 seconds it all fell apart. He will have to live with this fact: the Clippers could have done something so unimaginable and so extreme you would have had to see it to believe it. Which, in a way, is what happened in those last 18 seconds. You had to see it to believe it.